Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Review: Southland Tales - Riding a big glowing Zeppelin to Armageddon...

My first movie of the week was Richard Kelly's new massive pop fantasia "Southland Tales," a film famously jeered at Cannes but found a few defenders amongst some prominent American film critics, most notably my favorite critic of all, J. Hoberman in the Village Voice. The movie portends to be a dreamy, visually saturated, sinister vision of contemporary American anxiety and neurosis filtered through celebrity obsessed pop culture and infused by a political stance more than a little shade of pink. The year is 2008 in a fictional America still recoiling from 2001 a nuclear bomb attack in Texas. The country faces, with it's escalating wars in the middle east, a true oil crisis. It's essentially the America of today but with all it's features, from citizen surveillance to celebrity obsession, amplified. It all ends with a massive shining dirigible floating above the skies of all Los Angeles. Amongst it's variegated dramatis personae is Boxer Santaros, an amnesiac movie star with ties to the republican party and Krysta Now, an entrepreneurial porn star who hosts a View-like talk show with 3 other blonde babes. She also has a hit single, "Teen Horniess Is Not A Crime." A befuddled Sean William Scott plays both a LA cop and his kidnapped and drugged identical twin. The casting acts as a comment on the film itself, filled with "personalities" like The Rock and Justin Timberlake (as the Tales narrator, a wounded Iraq war veteran), the performers reflect the society Southland attempts to comment upon. Amplifying this, the entire plot of the movie is itself presented as a screenplay, written in the story by Boxer and Krysta. The problem is that, though undoubtedly richer upon later viewings, Southland Tales doesn't realize it's brilliant ambition. A modernist at heart, Kelly can't entirely release himself from the current zeitgeist of arch postmodernism. Tales is, at once, oppressively self-aware and not self-aware enough; that is to say, it is not reflexive to the point of acquiring disassociative meaning, as postmodern monarch Tarantino (a director who also uses casting for meta commentary) movies do nor as free from irony as the films of say, Kubrick and Altman, two pinnacles of modernism with ambitious social agendas. Southland Tales's tone, deliberately no doubt, shifts from hyper tele-visual bombardment to measured Lynch-ian menace but doing neither with enough skill to maintain an audiences interest. Given that the movie has a convoluted narrative with no discernible coherency, the images must alone sustain the momentum and, with a few exceptions, they do not. (A leering Justin Timberlake unsettlingly lypsynching a haunting and beautiful musical number is beyond reproach.) Even more disturbing is Kelly's own confused politics; the dissident political faction, straightforwardly named the "Neo-Marxists", is undoubtedly where Kelly's sympathies lie. They are meant to be contrasted with the Republican party and their ticket for the 2008 presidential election, wittily, if perplexingly, named Frost/Elliot. The democrats as a party are not even mentioned except the naming of Clinton/Lieberman as their ticket. Clearly, Kelly does not even perceive the democratic party as a worthy opposition to the corrupt and quasi-totalitarian GOP, embodied by a piquant Natasha Richardson, costumed as an evil sorceress from a Disney cartoon, gazing into her magic mirror, which in Kelly's universe is a wall of surveillance television screens. The Neo-Marxists characters however appear as a bunch of ineffectual buffoons, running a ludicrously low-budget operation from the pot-smoke stained walls of Venice Beach apartments. It's no coincedence it's members are almost all cast from the Saturday Night Live roster. The brilliant (and possibly megalomaniacal) scientist, played by a deliciously smarmy Wallace Shawn sporting the worlds worst comb-over, even announces half-way through the film that the Neo-Marxists no nothing about Marx. Given how little these would-be revolutionaries actually seem to stand for, one is inclined to agree. Is this Kelly's rejection of all political ideology, left or right? Is Southland Tales merely nihilistic pornography, luxuriating at the sight of the world blowing itself to smithereens. America as glorious shining Hindenburg? Perhaps. (It's shocking the French didn't like it, Baudrillard would swoon). A more likely scenario is that Kelly himself was just too over-extended with ideas to articulate a coherent political thought.
Tales deals with it's ideas both directly and abstractly and the two modes of expression threaten to cancel one another out. The film is not satire, it is rarely funny or morally acute enough to qualify, but neither is it allegorical enough to be viewed as the kind of avant-garde dreamscape that filmmakers like David Lynch create, in Tales, the viewer's subconscious is not under siege. Perhaps the movie could have been rewritten as a modern day Dr. Stangelove which was itself an apocalyptic vision of a near future (circa 1963). Both films introduce a technology created to save the world but ends up destroying it (the Doomsday machine in Strangelove and Liquid Karma in Tales) and both have over-the-top German scientists promising salvation but who are actually acting out of darker motivations. The comparisons stop there. Strangelove was bitingly funny and unrelentingly realistic, however preposterous it's characters behaved. It's moral compass was unwavering and clear, however bleak. Tales is a much less stable piece of art. If Kelly's goal, or one of his goals, was to revive socialist dreams (as some of his interviews suggest) his failure is acute. The movie has little to say at all about politics, economics or foreign policy. Given that Liquid Karma is the catalyst for the end of the world, Kelly could even be accused of discouraging the search for alternate energy sources. The one political point that the film is unequivocal about is it's denunciation of the Patriot Act and the resultant increase of government surveillance. The ease with which anyone, private citizen or government official, can record and observe their own life and the lives of others provides a major theme for the film; whether it be Boxer's filming of a faked double murder gone terribly wrong, to the wall of images watched by Natasha Richardson, everything in our lives is recorded and uploaded, waiting to be used against us by the powers that be.
As a technical filmmaker Kelly is not without prowess, his use of music, mise en scene and camera motion can be breathtaking, as it is when the characters have a haunting danse macabre aboard the dirigible at the films climax. As a writer however his discipline here is underdeveloped. Donnie Darko, his previous movie, showed a real affection for it's characters and, by extension, humanity-each performance was entirely realistic and sympathetic, even Patrick Swayze's pedophilic motivational speaker. The characters in Southland Tales are either obviously fictional and stock, like Wallace Shawn's campy German Baron, or are total blank non-entities, like Boxer Santaros, whose bulging muscles and bad-ass attitude stand in not for a person but a whole type of person. He is his own action figure and has about the same amount of personality. Such gambits can work but not when the symbology and metaphors are this muddled. The more ambitious the art the more disciplined and focused the artist needs to be, lest the art morph into what Tony Kushner calls "ambitions evil twin," pretension. Ironically, as I have written this review Southland Tales has grown on me somewhat (a total inversion of my usual habit for liking things less upon reflection) though my overall response still stands. I will see the film again to better analyze it's bloated and scattershot visual and ideological barrage. Until then, I can still say that, though Southland Tales is not a success, Richard Kelly remains a necessary and unique voice amongst directors his age for he actually has something he wants to say. So much. Too much, perhaps, for one movie.

1 comment:

andrew schenker said...

Nice job unpacking Kelly's messy political agenda, which indeed does seem rather self-defeating. The whole film, in fact, may be a muddle, but taken as a whole I find it a particularly resonant vision of our world, exaggerated into extreme grotesquerie and reduced to the point of absurdity. You wonder if "Southland Tales [is] merely nihilistic pornography, luxuriating at the sight of the world blowing itself to smithereens." In a way, I think that's what it ultimately amounts to but, despite its lack of coherence, I think it works as a potent vision of contemporary America imagined as comic nightmare. In the end, we're all doomed, but we might as well go out laughing.