Southland Tales

Southland Tales ★★★★★

American Post-9/11 Genre Film

Fragmentary home video footage. The Fourth of July. Independence Day. A house party. American flags everywhere: on the wall, over the window, poking out of a vase, on t-shirts and hats, sticking up out of the lawn, red white and blue streamers and balloons and ribbons, Uncle Sam standing atop a pile of red white and blue poker chips. "We Support Our Troops" on a banner in the background. Then an explosion. A mushroom cloud. A nuclear blast. This vision of family, of home, of patriotic bliss interrupted in an instant by an attack on domestic soil. No more home-field advantage for this all-American baseball team. "Sometimes a dream can become a nightmare on the turn of a dime."

This is how Southland Tales begins, but it's also how many Americans experienced the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. I was let out of school early and came home to find a shaky image of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center up in smoke on my television, as if I had walked in on my parents watching a found-footage horror film, a Cloverfield or a Chronicle traveling backward through time to occupy my TV screen. The attacks resulted in what was at the time and remains today the largest loss of life caused by a foreign attack on U.S. territory (as long as you don't count the colonial genocide of the Native Americans, a tragically fitting omission). The attacks had such a massive impact on the United States in every conceivable way, from its economy to its politics to its art and culture, that to even observe the magnitude of its impact has become mundane and commonplace. It was the single most significant event in U.S. history since the Cold War.

Southland Tales opens with this nuclear allusion to the events of September 11th in order to foreground that event as the central concern of the film that follows it, as the foundational thematic experience from which the events of the film proceed symbolically and comment upon metaphorically. The attacks of September 11th caused a crisis in American national identity, and in the 5 years between its occurrence and the release of Richard Kelly's film, it had become clear what the nation thought the proper resolution to this crisis should be. Southland Tales is an examination of that ongoing resolution, of the new direction of American national identity. It is a view of the country through the tinted lens of the reactionary nationalist conservatism empowered by the attacks, the nation seen through the political filter of Breitbart and Fox News. It is an examination of the shifting ideological landscape of American national identity as a consequence of the events of September 11th.

At the risk of being reductive, Southland Tales's answer to this question of the country's direction is a simple intensification of the status quo, an exaggerated and dystopian caricature of what was already happening. The nuclear detonation that begins the film is a symbolic caricature, the film's 9/11 version 2.0, and the United States's reaction to it is to create the surveillance agency US-IDent, justified under an extension of the Patriot Act, another symbolic caricature, the film's Patriot Act version 2.0. This premise presents the audience with such a direct (albeit hyperbolic) return to the events of September 11th that it almost doesn't feel like science fiction anymore, it almost feels more like historical cinema, like a biopic of the national American character. But that's exactly the point: the film heightens what was already happening in the United States in order to depict the evolution of the ideological landscape of our national identity. While the events of the film formally belong to the realm of science fiction, there is a cultural truth to them. This may not be a literal/historical depiction of what happened in September 2001, but it's a faithful depiction of what many Americans felt happened.

This caricatured exaggeration expands across the entire movie, finding its way into every facet of the filmmaking, most obviously in the performances and dialogue. The characters in the film speak with a strange cadence and rhythm, as if their lines were written by aliens trying to approximate human language but their only experiences of humanity were limited to a few episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies and a couple sketches of Saturday Night Live's The Californians. British film critic Jason Solomons even wrote in his review of the film that he wondered whether writer/director Richard Kelly "had ever met a human being" in response to the film's debut at the Cannes film festival.

Characters in the film speak about real issues with an estranging combination of genuine earnestness and naive ignorance. No one embodies this caricature so well as Krysta Now, who explains that she "won't do anal" because "violence is a big problem in our society today, and I will not support it." These people understand the world, but in a totally superficial way. "You know, these kind of new technologies are totally changing culture now," one Neo-Marxist says to another. "Yeah, especially now that everything is digital." It is a deeply alienating portrait of humanity, or at least of Americans, whom the film consistently paints as silly, empty-headed fools. It is a portrait of the United States as defined by God and guns, cops and soldiers, war and politics, porno and movies, fireworks and energy drinks, cars and tattoo parlors, technology and surveillance, paranoia and conspiracy, blackmail and beach bods, riots and Wired magazine, racism and ice cream trucks. It is a caricature that speaks both to Kelly's anger at the United States and to a broader socio-cultural pessimism.

