Episodes: Southland Tales and America 2017


When I saw Southland Tales, director Richard Kelly's second feature and follow-up to Donnie Darko, which is considered by many (even my former colleague and film fiasco lover Nathan Rabin) to be an epic boondoggle, for the first time, it was shortly after the film's release in 2007. I tracked it down to a mostly empty theater, and I am pretty sure I was the only person in the audience even somewhat taken with it. (I have a real love for seeing gigantic passion projects that headed south in theaters -- it's why I sought out Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in 120fps last year.)

Southland Tales is, I should say, a deeply flawed movie, even if you love it (and I kinda do). Its story is all over the place, clearly a small section of a much, much larger narrative. (There are three prequel comics I've never bothered seeking out, and it sure seems like the film ends right where a sequel would begin.) As with Donnie Darko, the movie doesn't really bother explaining a lot of its sci-fi narrative, but where Donnie Darko clung tightly to a high school coming of age story, Southland Tales is an attempt to do Altman's Short Cuts, but for Phillip K. Dick. And while that's exactly the sort of thing that will always be appreciated by yr humble critic, it's defiantly not for the masses. The movie feels like a bunch of bits and pieces, albeit bits and pieces delivered by a really great cast. (And Kelly gets some fine performances out of his actors here, especially from Dwayne Johnson, who shows off his considerable comedic chops in the middle of an extended plot from the movie Nashville.)

But in 2007, it was clear the film was either too late -- in that it's broad satire seemed to be pitched at the America of 2004, not an America that increasingly seemed ready to be done with George W. Bush -- or far too early. Southland Tales is set in "the future" (in that it takes place in 2008), but it really takes place in an alternate America, where the divide between rich and poor is being filled in via disposable schlock, where an angry leftist movement is pushing back against right wing aggressions while the Democratic party is nowhere to be seen, and where a nuclear bomb in Texas has pushed the country inexorably toward fascism and constant surveillance.

So. Yeah. Southland Tales was too early. (Did I mention that the Democrats' 2008 ticket is "Clinton/Lieberman"?)

I revisited the film for an interview I did with Kelly (look for it on the podcast!), and I wasn't sure what to expect. I wanted to join the film's growing cult, but I also knew that I'm sometimes irritated by films that range all over the place without much coherence to them. And to be sure, Southland Tales' flaws remain obvious and pressing. Its satire, especially, feels threadbare and too obvious -- like the Jon Stewart Daily Show if it were delivered by an angry frat boy drunk. This is not a movie to turn to if you want nuance or, really, female characters who are more than extensions of men's plotlines. (Sarah Michelle Gellar tries, bless, but her character is a bundle of contradictions -- and not in the way that might make her seem more human.)

But that's blown away by the sweep of the thing, which has only become more impressive with time. The film takes place over Independence Day weekend in Los Angeles, and it hops all over the city, capturing the crazy-making heat of a summer in Southern California, right alongside the giant jumble of people who drift downtown or toward the beach when they don't have to be at work and just want to have a good time. For as many movies are shot and set in California, precious few capture what it's like to actually live in LA, and this time through Southland Tales, I keyed in much more on the way Kelly captures July in LA, the pulse of humanity, the way that Johnson (playing a famous movie star) can just sort of blend in, because it's Venice Beach, and who knows who you might see?

But what really feels prescient now is the way that Southland Tales seems exhausted by the possibility of living in this big, messy, unfulfilling country one day longer. The movie sets you up to identify with its leftist rebels (the Neo-Marxists) against the Evil Republicans, but it eventually pulls back several levels and reveals that nobody on either side really cares about, say, an injured veteran who loses himself in a drug-fueled fantasy set to The Killers. (If you haven't seen the scene in question, you should really check it out.) Politics is a machine designed to breed resentment, and nobody seems to care to prove anything beyond the rightness of their position. A more perfect union is impossible, because people are imperfect. Centers can't hold. The world isn't going to end. It's always ending.

The world we live in right now is somebody's post-apocalypse. That's an idea Dick explored in The Man in the High Castle, and it's an idea that feels like it heavily influenced Southland Tales. And it's an idea that has become harder and harder to escape in the past year or so, when it's become clear that the world of relative comfort a lot of us (myself included!) live in has created something unbearable for lots and lots of other people. Southland Tales is a big mess of a movie, but it's one about what happens when the end of the world isn't all at once, but in dominoes, cascading through individuals, until nobody's left standing, even though the world remains.

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.