April 7, 2008

Personal essay: Regarding the glorious trainwreck which is "Southland Tales."

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

Southland Tales

So of the 75 or so films I've watched and reviewed in the last year, can you guess which one I've most been looking forward to? That's right, it's the subject of today's essay, Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, the newest movie by the same guy who brought us the 2001 instant cult classic Donnie Darko (which I've also reviewed in the past, for those who are interested); which is ironic, I know, in that Southland Tales has pretty much been the textbook definition of a running trainwreck ever since it was first announced to the public half a decade ago. Initially gaining steam in 2004, production didn't even start until a year later, with a three-hour initial version premiering at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival to nearly universal jeers and pans; this led to an entire additional year of radical overhauls and Kelly virtually begging for the money needed to finish up the special effects, eventually being released in a paltry total of 63 theaters in the entire United States in the fall of 2007, and quickly dying an ignoble death. And thus it is that the movie has so far (spring 2008) only made a grand total of $300,000 worldwide, from an original budget of $16 million and of course another $10 to $20 million spent on advertising.

Southland Tales

Ah, but it's for all these reasons that I have precisely been so looking forward to Southland Tales; because in such a situation, you're at least guaranteed an utterly original experience, something that can't be ruined by spoilers beforehand because of critics generally not knowing what to say about the film in the first place. And indeed, now that I've seen it myself, I can positively state that the film isn't nearly the incomprehensible mess so many lazy critics have asserted that it is; but that's only if you do what Kelly meant for all his audience members to do, which is to read the 360-page comic-book prequel beforehand, the one that was originally published serially in the year leading up to the movie itself. Because this is no mere viral-marketing gimmick we're talking about -- Kelly literally split his story for Southland Tales in two, presenting one half in the comic book and the other half in the movie, and it is literally impossible to make heads or tails out of either half without being exposed to them both. And that's...well, that's fantastically ridiculous, is what that is, to basically demand that your entire audience go out and read a 360-page comic book before seeing your movie, if they want any chance at all of it making any kind of sense whatsoever. And that's why I love Richard Kelly, even as I found myself endlessly shaking my head while watching this movie, wondering why there wasn't a single person around him to tell him what a career-ending trainwreck such a project would be. Or at least "career-ending" when the entire thing costs a good 30 million dollars or so to pull off, with not even the slightest chance of these investors ever making their money back.

Southland Tales

The problems start right with the premise of the movie itself, a creative schizophrenia that reflects what Kelly has said in interviews about the project's genesis; how when he first started writing the script, it was originally to be a witty cartoonish satire of Hollywood celebrity culture, but how the 2004 elections convinced him in the middle of the writing process to turn Southland Tales into a neocon political satire instead. And in fact you can see both of these premises still very much alive in the finished movie; how its main story, for example, examines the forbidden affair between Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's Schwarzeneggeresque character (a former action star who has married into an influential politically-moderate family) and Sarah Michele Gellar's Jenna-Jameson stand-in (an aging porn star busily breaking into all kinds of tangential mainstream industries, using her famous name to sell everything from sportscars to energy drinks). That particular storyline, and all the tertiary characters that come out of it, make a lot of sense when you realize that this movie was originally designed to be a parody of celebrity culture; witness, for example, Gellar's unintentionally hilarious basic-cable talk show, where she and her porn-star buddies sit around reading their slam poetry and making glib comments about world politics.

Southland Tales

But like I said, according to interviews he's given over the last several years, Kelly in 2004 switched tracks and decided to make Southland Tales a political satire about neo-conservatives and rigged elections; but instead of getting rid of the Hollywood parody that had been there beforehand, Kelly tries enfolding the previous story into the new one, with Johnson's political in-laws for example now the shadowy puppetmasters behind "USIdent," a private corporation that has somehow scored the job of creating 400 million government ID cards for the entire American populace, after dual terrorist nuclear attacks in Texas suddenly turn the country into a legitimate fascist state. This literal takeover of the government by conservatives, then, has inspired the formation of a liberal domestic terrorist organization called the "Neo-Marxists," of which Gellar and her empty-headed porn-star friends are for some inexplicable reason members; this then turns her previously simple romantic affair with Johnson into something bigger and messier, part of a giant conspiracy involving a fake racist cop, fake deaths caught on video, and a master plan to publicly humiliate the people in charge of the USIdent program.