[spoilers begin here]

But perhaps "empty-headed" is the wrong word for the film's portrayal of Americans. Their heads aren't exactly empty, not entirely, but what they have in them isn't humanity, it's something else. Here we begin to reach toward the content of the film's depiction of post-9/11 American national identity, but before we get too deep in the weeds we have to start at the beginning of the story, which is also sort of the end of the story — temporal chronology and narrative sequencing can get pretty tricky when time travel gets involved. After our story opens with the found-footage 9/11 v2.0, action star Boxer Santaros pops into reality in the desert near Lake Mead, shoved out the ass end of a rift in the fourth dimension causing him to travel backward in time 69 (ha ha) minutes and acquire an acute case of amnesia.

Boxer Santaros is the perfect example of someone whose head is both empty and not empty. He is born into the universe through the inter-planar vaginal canal of the fourth dimension with no memory of this world or his place in it, but at some point between his mysterious arrival and the beginning of the film's plot, he does something to demonstrate that perhaps his head isn't quite as empty as it appears. Together with his ex-porn-star-turned-reality-TV-actress girlfriend Krysta Now, who, according to the Southland Tales Prequel Saga, also traveled through a rift in space-time, Boxer Santaros writes a screenplay — a screenplay for a movie that sounds suspiciously similar to Southland Tales. In it, a "paranoid schizophrenic" cop named Jericho Cane becomes involved in a plot revolving around the fact that the world is going to end because of global deceleration, whereas in Southland Tales, Roland and Ronald Taverner, a cop with a physically split personality (the same soul in two separate, identical bodies), becomes involved in a plot revolving around the fact that the world is going to end because of global deceleration.

As Southland Tales progresses, Santaros gradually sees his and Krysta's screenplay come true. It's as if they've predicted the future, which almost isn't strange at all, which you almost couldn't even call a "prediction" because they're both, you know, from the future, but what's strange about it is that neither of them seem to remember the future. They might be time travelers, but they don't know that. Boxer, at least, has amnesia — in the Prequel Saga, Krysta has psychic powers bestowed upon her by her travel through the inter-dimensional rift, and while for the most part I'm going to limit my analysis of Southland Tales to the film itself in order to avoid confusion, this gives us some insight into Richard Kelly's perspective on how the inter-dimensional travel affected Krysta and Boxer. They are mentally transformed by the experience. So how did Mr. Santaros write this prophetic screenplay if his head is empty? Because even if he can't consciously remember the future, his knowledge of its existence lives on in his unconscious mind. Because his screenplay is a manifestation of his unconscious.

This gives us a hint at how to read Southland Tales itself. The film's story sounds suspiciously similar to the movie Boxer and Krysta wrote, after all, and they wrote their movie with their unconscious. Like their prophetic screenplay, Southland Tales itself is also a manifestation of the unconscious (or a product of Krysta's psychic powers, if you prefer the Prequel Saga's explanation, but it's all the same in the final analysis), but it's not simply a manifestation of the unconscious of one hunky action star or one psychic ex–porn star, it is a manifestation of the collective cultural unconscious. The nuclear detonation that begins the film is not a literal recreation of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, it is a psycho-social return of the repressed, a representation not of historical events but of the way they felt, a symbolic depiction of shared cultural trauma. It is a memory of 2001 distorted by fantasy — not by positive fantasy, but by fantasy nonetheless. This isn't the American Dream we learned about in school, it's the American Nightmare.

The nukes are a distortion of 9/11 in exactly the same way that the American Dream is a distortion of the American Reality. They both show a portrait of the world warped by the lens of American ideology. This is what I mean when I say that Boxer Santaros's head isn't empty: it's devoid of memory, but replacing those memories is pure, unadulterated ideology. This is how Boxer and Krysta were transformed by their passage through the fourth dimension: they became vessels of ideology. The same goes for the rest of the characters in the film: they act empty-headed, but their heads aren't actually empty, they are merely filled with ideology. They behave as if they have only shallow or superficial understandings of the world, but that's because they're distorted by a shallow and superficial ideology. And this is precisely the unconscious element that Boxer Santaros writes into his screenplay: his screenplay is not only a manifestation of his own unconscious, it is more specifically a manifestation of the American unconscious, of American ideology. Likewise, this is how to read Southland Tales itself. It is not merely an exploration of American national identity as it transformed in the wake of the tragedy of 9/11, it is an exploration of the unconscious, ideological elements that make up this national identity.

