SOUTHLAND TALES felt like just the kind of film I should be defending here, before I watched it. I fairly loved DONNIE DARKO, Richard Kelly’s debut feature, and although DOMINO, which he scripted, gave me a bad vibe and I didn’t see it, SOUTHLAND sounded weird and funny and crammed with STUFF, which is often the way I like my movies. Plus it’s had a chequered history and a lot of critical savaging, much of it fairly crass.

TV’s Mark Kermode, in particular, should be struck off the critic’s list for mindlessly panning the thing on The Culture Show. “It’s terrible,” he said, “Really terrible. Look, here’s a clip. See how terrible it is?” A twenty second clip aired, and charming but light-weight co-presenter Lauren Laverne nodded. “I see what you mean.” Absolutely no critical analysis was offered whatsoever. And it’s a film which certainly warrants a bit of analysis.

The task is complicated by the fact that the version of SOUTHLAND TALES released is not the original director’s cut — Kelly was forced to alter his vision in order to get it screened at all, after the initial very bad response. What I mainly found myself wondering as I watched was what was part of the original conception and what had been added or subtracted to try and streamline the film and make it, what? Commercial, appealing, comprehensible?

The re-edit certainly fails on all three scores, at least on first viewing. The confusing narrative is surprising because there’s so much exposition — for the first third the movie is ALL EXPOSITION. Most of it is provided by a voice-over, and that’s part of the problem. Without a dramatic situation to engage us, the V.O. seems to wash over, bypassing comprehension. It’s telling us exactly what’s going on, but it’s hard to focus, in part because it’s impossible to see how the narrator, a character in the “story”, knows what he’s telling us. Since he’s not involved in most of the action, his narration blurs the story rather than clarifying it.

I was reminded of David Lynch’s DUNE, with it’s many internal monologues by many characters, seemingly pasted in out of a desperate urge to make us understand. My favourite is when the hero’s mum comes in a door, sees that her son is alive, looks relieved, and then her V.O. helpfully states, “My son — lives!” The redundancy is sort of comical and almost Lynchian. Kelly’s narration-stream isn’t as goofy as that, probably because it’s been added in an attempt to normalise a very weird film.

A Stand Up Guy

While Justin Timberlake delivers the verbal afterhthoughts with more gusto than Harrison Ford did in BLADE RUNNER, the result is more like the plot-summary that comes towards the end of LADY FROM SHANGHAI. As Orson Welles wanders the Crazy House, he muses on What Has Gone Before, and we pretty much miss everything he’s saying because it has nothing much to do with the imagery, which is far more interesting. Only when the words “…and I was the fall guy!” land on the image of Welles falling over are we able to register what’s being said at all. It’s not Welles’ fault, it’s the bone-heads at Columbia who forced him to add explanations at inapposite moments, just as R. Kelly has had to do.

Once the SOUTHLAND V.O. thins out and the plot, whatever it is, actually gets in motion, it starts to feel like we’re getting somewhere. Generally the bits with music feel like a movie, rather than a tape-slide presentation or a very long “Previously on Lost” montage, and I started to feel like the film could be an enjoyable experience even without my fully understanding it. I like lots of films I don’t understand. As the proceedings got more fun, I started to yearn for the original version. All the attempts at clarification seemed to make for a more boring experience.

The casting is the high point for me. I always rejoice in the gurning visage of Wallace Shawn, and it was cool to see POLTERGEIST’s Zelda Rubinstein, still looking like she’s been compressed in a car crusher. Bai Ling attempts to inject sultriness into every line reading or movement, Sarah Michelle Gellar does some good porn star acting, the Rock makes his eyes go beady and does weird nervous finger movements, and Justin Timberlake is rather good. Miranda Richardson seems to have been cast for her face rather than her acting, which is quaint as she’s a magnificent actress, one of the real power-houses. But since her costume screams “Villainess!” and that’s all her character is, she really has very little she can add.

The levitating ice-cream van at the end made me think of the flying car in Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, and it seemed clear at that point that the earlier visionary punk sci-fi masterpiece (which anticipates everything from THE X FILES to Grant Morrison’s comic book The Invisibles) was a definite influence. Interestingly, Repo Man now has a comic book sequel, just like SOUTHLAND TALES.

