Thursday, November 15, 2007

Southland Tales

In the end, it's just one more apocalypse fantasy. But Richard Kelly's sprawling, satirical pop sci-fi epic Southland Tales cuts such a wide swath through our political-cultural landscape, fills the screen with such an unassimilable mass of information and is so insistent on playing the whole thing for laughs that, even though it offers little more than a superficial treatment of its vast catalogue of topical concerns, the overall effect is of an overloaded, wonderfully skewed, but decidedly pointed projection of the fears and fantasies of contemporary America.

After opening with footage of a family barbecue (shot as a mock home-movie) that gives way to an unexpected nuclear attack on Abilene, Texas and the onset of World War III, the film shifts gears to bring us up to date on the state of global affairs in a sequence that quickly establishes Kelly's information-saturated attack. Taking its cue from Godard films like La Chinoise, Southland Tales assaults us with more data than we can reasonably assimilate. But Kelly's film ties this sense of information overload specifically to the mass media whose dulling assault on our sensibilities Kelly simultaneously approximates and critiques. A mock news broadcast, the screen littered with text, fills us in on the ensuing events, the ongoing war with Iraq, Iran and other Middle-Eastern powers and the curtailing of civil liberties at home. A key recurring image in the film's iconography of media-saturation finds Nanna Mae-Frost (Miranda Richardson), director of the newly appointed government agency (USIDent) responsible for controlling all the country's information portals, seated in front of a dozen television screens each tuned to a different image. Mirroring the device popularized by CNN, many of the screens offer simultaneously three distinct pieces of information, an image, a caption and an update from an unrelated story at the screen's bottom. The concurrent barrage of information, which the viewer cannot be expected to fully process and the tight control under which it's placed create a unique situation in which we are simultaneously given too much and too little information. The result is a confused state of affairs in which informed analysis is all but eliminated as a possibility for a nation's citizenry.

Of its varied concerns, the film spends the most time negotiating the trade-off between personal liberty and government control in the face of the constant threat of annihilation. The discussion is crystallized around the upcoming vote on Proposition 69 (the bill's title played for sophomoric humor) which aims to reduce the nearly limitless powers granted USIDent following the nuclear attacks. The debate plays out largely through a series of television commercials, political discourse pointedly given its principal expression through the detritus of mass media. In one ad, a redneck with a shotgun asks the camera "do you think your personal privacy is worth more than my family's safety from terrorist attack?" and then proceeds to threaten anyone who would challenge his priorities. But the film's concerns take in far more than the civil liberties debate; among the myriad of topics covered are the Iraq war, alternative energy sources, drug addiction, television punditry, police aggression, the space-time continuum and the ensuing apocalypse, the last prefigured in a series of quotations from the Book of Revelations that a monotonal Justin Timberlake invokes at various intervals throughout the film. With such a comprehensive catalogue of concerns, Kelly is understandably prevented from treating any at length. Rather, by mashing such an overwhelming range of discourse into one undigested mixture and not worrying about such lesser concerns as coherence, he builds a confusing, disjointed but powerfully resonant picture of our society, a society that combines stultifying government control with a barely-checked self-destructive impulse.

