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A Kotori Review : Southland Tales

Kelly’s film isn’t suffering because it is a dreadful film, rather it has been stigmatized by an industry that is more invested in iconography than ideas, more endeared to celebrity than artistry. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the foreshadowing event of Southland Tales’ 2006 Cannes Film Festival Premiere.

Southland Tales

Written & Directed by Richard Kelly

(Samuel Goldwyn Mayer)

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Critics have been tearing this movie a sixth orifice like a pack of Roidheads dismantling a gymnasium. They say it’s sloppy, over-indulgent and painfully long. I point to another wonderfully epic film that was all of these things, in all of the right ways—Magnolia. The difference, they will say, is that Paul Thomas Anderson’s "sprawling Los Angeles gospel" was a brilliant ensemble drama with a cohesive ending. I would have to tell them that they’re high. While I love Magnolia I will never say that the climax of that film was anything but fantastical and fantastically muddled. Raining frogs, newly-toothless over-the-hill homosexual whiz kids, naïve gun-bereft cops pining for impetuous coke whores, a frightened little smarty pants barging in on his stern and manipulative father to tell him off in the wee hours of the morning, to no avail, and breaking of the fourth wall as some sort of goofy police officer commentary on the events that have spiraled out of control, just because there’s more than one person living in the same Los Angeles. And that’s coming from a die hard fan of the flick, so let’s not mince words.


The bigger conundrum with Richard Kelly’s long-awaited follow-up to Donnie Darko is the stagnant opening at the Box Office, due in part to the caustic reviews and the lack of wide release, not to mention a subliminal and ephemeral promotional campaign. And all this after the popular distribution of three prequel graphic novels that should have served to properly whet the appetite of the rabid ‘Darko’ fans who have been waiting outside the gates for the past three years.


I feel it is incumbent upon me as a reluctant “critic" and film aficionado to vindicate Kelly’s "sophomore slump." Regardless of what some myopic, pinheaded vermin from the L.A. Weekly might have to say, Kelly’s film isn’t suffering because it is a dreadful film, rather it has been stigmatized by an industry that is more invested in iconography than ideas, more endeared to celebrity than artistry.


Perhaps the greatest example of this is the foreshadowing event of Southland Tales’ 2006 Cannes Film Festival Premiere. The film, in its unrefined three-hour-long rough cut, was picked by a Cannes Jury to compete for the much-coveted Palm d’Or, a holy grail for any filmmaker. The screening was an utter debacle, leaving Kelly precarious as to the film’s ultimate fate and leaving the floors of the screening room slick with blood plucked from Kelly figurative body by crotchety journalists and entrepreneurs who hated the film about as much as a dried out oyster.


So why choose a film to compete for the fucking piece de resistance if you think it’s a worthless piece of shit? This reveals a system that is based less on the quality of the motion picture and more on the impact of its predecessor (see: Donnie Darko) and the celebrity of the filmmaker’s name (Kelly was an Indie darling after ‘Darko’s success). This was a thought that had occurred to me back when Billy Walsh’s Medellin bombed at Cannes on HBO’s Entourage. Clearly the Cannes people hadn’t bothered to watch the slow-motion rooster shedding its feathers as Escobar’s victim was strung up. They were including it based on the reputation of Walsh, Chase & Queens Boulevard. This is what happened to Southland Tales.

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Now for the film itself: ‘Tales’ is a multi-layered Absurdist time travel parable that revels in what can only be described as a sort of Dadaist cinematic form. As a very heavy and socially relevant bit of Absurdist Theater, it has everything that should titillate both fans of ‘Darko’ and genre loyalists; There are sparkling elements and textures here of everything from sci-fi and cyberpunk to European satire and straight Hollywood action blockbusters. One is reminded of the gleefully askew multidimensional Peter Weller-John Lithgow vehicle The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai. And then, of course, you have the most majestic and pristine renderings of exaltation in modern motion picture—a hovering (or floating) ice cream truck which Kelly swears was not inspired by the glowing Chevy Malibu from Repo Man but which works on such a similar psycho-aural keel that I could easily imagine the Moby composition replaced by The Plugz’ "Reel Ten." The only things missing are tits and Kung-Fu. Scratch that. There might even be some karate chops or high kicks in this lovely head trip of a picture. Probably they will be noticeable after the third or fourth viewing.


That is what makes this film especially magical, that it belongs to that rare list of films that offer a series of subtle yet gleaming facets of newness each time you watch them. Most prominent in this category is Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Like Kelly’s picture, Gilliam’s adaptation of ‘Fear & Loathing’ was a supposed box office failure and ranked very low on the totem pole with mainstream critics. On the other hand it is a movie which shares Southland Tales’ unique hodge podge of sights and sounds, something all films or, at least, all talkies, should possess. You’re on your fifty-sixth viewing of the film, you think you’ve memorized all the lines and witnessed every frame, but then…Wait. Is Mark Harmon supposed to represent Thompson himself, hard at work, or the faceless Everyman journalist always on the wire, thinking he’s gotten the scoop when, really, he’s gotten nothing more than the next poor geek at the big event? And what’s this? Somebody’s talking about a girl getting knife wounds jabbed into her and some madman sucking out the blood?!


I trust ‘Tales’ will be the same way on its last nth viewing, with its rollicking sense of humor and time, its expertly frenetic pacing and layers of story arc. The beauty is that the arc does not exist and that’s what makes for more merry madness in each and every sequence. These kind of movies are a rare find, a diamond in the rough, and one that defies categorization.


That is the fundamental reason why Southland Tales will fail—in the Box Office and even critical sense of the word. Not because of a moot renunciation from the bourgeois Brokebackers at Cannes two years ago or because Roger Ebert couldn’t eat it up the way he does Twinkies and T & A. No, it’s because the studio that released it wouldn’t dare market a movie to "cults," the kind of "marginal" groups of fan boys who, as irony would have it, were the zeitgeist responsible for parlaying Donnie Darko into a late sleeper hit. I guess they’ve forgotten about this. I guess it’s too much of a gamble.


This isn’t to slight Samuel Goldwyn, really, because the truth is they had balls and integrity to pick the film up in the first place, and they’ve even publically-defended its challenging material and structure. Alas, when they doled out an extra million to add visual effects to the final cut, they should have considered sinking some additional bank into a more aggressive promotional campaign that would reveal that which would appeal to the brazen moviegoers who will, inevitably, eventually, in good time, probably on Blu-Ray in the year 2008, seek out, celebrate, dissect and worship this flick to Death.

I’m glad that Kelly didn’t give up hope after my fellow Frenchies gave him the Canned boot back in 2006. This film could not have been shelved, for it is to cinema what Robert Anton Wilson is to Literature.

It’s like Boxer Santaros and Roland Taverner said, "I’m a pimp and pimps do not commit suicide." Fnard!—Rev. Robert Michael Freville

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