I also thought of the movie Guido’s making in Fellini’s EIGHT AND A HALF. “Do you like movies in which nothing happens?” The idea of a film which tries to include EVERYTHING is a perversely appealing one, even if it’s doomed to fail. In a way, all films fail — they always disappoint their makers. Kelly seems to have gone into this one believing he might never be given another job, so he had to make this film stand in for an entire filmography. Ironically, it’s such a high-profile catastrophe he’s almost certain to be offered more work by the kind of producers who like to present themselves as taming unruly talents.

“The name’s Rock. Rock Rock.”

15 Responses to “UPU2?”

  1. Brandon Says:

    The comic was a prequel to the movie events, which for me made the movie’s intro and voiceover mostly redundant (it’s telling you what you missed in the comic). Some of the more ridiculous parts of the comic didn’t make it into the movie (the version of the movie that we saw, anyway), like a rapidly-growing baby and the idea that people who have been through the time portal have instantly evolved, and their more-efficient bodies don’t need to shit anymore. I’d love to think the UPU2 vests are an allusion to this.

    The critics would have us believe that Southland Tales isn’t even worth watching. I thought it was SO worth watching, filling my head with bizarre ideas about time travel and film casting, mega-zeppelins, misbehaving mirrors and the endless twiddling of Rock’s fingers…

  2. Well said! I liked what I saw but I feel like I saw a fraction of what was meant to be.

  3. The film reminded me of reading hi-brow sci-fi books when I was young and not getting anything because it seemed as though I needed to have read 5 preceding books and probably 5 following books too in order to understand the world well enough before I could get to grips with the actualy story. In a good way because it meant that the book was set in a dense and complex world.

    Unlike Matrix Reloaded which made me suffer for not knowing the back-story and encouraged me to go out and buy, buy, buy. Southland Tales made me intrigued and made me think a lot afterwards about what I had seen. Because a hell of a lot was going on. Some of it though was, I thought, pointless. Like the ice cream van, it seemed to be there just so people would think “Repo Man” and I didn’t get the “I’m a pimp stuff” as it had never been referenced before, at least in the version we saw.

    Anyway, I liked the film and will probably watch it again but like you I want to see the Director’s Cut in the hope that it proves a more satisfying experience.

  4. Of course Kelly references PK Dick directly with the “Flow my tears” line, spoken by a policeman, natch. Once it got onto the time travel stuff it seemed to work much better — I still didn’t quite understand it but it was interesting at least, and seemed to be going somewhere. The first act (which seems like about an hour) is so desperate to set things up in an orderly fashion they forget to make us care. What’s good is the quirkiness, a genune desire to make something different. The more of that the better, so we need the original edit.

  5. Really nice write-up. This was maybe my favorite new release of last year, I didn’t want it to end. I think I went and saw it for the same reasons you did, it was only afterwards I found out anything good had been written about it (there was a great piece in Sight and Sound which touches on the tenderness of the whole deal). And I didn’t mind seeing this cut. That was part of the fun of it for me. All the best bits were just chucked in and yet I still got a weird sense of the – I don’t know – “geography” of the story. It almost felt like I had been allowed to wander around the film unchaperoned but with Justin Timberlake providing commentary on a tape I’d been handed at the door. Down that road a couple with prosthetic noses are hilariously screaming at each other. In that van, obviously, was Christophe Lambert (his presence making so much sense). I felt very at home. I did also love – although I’m not supposed to – the idea that the whole film might have just been an elaborate practical joke played on the Rock: “Yes, you’ll get to play a messianic action hero and work with a wildly popular director, now say these terrible lines and drum your fingers together…” Anyway, yes, I loved this, and Mark Kermode, something really should be done about that man. I remember his appearance as an appalled talking head bemoaning Freddy Kreuger gloves in toy shops. And he was supposed to be the “face of extreme cinema”. Let’s kick him.

  6. There are a few good things about Kermode:

    1) He sings rockabilly.
    2) He had tockabilly hair.
    3) He has a chicken called Elvis.

    Actually, he’d be much better off appearing in Southland Tales rather than reviewing it.

    I would be delighted to have this alternate edit of Southland Tales, but I need the director’s cut FIRST! But I like your description of it. Mario Bava’s butchered version of Lisa and the Devil, known as House of Exorcism, has some of the same pleasure for me, even though the added scenes are terrible.