Kelly fills out his cast with such pop figures as The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), Timberlake, Bai Ling and Mandy Moore, but rather than subject his unlikely actors to a judgemental irony, he mines their personae for their iconic cultural significance. The Rock trades his signature eye-wink for a less certain gesture, a nervous rubbing together of his fingertips that becomes a running gag, but it is his status as a media icon that counts, his presence expanding the film's inclusive cultural landscape. Beyond these figures, the work is overloaded with characters and plotlines. The various strands may be defiantly incoherent, but, after enduring their separate adventures, the characters are all herded together for the film's impressive conclusion, the onset of apocalypse in downtown Los Angeles. As rioters surround the Staples Center and the city starts to burn, the governmental figures float above the fray in a sleek zeppelin, its safety undermined by an upended ice cream truck magically floating nearby. Kelly alternates footage detailing the action from ground level, aboard the zeppelin and from an unspecified aerial point of view, the latter shots bringing the fantasy of annihilation, the destruction of Los Angeles so frequently imagined in film, into full view. As the rioters swarm the streets, they register on the screen as barely discernible, slow-moving splotches eating away at the city, while the glory of the fully lit metropolis turns to an even more glorious fire as the high-rise buildings begin to burn and the zeppelin is consumed in flames. This vision of apocalypse, effected from within, even as the city faces the external threats of nuclear warfare and environmental instability, registers as the final expression of the collective deathwish of American society and the culmination of the picture's endless catalogue of contemporary ills. In the end, if we find Kelly's imposingly inclusive vision too much for us to fully assimilate, we can't fail to recognize ourselves in his splintered, disturbing and very comical portrait of a world inexorably committed to its own destruction.

4 comments:

MRS said...

Nice review. I agree with almost all of your analysis and yet for me the film was not equal to the sum of it's parts. I look forward to seeing it again to deepen my understanding of what Kelly is trying to say and determine better if he is successful. My initial response is, sadly, no.

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Patrick Roberts said...

Dwayne Johnson and J.Timberlake are surprisingly talented actors; but i'm still trying to figure out what Southland Tales was about...

BrettB said...

As a huge fan of Donnie Darko I went into this movie with high expectations. My first reaction was dissapointment, but I held back to see if there were any analysis of the movie that might shed light on it and reveal some subtle fact that would make it all worth it (the wait that is). Sadly, I haven't found the revelation I was hoping for.

There are some nice Donnie references to be had though; worm holes, gunshot to the left eye, etc.

Cesar Fernandez D said...

You can get a pretty good idea of Southland Tales from a quick description of its characters. Dwayne Johnson plays Boxer Santaros, a movie star in Richard Kelly's all-too-near dystopian future. But it's not that straightforward. Johnson plays The Rock playing Boxer Santaros, while Boxer is playing the role of a character he's researching, one Jericho Kane. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays an ageing porn-star with a business portfolio that includes energy drinks. And Sean William Scott? Well, he plays a cop's amnesiac twin brother, as part of a neo-Marxist scheme to overthrow the government. Or does he? And you thought Donnie Darko was confusing. Welcome to Southland... The year is 2008. Justin Timberlake - did I forget to mention him? He plays a drugged-up Iraq war veteran with a huge scar on his face. Who sits in a huge chair with a huge rifle, guarding "Fluid Karma", an ultra-valuable perpetual motion wave machine that is the new form of power since oil has become rare and therefore massively expensive. Politics, anyone? Anyway, JT (who might be telepathic) narrates over an introduction comprised of graphic novel slides and MTV-meets-FOX news bulletins that guides us from our present to the "present" of Kelly's 2008 Southland. The passage of time has not been kind to the US; a nuke has gone off in Texas, and the country has become a police state. consulta online medico online pediatra online medico online doctor online dermatologo online veterinario online veterinario online psychologist online consulta online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online psicologo online doctor online psicologo online abogado online abogado online The most "recent" clip reveals that Boxer (played by Dwayne Johnson playing The Rock) has disappeared without a trace, which is where the movie begins. Or does it? By this stage, you just might have gotten the impression that Southland Tales is a bit of a mess. And you'd be right. Kelly's attempt at a politically-charged all-encompassing comment on the world that can also appeal to the youth of today does ultimately fall flat, but that's not to say it's without its merits. The satire's often sharp, and the way the movie skips from genre-to-genre (dystopian conspiracy to Scooby Doo farce to musical to action movie) works surprisingly well without jarring too much. The music, while not perfect (I'm pretty sure Black Rebel Motorcycle Club won't have the kind of comeback that allows them to host LA's 4th of July weekend party next year...) creates some of the movie's more memorable moments, such as JT's Killers dance number and the captivating three-way dance toward the end.