Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Abilene Point is Anywhere: How Texas Conquered Death - SOUTHLAND TALES (2006)

As part of the Richard Kelly blogathon on Exodus 8.2 I'm revising and re-posting my initial fractured skewed take on SOUTHLAND TALES which is in turn heavily influenced by Steven Shaviro's highly recommended book, Post Cinematic Affect.

"It is the business of the future to be dangerous." 
----Alfred N. Whitehead (1925)

"Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more 
futuristic than they originally predicted."
--- Krista Now (Sara Michell Gellar), Southland Tales

"Can you prove it didn't happen?" 
-- Criswell, Plan 9 From Outer Space

After the cult explosion around Kelly's big debut, DONNIE DARKO, it was inevitable his follow-up would be needlessly obtuse. With a bit of post-modern affect discussion under your belt, or on a double feature with BOARDING GATE however, it might tighten up. Might not. There is an annoying buzz of self-indulgent confidence at work in the film which you'd never find in the much more serious Assayas. He would never share the naïveté that since DARKO is a cult item, SOUTHLAND will be too, and its weirdness will engender a cult it's right there with BUCKAROO BANZAI as far as 'another think coming'. With its ceaseless frisson and funky breaks meant to dazzle fans of a certain age, it's a film made up of dead hypertext links and little text. At least BUCKAROO had Peter Weller's taciturn deadpan perfection to carry it along. The closest SOUTHLAND gets is The Rock, and though he makes some brave choices (Bob Hope-style faux cowardice), Rock's no Weller. Can you imagine the Rock as Bill Burroughs?

Kelly's presumption that we'll watch SOUTHLAND over and over and compare obscure references and symbolic meaning on the internet comes from an understandable-for-the-young miasma about changing viewing habits and--interestingly enough since Assayas is French but not Kelly and only Europeans (and South Americans) love their auteurs unconditionally--that newer generations of internet kids will think he's cutting edge if he just explores their virtual worlds. Youtube and Netflixe have arrived though, and it makes watching one film one time a daunting improbability for newer generations. When BUCKAROO came out we didn't think it was great but we still taped it off cable and watched it 100 times, because "no matter where you go / there you are." Do you want to know why DONNIE DARKO was such a hit, and screened at midnight showings for years in my old East Village neighborhood? Because chicks loved the doomed, moody romance in Jake G's stoner stare; his battles with schizophrenia mirrored their own issues with existential expressions like cutting, anorexia, drugs, and (at least for the girls I knew, at the time who loved it), grudge sex. It was a hand into their darkness, a friend who knew the score and who had great eyelashes. And it was lyrical and poetic without being overly sentimental. And since girls went, guys went right after them. You could go to the midnight show in your pajamas and no one would bat an eye, or a ball, very far. In other words, it was a date movie for the midnight hipster set. They could go after hooking up, meet back  up with their friends, and then not have to see each other on the way out.

"Quantum teleportation, teen horniness, and war."
SOUTHLAND has nothing much for the all-night girls to make it worth escapades out on the G train, except maybe the Darko-ish sex appeal of Justin Timberlake as Boxer, the lone gunner at the pier at the end of time, but he's just one (or rather two) of a big, overstuffed and seemingly under-directed cast, and while I admire the abstract crossword puzzle association to films like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (plastic oranges are to SOUTHLAND what the watermelon was to BUCKAROO), MADAME SATAN (a crazy Zeppelin party), THE BIG LIEBOWSKI (dancers in jazz age make-up out on the skee ball lanes), and MULHOLLAND DR. (Rebekah "Llorando" Del Rio singing the national anthem over John Cale strings). It doesn't add up to even the sum of its parts. Don't get me wrong - I love Moby's score, and I love that everyone is working to stop the apocalypse in only in the most perfunctory of ways, but I'm a dude... who's seen a lot of dude films, over and over, that girls may not like since they ain't got no romance, or angst. My girl can't look at SOUTHLAND for more than a handful of minutes without getting restless and yet she name-drops Sparkle Motion at every party she goes to. I even gave her the T-shirt, which some enterprising silk-screener cobbled up.

DARKO was about the apocalypse immolation of the individual but SOUTHLAND presumes there is no individual to sacrifice, no time left to travel anywhere but straight up. DARKO was elliptical but had momentum, SOUTHLAND has only the stasis of 2-D checkerboard movement, like the way time slows and matter mirror shatters close to the black hole of ground and time zero. But boys are more pro-apocalypse than girls, which is another reason this film didn't connect with them. The nonstop parade of documentaries about 2012, Nostradamus, and the Ice Age on Discovery and the History Channel proves what Kelly's SOUTHLAND TALES hints at: some of us, self included, are excited for the apocalypse. It's a chance to stop receiving paper bank statements in a whole new way. I'd even argue that we're apocalypse-dependent. Without the fantasy of a global reset button, we'd be stuck with the guilt, hangover, and debt of seven generations. Aren't you always tempted to just blow up the house rather than have to clean up your messes or look that crying Indian in his eye? I mean Native American.

In the new century, if we heard the world was gonna end 'exactly' five hundred years from now, would we care? The game of it all becomes what the Buddha calls "joyful participation in the sorrows of the world." When the world finally adapts that marvelous strategy, owning up to amnesia is the same as pressing the button because even Def-Con 5 needs love.

Even the bad guys who monitor everything from afar in SOUTHLAND are secretly enthralled by the notion of the end, and are all rebelling from one program or another to ensure that end arrives. Good guys and bad all want the same thing, escape from an age when amnesia is inducible via an easily acquired drug, because when that happens, life has no meaning. Anyone can be abducted and turned loose without being able to identify one's abductees. Whole lives can be lost in a flash. The Rock (Boxer Santeros), starts the film with amnesia and the first thing his wife (Mandy Moore) notes when seeing him--as if it was the reek of stale booze and cigarettes or stale perfume on his collar--is that he'd been kidnapped and mind-erased. He denies his amnesia on instinct as if its something to be ashamed of, like he did it on purpose. It's a weird choice, but if you've ever come home from a party with a mind full of weird drugs you promised your ball-and-chain you wouldn't do, and can barely remember doing, then you'll know the feeling.

Red Bull give you wings
What Kelly also understands is the nature of drugs and the weird habit alcoholics and drug addicts have of watching the same movie over and over again because... I forget why. They're too wasted to change the channel? Or dredge up another DVD from the vast archive? Or for that matter, the endless repeat seasons of reality TV shows, where our knowledge of what is going to happen, who will win, who will die, is granted us like benign rulers, or our own inner Pilot Abilenes. Revelation 6.8 and behold a pale horse and the name that sat on it was repeat business; if you've ever edited footage on Final Cut until it loses all meaning... or if you've ever conducted experiments on soldiers or sniffed paint fumes from a spray can, or had amnesia, then you know what I mean, and if you're happy and you know it, hit the squib, and act shocked when you die. Snivel as you swivel your electric high chair, so the Dead End Kids won't want to start no trouble in the rubble. Just leave them a DVD of SOUTHLAND TALES, and they'll think you were one muthufuggin' lost-ass generation. Weren't you, Perfect Tommy?


  1. Excellent! Impressive! Just about one of the best pieces about Southland Tales, because it combines the personal, the references to Kelly, the end of the world and how it appeals to some and not all. Incredible, thanks for this amazing thing once again!

  2. I believe it's probably an original movie.

    I just hope if I ever do an equally original movie, I think twice before casting the Rock, Justin Timberlake, and the guy from "American Pie" in it.



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