This meta-cinematic layering of the Santaros–Now screenplay over top of the film itself teaches us not only how to read Southland Tales in particular, it also teaches us how to read the rest of post-9/11 American genre film in general. It gives us a framework in which to understand the implicit ideology in American culture, from the cinema to the Senate. It provides a caricature with which to compare reality, so that we can see the militarized control tactics implicit in the Patriot Act as reflected in Southland Tales's sniper turrets (and realized today in an even more dystopian manner in the form of unpiloted drone strikes), so that we can see the surveillance state implicit in Batman's echolocation-based intelligence-gathering sonar system as reflected in Southland Tales's virtually identical multi-screen surveillance system at US-IDent, and perhaps most of all, so that we can see how these two things are not different, how they are part of the same system, how they operate together at the same level of political self-justification, how film functions as the same kind of ideological artifice as the government's political speech.

Southland Tales shows us this in part by giving artifice and appearances a special, exaggerated, caricatured weight. The film collapses the distinction between artifice and reality in order to show the ways in which artifice is real, the way it has real-world implications, the way it exists precisely to the same degree that anything else in the world exists. Performance is elevated from its status as artificial existence to something more transcendental. Boxer and Krysta write a screenplay, a piece of cinematic artifice, and it accurately describes the truth of reality because it is real, not merely by coincidence, not simply because they're time travelers who have seen the future even if they don't know it yet, but because fiction always and inherently carries with it a dimension of reality. Roland Taverner and the Neo-Marxists stage a racist double homicide, but another cop shows up and turns their trick into tragedy by actually killing the targets of their scheme. Again, not coincidence but truth; the Neo-Marxist's scheme was too real, it spoke too directly to the truth of police brutality and racism, so reality went ahead and manifested it.

This is how Southland Tales teaches us to read art for ideology, simply with the direction reversed. The point is not that if you stage a racist double homicide it will come true, the point is rather to see the truth described in the staging, to see the racism and police brutality implicit in the plan, to see the surveillance state implicit in Batman's sonar, to see the fascist tyranny implicit in the Patriot Act. But of course Southland Tales is not merely a text on how to read post-9/11 American cinema, it is a piece of post-9/11 American cinema itself. So what reality does Southland Tales describe? What truth of American national ideology does it point to?

The first and foremost is the one I've been alluding to for paragraphs now: the fascist militarization implicit in the direction of American politics and in the evolution of American national identity. Southland Tales is a story told by a PTSD-addled Iraq War veteran scarred both literally and figuratively by his deployment overseas and now redeployed on the home front. The 9/11 v2.0 of the nuclear bombings in Abilene and El Paso cause the U.S. government to expand the Patriot Act and establish US-IDent, which manifests itself in the form of Pilot Abilene and the other soldiers like him operating their massive computerized sniper turrets capable of killing anyone in the United States in the span of a single breath. This literal gun to the head of the American people is the implicit truth inherent to the Patriot Act and the direction of American politics in the wake of 9/11 and still alive and well in the nationalist conservatism of today's America.

This is why Southland Tales is such a perfect point of comparison with the Italian cinema I've been studying for this project and such a perfect transitional point to begin discussing the comparison between Italian Years of Lead cinema and American post-9/11 cinema: it shares the same pessimistic lack of hope for a better world. It looks at the state of affairs in the United States, it judges the American political milieu, and it finds it wanting. This is why the caricatured performances are so appropriate: everyone is a bit of a doofus, a bit of a bozo, and together we're all driving our country straight to Hell. It's a comprehensive cynicism about humanity's hope for a better future mirrored precisely by the pessimism and cynicism of Italian cinema during the Years of Lead. Both countries were struggling to see a light at the end of their respective socio-historical tunnels, struggling to see anything at the end of the tunnel other than catastrophe.

"The war machine was running out of gas, and there was no alternative — alternative fuel, that is." It costs a lot of resources to run this new fascist militarism, so when "renegade scientist" Baron Von Westphalen and his company Treer invent Fluid Karma, an apparent perpetual motion device that generates an infinite source of power, the U.S. defense department is only too eager to cut a deal with them for whatever price they want. And it's not just their war machines that they fuel with Fluid Karma, they use it on their troops as well, they inject it into their veins, trying to turn them all into little Captain America super-soldiers. The members of the military are directly inoculated with American ideology, with the nation's voracious appetite for the planet and its natural, geological, and biological riches.