Southland Tales

Ah, but see, this isn't even the end of the complications: now add the Darkoesque science-fictiony storyline that Kelly has weaved into the entire thing too, which like Darko itself is easily the most confusing element of the whole movie, something about a rip in the space-time continuum hovering in a specific space of air right outside of Las Vegas, and secret experiments on Iraq war veterans that accidentally let them manipulate this space-time rip, and injections of a mysterious liquid that a family of German scientists discovered down in the fissure of the Earth's core down at the bottom of the ocean, which when run through pumps creates a form of free energy but when injected into the human body turns a person into a sort-of messianic überman. And see, even with all of this, even with all the crazy competing storylines I've been talking about and the crazy competing tones to it all, this is still something I think Kelly could've saved and made a legitimately compelling movie out of; but here's the fatal final flaw of it all, that Kelly couldn't decide whether to make another creepy serious drama like his original Darko, or a wacky absurdist comedy along the lines of Stanley Kubrick's early-'60s classic Dr. Strangelove, so instead tried to do both at once.

Southland Tales

And that's it, really, that's the final detail that tips Southland Tales permanently into the territory of unwatchable trainwreck; because a movie like this simply doesn't work when you have competing tones to its emotional look and feel. An incomprehensible story does not necessarily prevent a movie from being a great one, as lots of cult filmmakers have now taught us over the decades; but since such cult films cannot rely on the plot itself to rivet viewers, it is crucial that they instead establish a consistent and compelling mood and atmosphere, that both in visuals and in style they take us on a sense-filled journey where the plot itself isn't as necessary as in traditional films. It's impossible to take the serious parts of Southland Tales seriously, not when you have such character actors as Wallace Shawn and Bai Ling walking around looking literally like flesh-and-blood cartoon characters; and similarly, it's impossible to get into the cartoonish buffoonery of such characters either, not when you have other scenes of Johnson posing Christ-like in a sea of roving floodlights while a moody orchestral score blares in the background. Everything else in this movie is ultimately forgivable, depending on what kind of fan you are; this inconsistency in emotional tone, however, is the final straw that breaks the back of Kelly's cinematic camel.

Southland Tales

But still, I'm glad I sat down and watched Southland Tales, and I'm glad such projects exist and can still get made; if nothing else, Kelly proves that there is a consistent sense of astonishment to his creative vision, a complex and unique machine ticking there under his skullcap which proves that Darko was no mere fluke. What Kelly needs now, what he desperately needs, are some fellow creatives around him who he can trust, and who can help him corral this expansive creative vision of his; because seriously, if some talented editor had merely taken an axe to this story before shooting actually began, we would right now be breathlessly gushing about a tight and brilliant two-hour black comedy regarding Hollywood immorality (and the surprisingly great acting skills of Dwayne Johnson), instead of lamenting this $30 Million Noble Experiment Gone Horribly Wrong. Or, you know, he could figure out a way to pull a project like this off for a mere $100,000 or so; that way when you end up making $300,000 like Southland Tales did, it's considered a rousing success instead of a dismal failure.

Southland Tales

This is always the balance one is trying to find in the experimental arts, that the less money is at stake, the greater chances you're allowed to take; and the simple fact is that you can't put a project like this together and expect it to recoup a $30 million investment, and it's bizarre and frustrating to see not a single person in the hundreds involved with this production actually stand up and say something like this. I want to see Kelly make more films, but he's never going to get a chance if he keeps insisting on big-budget head-scratchers like this one; I would love to see him get more modest in scope, become sharper and more discriminate in his creative vision, and to turn in some brilliant tight micro-budget projects I just know he's capable of. Here's hoping that things go better with him soon, and that Southland Tales does not mark the official end of his career as a filmmaker.

P.S. And by the way, exactly how sad is it to come across former online viral-marketing projects that have now been abandoned? Because that's exactly what happened with Southland Tales, just the moment it started tanking at the box office; all the various fake websites that had been produced for the movie, all of which were going to contain tons of supplementary story material, some of which are even mentioned right in the movie itself, have been completely abandoned in the wake of the film's financial disaster. Such a depressing thing, I think, to stumble across abandoned marketing campaigns online, something becoming a more and more regular occurrence with each passing day.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:11 PM, April 7, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |