Tuesday, January 21, 2014

the ambivalences: southland tales

PROPOSITION: It is possible to not be a fan of a movie, but nonetheless be a fan of its existence.

E.G.: My tortured relationship with one Southland Tales (2006), the vomiting-forth of seemingly every idea that passed through the mind of its writer-director, Richard Kelly, between the release of his cult classic and emoid dorm room staple Donnie Darko in 2001 and the late stages of Tales' postproduction. A gonzo satire partaking in Dickian/Pynchonesque paranoia and entropic narrative proliferation, it sounded like my jam. Then I saw the thing. While the results do come closer to Dick and Pynchon's likeminded fictions than most movies outside of actual adaptations of their work, I found Southland Tales a deflating experience on the first go-round: more ideas per minute than most movies have in their whole runtimes, but many of the ideas just don't play, or are simply vacuities cloaked in some hazy nimbus of idea-ness. It's a hugely ambitious, personal movie mounted on a scale that's only intermittently been possible in America since the '70s, and was only possible in this case because Kelly hit a nerve* the first time out, and it reveals, more than most, the limitations of the creative intelligence that birthed it. Kelly comes on here like an undergrad in a writing seminar who writes "weird" stories that are really a thinly-veiled attempt to prove to his classmates he's read more and done gnarlier drugs than he actually has.

          Take his literary references: his characters quote the Book of Revelations, the world's #1 go-to source for counterfeit portent, T.S. Eliot** and Robert Frost, conveniently the two poets that kids who skipped English to get stoned in the 3rd floor bathroom with the window are likely to know the names of. Frost/Eliot is also the Republican presidential ticket in his alternate 2008. Some of the movie's supporters made Godard comparisons, but a Godard movie would likely evince some awareness that Frost and Eliot have totally different sensibilities, and their juxtaposition would constitute a critical comment on both. With Kelly the names just hang there, signifying nothing. Ditto the moment where a homicidal policeman (played by Jon Lovitz, because why not) ominously intones "Flow my tears..." to a character (Seann William Scott, because why not) who happens to have the same surname as the protagonist of Dick's Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Geddit? Kelly's read Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Good on him, I guess.
          It's also absolutely hideous for long stretches: flat, indifferent cinematography with a color scheme that resembles a rack of pastel-hued T-shirts slathered in sickly blue light; production design that's very elaborate and clearly going for a graphic novel vibe but feels chintzy, cluttered and uninspired. But then sometimes there's an Honest-Ta-Gawd Image, or even, duck and cover kids, a Succession of Images, which suggest there is indeed a semi-lucid consciousness piloting this here vehicle towards some kind of destination, however abstract and theoretical that destination may be. I'm thinking mainly of Iraq veteran and narrator Pilot Abilene's (Justin Timberlake, see above re: why not) drug-induced musical number, wherein he strides through a boardwalk arcade, accompanied by high-kicking, white-wigged femmes (his own private Busby Berkeley dream), eventually giving up lip synching to the shitty Killers song and just pouring beer over his head and staring into the camera, numb to the world, a sequence Tsai Ming-liang or Philippe Garrel might conceivably appreciate if you got them drunk enough, but I'm also thinking of the movie's final forty minutes, which nearly achieve the dreamy, Lynch-inflected, apocalyptic delirium Kelly's aiming for.

         I suppose that's why I've seen Southland Tales more times than L'Avventura (1960) or Sansho the Bailiff (1954) or Zardoz (1974) or any number of more consistently enriching, non-irritating filmed entertainments: a hope that at some point those moments which seem to be gesturing toward a better movie will contextualize the null-node inanity surrounding them in such a way as to make the whole thing thrum and sing, as it apparently does for its proponents. Which would be more masochistic of me if those proponents didn't make such an attractive case, and if subsequent viewings didn't suggest that, whatever my aesthetic objections (I haven't even gotten into some of the acting, yeeesh), there's something to be said for it as a reflection of the modern mediascape, in which politicians and reality show stars are elevated to the same level of cultural importance, to the point where the distinctions between them start to collapse in all sorts of weird, funny, terrifying ways. In order to appreciate Southland Tales' prescience as an objet d'art, you have to come to terms with the fact that most of Kelly's attempts to comment on this new reality are as shallow and embarrassing as his characters' media personae. (A TV headline reads "The Internet Is The Future." No shit. A Republican victory in Congress is represented by a clip of elephants mating. Hardeehar.)

         As was noted by several critics when Tales came out, Mike Judge's Idiocracy (2006) is a far more effective satire of the aspects of American culture Kelly takes on here: the jokes there land, and stick. But what Southland Tales has going for it that Idiocracy*** doesn't is first the extent of its mimesis of the American Spectacle circa the aughts, maybe a dubious achievement but an achievement nonetheless, and second an undercurrent of sincere pop spirituality that's absolutely ridiculous on one level, infectious on another. In those final forty minutes, Kelly's massive cast of characters, most of whom haven't gotten past being funny names attached to inexplicable behavioral tics, assemble in and around a giant zeppelin. After they engage in some cryptic shenanigans (involving not one but three music-driven set pieces, and enough bald exposition to sink the climaxes of four other movies), the zeppelin is blown up with a rocket launcher by a proto-Jesse Pinkman (Lou Taylor Pucci) standing atop an ice cream truck that's levitating above Los Angeles, an absurd-on-about-fifteen-different-levels event Kelly characteristically imbues with leaden cosmic inevitability. Meanwhile, the world is ending several feet below him in the rear of the truck, with a handshake between quantum doubles. I won't say it's hard not to love this, because for the vast majority of human beings loving this is and will always be pretty difficult, but when Timberlake-as-narrator utters the final iteration of a sense-negating catchphrase, we smash-cut to back, and the tacky credits sweep us out of this pageant of glittering nonsense to Blur's "Tender," something moves in me. "He was a pimp, and pimps don't commit suicide," isn't quite "yes I said yes I will Yes," but it's pretty much the same sentiment, when you get right down to it.
         Does that render everything that leads up to it worth wincing and facepalming and restraining the odd overpowering desire to punch a hole in the nearest swath of drywall through? Not exactly. But, dammit, this awful movie will never leave me completely alone. I greatly look forward to the day I can dandle a ruddy-cheeked youngling on my knee and speak to them the words: "There once was a two-and-a-half-hour episode of Mad TV that aspired to be Mulholland Dr...."

*A side effect of which was making the first wave of YouTube users aware of another song besides "Lux Aeterna" that might jibe well with their Buffy/Angel tribute video.
**Kelly inverts Eliot's whimper/bang line and has characters repeat it several times in the course of the movie, which inversion only becomes sort of clever if you read it as a sex pun.
***An even uglier-looking movie than Southland Tales.