This connection between the military and sources of alternative fuel recalls the War on Terror and the post-9/11 American cultural milieu, the way there was more truth in accusations that the U.S. was going to war for oil and colonizing the Middle East in order to secure access to its petroleum than there was in any of U.S. leaders' false claims that the War on Terror was about spreading democracy or destroying weapons of mass destruction. Here this cultural anxiety is once again elevated and caricatured, made into an international conflict: the production of Fluid Karma is causing global deceleration, it is slowing the Earth's rotation and bringing about the end of the world. Its name has a linguistic literalism to it, it is a properly karmic force. Nothing can be created from nothing, every cause has an effect, and generating this energy is killing the world. It works by "quantum entanglement," hinting at the way all things are "entangled," the way we are linked to this planet that we're killing. America's over-consumption of the planet's limited resources is destroying the Earth, and here in 2021 with an ecological catastrophe looming on our own horizon, it's hard not to sympathize with Southland Tales's pessimistic outlook.

But is Southland Tales truly pessimistic? It's a loose adaptation of the Book of Revelation, after all, which is apocalyptic, yes, it's about the end of the world, but it's also about the second coming of Christ. It's about death, but it's also about rebirth. So is Southland Tales not likewise a tale not only of (national/planetary) death but of (national/planetary) rebirth as well? The movie ends with Boxer Santaros bleeding his Jesus tattoo onto his shirt while Ronald and Roland Taverner forgive themselves for the incidence of friendly fire that lead to Pilot Abilene's facial scar — is this not radical Christian forgiveness accompanied by an admittedly strange but nonetheless symbolically real resurrection?

Sort of. It's hard to deny that much of the power of Southland Tales rests in its enigmatic ambiguity, but if we return to our analysis of American ideology and national identity, a reading begins to emerge like Boxer's Jesus tattoo bleeding onto his shirt. This is a distinctly American vision of rebirth and resurrection. The United States is one nation under God, after all, and here its God has returned in the form of an action movie star, returned during a U.S. presidential election, returned while two U.S. war veterans forgive each other for their sins in an ice cream truck outside, returned after the national anthem is sung in front of a massive American flag. These events are not to be taken literally, they are a metaphor for America's response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, a metaphor for the ongoing crisis in American national identity, a metaphor for the way American ideology distorts reality. If it's about death and rebirth, it's about death and rebirth warped by ideology, it's about the death of one ideology and the rebirth of another.

Is Southland Tales even really about the end of the world? It's about "this is the way the world ends, not with a whimper but with a bang," but if the nuclear "bang" is a symbol of the airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, then it didn't end the world, it ended U.S. global hegemony. It slowly but surely took down the United States as the undisputed leader in geopolitical power, the ruler of the world for all intents and purposes — and for the United States, that takedown did feel like the end of the world. Southland Tales is not primarily about the end of the world in a planetary sense, it's about the end of America, or at least the end of America as we knew it, and it's about how America responded to that perceived end of itself, that perceived end of its world. It responded by militarizing, by draining the planet of its resources, by sapping the planet of its life-essence in order to feed the avaricious maw of the U.S. war machine, and finally, after all that, by re-framing itself as the victim and forgiving itself for its sins.

Pimps don't commit suicide, after all, even if that supposed "suicide" is actually the consequences of their own actions, their own liquid karma come to reap what they sowed. How else are we supposed to understand the world where we think we're the strongest nation on the planet but somehow someone else attacks us? By retaliating and then by refocusing not on the nuclear strikes but on the incidence of friendly fire, by re-centering ourselves as the victim not of an intrusion from outside but of our own immense power. We are both hero and villain, our universe a closed loop, a noose around our own neck, valiantly strangling to death as the gallows burn beneath us, mourning our bravery in the face of our doom as the planet falls to our own sword. The United States responds to the destruction of its own world by destroying the world for everyone else, by recasting itself as a martyred casualty that heroically refused to die, and then by absolving itself for its own (self-)destruction.

America is both the horsemen of the apocalypse and the second coming of Christ, exonerating itself for its own annihilation.

2006 | Metacinema | Sci-Fi

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