Southland Tales is a gloriously incoherent, colossally ambitious, creatively explosive masterpiece of American cinema. Such breathless critical hyperbole is fitting for such a breathlessly hyperbolized film. Everything about Richard Kelly’s second film (following cult hit Donnie Darko) is over the top, super-sized, and shamelessly indulgent. It’s a million little pieces of postmodern ramblings, pop-culture pastiche, and political farce… but it all adds up to an experience that’ll bowl you over in its ballsy cinematic exuberance.
Tales is the type of film critics love to write about. But it’s also the type of film you can’t really write about. There’d never be enough words to capture anywhere near what one could say. Thus, because Tales eschews conventional structure, narrative, and a general concern for rhetorical efficacy, so too will my “review.” The film is a fluid, freestyle hemorrhage of scatterbrained thoughts, arguments, and observations. It’s a film that glories in the art of irreverent, probably pretentious mimesis; and so go I down the same meandering path.
- First scene of the film: home video, Texas, July 4, 2005. Neighborhood kids gathered in general frivolity for child’s birthday party (ala South American alien scene in Signs). Suddenly: boom! Mushroom cloud! Terrified screams! WWIII, terrorism, CBS’s Jericho (a name that comes up throughout the film), Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon!
- I do NOT trust the Cannes Film Festival. Southland Tales almost didn’t get distribution because those snobby cinematic dilettantes booed it to all hell. But they also loathed Marie Antoinette and The Brown Bunny. Case closed.
- Tales is wicked political farce: a strikingly insidious steam valve for the bubbling rage, seething malaise, and widespread 21st century disgust with American democracy. It’s Fox News Channel, Enron, neo-Cons, hippie liberals, neo-Marxist performance artists, racist cops, gerrymandering (via severed thumbs), militant electioneering, Fallujah war stories, Big Brother surveillance, Patriot Act-sanctioned federalized Internet, frathouse beer bongs, American flags, Hustler billboards on tanks, wildfires, riots, earthquakes, and Armageddon all rolled into one.
- Video screens and interfaces define the look of this film. “HD Live”—bringing you all the best of Iraq War footage and “Girls Gone Wild” Springbreak debauchery… sponsored by Hustler, Panasonic, and Bud Light. Miranda Richardson (playing the conniving, backroom mastermind wife of a presidential candidate) sits in a control room with wall-to-wall screens pumping real time war updates, LAX bathroom stall surveillance, celebrity news, scrolling updates, and teaser tidbits (“How safe is your car? Find out which cars are the favorites of the terrorist car bomb underground… after the break!”). The revolution WILL be televised!
- Sarah Michelle Gellar plays Krysta Now, a porn star turned multi-media talkshow host with a cable TV show called “Now”—a “topical discussion chat reality show” in which a panel of porn stars debate a slate of important issues like war, crime, “social reform,” abortion, and teen horniness. The show equates “important national issues” with X-rated banter about sexual positions. It’s as captivating and ridiculous as any Ann Coulter diatribe on a cable news talkshow.
- In addition to Buffy, the film’s cast is loaded with a who’s-who of pop culture icons, B celebrities and other such unconscionable casting choices (“Booger” from Revenge of the Nerds is in it!). The Rock (or, as he likes to be called now, Dwayne something) is the mysterious locus of the film—a celebrity wrestler turned-politician/screenwriter who’s married to Mandy Moore (playing a daughter of a senator) and writing a script that becomes Southland Tales somewhere around the one hour mark. Seann William Scott plays dual roles as an L.A. cop carousing with neo-Marxist revolutionaries (played by SNL stars Cheri Oteri and Amy Poehler) and his identical brother/clone who spends a good portion of the film in a dumpster. Other stars of the film include Bai Ling (as the heavily eye-shadowed “Serpentine”), Kevin Smith (as a philosophizing mastermind of the 4th dimension…similar to “The Architect” of The Matrix), and Jon Lovitz (as a corrupt and moribund L.A. cop).
- Justin Timberlake—God bless him—steals the show. He’s a celeb-turned Iraq War vet named Private Pilot Abilene. He also narrates the film, quoting T.S. Eliot (“this is the way the world ends, not with a whimper but with a bang”) and half of the book of Revelation. He’s a God-fearing prophet (perhaps one of the “two witnesses of Jerusalem”?) and a beer-guzzling druggie (addicted to “Fluid Karma,” which is a revolutionary substance somehow key to the oil-strapped world’s energy crisis).
- Best scene of the movie: Timberlake (in all his SexyBack/NSYNC glory) breaking into a dance sequence/lipsync to “All These Things That I Have Done” by The Killers. Backed by a chorus line of blonde-wigged dancers, Timberlake mouths the words to the song (“I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier”) while walking toward and glaring at the camera, music-video style (i.e. uber-serious), all the while pouring Bud Light beer onto his head.
- Tales is a cinematic homage to L.A. (via films like Short Cuts, Magnolia, The Big Lebowski) but more than anything it’s a love letter to David Lynch (himself an auteur of L.A. in all its incomprehensible Southland mayhem). Moby’s thick, synth-happy score is an MTV-age riff on Angelo Badalamenti’s ethereal sonic layering that defines the Lynch brand (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, etc). There’s a lurid, primal elegance to the artifice of Tales that both stems from and expands on Lynch’s feverish cinematic delirium. The climax of the Lynch love comes in the film’s final act—with an unforgettable performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” sung partly in Spanish by Rebekah “Llorando” Del Rio (the crystal-voiced mystery singer from Mulholland Drive’s stunning “Club Silencio” sequence). Simply astounding.
- Krysta Now is the prescient voice of cultural narrative in the film. She comments on the past (“All the pilgrims did was ruin the Indian orgy of freedom”) the future (“Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than originally predicted”), and even the apocalyptic now: “The New York Times said God is Dead!” Buffy Michelle Gellar exudes a sharp comic timing that gives the film some of its funniest moments (and there are a lot of them).
- The music in the film—anchored by Moby’s luxuriant score—kills. Great songs are featured from the Pixies, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Jane’s Addiction, Waylon Jennings, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and a slew of Britpop bands (Radiohead, Blur, Muse, Elbow)… even a well-placed Beethoven’s 9th.
So much more to be said, but I’ll wrap it up with an incoherent string of images, phrases, and adjectives that Southland Tales evokes: American dysfunctional “party on” ethos, decontextualized soundbite windows media, reality as pop art vaudeville, entertainment/political/technocratic superstructure, Huxleyan dystopia, SUVs humping, The Hindenburg in flames, Jesus Christ stigmata tattoos on The Rock, spacetime continuum rifts, Kubrick, Robert Frost, Tarantino, off-road rollerblades, Venice Beach freaks/anarchists, Santa Monica pier snipers, Skid Row version of Children of Men firefight, Cheetos-eating stalkers, pop pastiche trifle with Herculean vigor and convenient election-year timing, epoch-defining, Gen X orgy of cultish Trekkie fanboyisms, desacralized Neo savior complex, O.J. Simpson/early 90s L.A., Greta Van Susternist exploitation, Lacan’s mirror stage, the fractured postmodern self, and pimps who are never suicidal.