  7. colinr Says:

    That Culture Show review was a bad one – it sort of verged on groupthink when I was left thinking how much I liked the “future is going to be much more futuristic” line only to be confronted by the reviewers saying it showed how bad the film was and the ‘Laverne and Shirley’ person nodding as the audience crowded around them like a silent zombie army! (I might be over reacting but I much preferred it when The Culture Show’s audience pretended they were having their own conversations rather than listening in on the show!)

    I think Southland Tales is a bit of a mess but an extremely fascinating one and I would much rather have more films like this one than any number of bland films.

    I posted a little on criterionforum.org about the film which mainly can be boiled down to the idea that this seems an epic, rather than high school based, version of Donnie Darko, only this time the film itself is the tangent universe. (It seemed ironic to me that this recut version of the film plays a lot like the directors cut of DD with the religious passages substituing for the time travel book).

    Also I kept thinking this would make a fascinating double bill of ‘insane Los Angeles follies dealing with paranoia and surveillance’ films with Wim Wender’s The End Of Violence!

  8. Well, Kelly himself re-cut the release version of Southland, so it still has his style, but it’s a sort of panicked, anxious-to-be-understood version of his style. In a way that’s like the Director’s Cut of DD.
    Is The End of Violence worth seeing? I had a very bad feeling about that one!

  9. colinr Says:

    It is worth seeing but I think it works best with the knowledge that there is not really any satisfying dramatic payoff from the events of the film. It can be a very frustrating experience because of that but I’ve found it works better on repeated viewings (and brilliantly the last time I watched it with the sound turned down, subtitles on and appropriate ambient music playing!) when the wish to see where everything is leading to becomes less of an issue.

    I guess it fits with Wender’s other films where the journey is more important than the arrival.

    In fact, combine the surveillance and memory loss aspects of The End of Violence with the kind of dated futurisim of Until The End Of The World and I think you’d end up with Southland Tales! And I mean that as a compliment, though I can see how it could be an acquired taste!

  10. I liked most of the first half of Until the End, apart from racist portrayal of comedy Japanese, but the film grinds to a halt when the road movie part ends. I think the halfway mark in that film is the precise point where Wenders stopped being any good, for me.

    But if a copy of End of Violence swings by, I might grab it.

  11. If you want a taster of The End of Violence there was an article written on the film in The Onion’s My Year Of Flops!: (http://www.avclub.com/content/blog/my_year_of_flops_case_file_58_the).

    For comparison Southland Tales also appeared in the series and received the same ‘Fiasco’ rating (better than a ‘flop’ not as good as a ‘secret success’!)

  12. Hi. Just wanted to say I am linking your blog. My site is http://www.amoviescriptending.wordpress.com. Nicely written review of Southland Tales. We disagree on several levels, but well-written piece anyway!

  13. Thanks for linking. I’ll add you to the blogroll here. I always say it’s not a question of whether we agree with a critic, but whether we find the writing stimulating. Nobody but my friends need care whether I like some film or not, but if I can say something interesting about it then apparently people find it worth reading. Concentrating on that makes me like films more, since I’m always looking for angles of interest, which sometimes lie in the flaws or “flaws”.

  14. I loved Donnie Darko (didn’t like the Director’s Cut, mind) and I’d heard the badness flung at Southland Tales so I tried to go into it with as much enthusiasm as possible. Enthusiasm which was beaten out of me with that seemingly endless Timberlake blathering at the start, accompanied by crappy diagrams and lines and lines of TEXT (I’m going off memory here.)
    The good: Justin singing The Killers in a blood-stained shirt but I forget why it happened. I also laughed out loud a couple of times.
    The bad: The length – if a film’s over 2 hours long I start to get confused and angry, it’s MTV’s fault, I hear.
    Like the Futurama line goes, “You’ve watched it, you can’t UNwatch it!”
    But I wouldn’t want to, I liked how it was, like you say, so full of stuff. It was as if Kelly had just spunked everything at it and I admire that.

  15. Yes, I’m assuming that narration at the star was added in to “clarify”, but it just bores, confuses and alienates.
    I don’t remember why the song happened either, but I think that’s because there was no readily apparent reason. It was still good though. I think this is the precise point my partner Fiona decided that Justin T was actually a good thing.
    I’m happy for films to be long, as long as I LIKE them. The it’s just bonus material for free. But many many US films these days would benefit from some narrative economy and being half an hour shorter.
    Still want to see the original edit. It can’t really be any worse, and might well be better.

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