Perhaps it's the case that, in order to live, we must process our experience first rationally, and then irrationally...the various dreams that we dream at night are not criticized by anybody—there are no reviewers in the Land of Nod—nor do we need to defend our dreams or make any claims for them. But as we all find ourselves in the frustrating situation that most of the artistic objects we need and depend on for our daytime dreams must be made by other people, it's not surprising that we're finicky, critical and sometimes even angry when these objects are presented to us—we're constantly complaining, like diners in a restaurant who repeatedly send bad-tasting dishes back to the kitchen. And then, perhaps inevitably, centuries ago, analysts of art brought the concepts of "good" and "bad" into the conversation, and most of us, as irritable diners, frequently use this vocabulary in discussing our artistic meals, although it often merely adds to the prevailing confusion, because a parsnip is not really a "bad" carrot, it's a different vegetable.
So. What type of dreams do you enjoy?
— Wallace Shawn, "Aesthetic Preferences"
Forty minutes into Richard Kelly’s fitful, monumental, maddening and unnervingly compelling blockbuster maudit Southland Tales, amnesiac superstar Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson, in his first role without “The Rock” used in his credited name) is having lunch with someone who claims to be the Southland police officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), both pausing their ridealong as Boxer researches his role as Jericho Cane in the script he co-wrote with porn star/multi-hyphenate proto-influencer Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), The Power. Several wormholes of context could be further mined here, but let’s also pause this synopsis for the moment.
Taverner, also suffering from amnesia, looks up from his meal at Santaros, clearly troubled. “I’ve had this recurring dream,” he begins, “I wake up in this dungeon. The walls are made of sand. As I slowly make my way through this maze, approaching a light source at the end. Guess who’s standing there, waiting for me?”
Santaros inquires, “Who?”
Taverner quietly replies: “You.”
Santaros leans in, asking Tavener: “Do you ever feel like there's a thousand people locked inside of you?”
Taverner replies, “Sometimes.”
With increasing ardor, Santaros continues: “But it's your memory that keeps them glued together. Keeps all these people from fighting one another. Maybe in the end, that's all we have. The Memory Gospel.”
This is as good an entry point as any into the multilayered Gordian knot called Southland Tales, a film so exasperating to explain and yet, somehow, often in spite of itself, so mesmerizing. A thousand tales are locked inside it: dreams emerge in daylight, multiple personality disorders (which must be some kind of wild trip for an amnesiac (spoiler alert: especially if that amnesiac is also an imposter)) give way to founding principles, even chapter titles. At this point in Southland Tales, we’re on the cusp of Chapter V, “The Memory Gospel” — the film opens, just like the Star Wars franchise, with a Chapter IV: “Temptation Waits.” This is also a sequence that references a separate sequence from earlier ST chapters, which have each been separately realized as three graphic novels.
The hypertextual multi-directionality of Southland Tales is, one could argue, its own major theme, intent as the film is on mapping a condition in favor of effecting a tidy weaving of unruly, dense, unconventional narrative arcs, all which criss-cross with abandon towards The Big Telos: The End of the World. Obliquities abound in this multimedia work, one which Kelly has called in a recent oral history of Southland Tales’ creation, a “transmedia project,” and one which he insists remains “unfinished.”
In retrospect, it almost seems inevitable that there was so much hostility meted out to this epic miasma masquerading as a Bush-era Hollywood tentpole; its debut at the Cannes Film Festival was a notorious catastrophe. Roger Ebert’s review set the tone for others to follow: “After I saw the first cut of Kelly's "Southland Tales" at Cannes 2005, I was dazed, confused, bewildered, bored, affronted and deafened by the boos all around me, at the most disastrous Cannes press screening since, yes, ‘The Brown Bunny.’” Slicing some 20 minutes from the Cannes cut, rearranging sequences and adding more expository material, Kelly’s revised edit limped into limited release the following year to similar derision, if not outright dismay.
And yet, even early on, the film gained some partisans among certain critics more willing to embrace Kelly’s messy, sprawling, quixotically visionary satire. J. Hoberman, still employed by the Village Voice, identified its core compulsive sensibility, enthusing: “In its willful, self-involved eccentricity, Southland Tales is really something else. Kelly's movie may not be entirely coherent, but that's because there's so much it wants to say.” In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis was equally impressed by Kelly’s dedication to his outlandish Southland: “He doesn't make it easy to love his new film, which turns and twists and at times threatens to disappear down the rabbit hole of his obsessions. Happily, it never does, which allows you to share in his unabashed joy in filmmaking as well as in his fury about the times.”
Biblical and strenuously profane; prophetic and banal; knowing and gauche; obscure and, at times, too spot-on for its own good; ambitious and juvenile; easily ridiculed and, in the final analysis, impossible to dismiss: even in the annals of cult films, there’s never been a work quite like Southland Tales, much less a Hollywood film that so revels in its own wealth of contradictions. With the new 2-disc Blu-Ray release of both the “Cannes cut,” unseen since its uncelebrated debut, and its subsequent re-edit, it’s a good time to reconsider this extravagant conundrum — barely held together by speculative centrifugal force and the memory gospel of Kelly’s own cracked cultural literacy — in all its irreducible peculiarity.
You will want cause and effect. All right.
— Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
I’ve been trying to track down a word or phrase in English that expresses a desire for the End Times and confess I’m surprised I haven’t found it. More specific than the death-drive “Thanatos” which Freud posited as the counterforce for the life-drive of Eros, it’s something that suffuses Judeo-Christian literature well beyond Biblical examples — there is, for example, the term "eschatomania," referring to "an intensive preoccupation with the prophetic passages or details of the Bible, eschatological charts, prophecy studies, end-times predictions and preaching.” But a general, non-denominational term for this longing does not seem to appear in the language, odd for a culture which has manifested this desire in its popular literature across the centuries, with examples ranging from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man to Will Forte’s The Last Man on Earth. Whatever we might call this craving for Apocalypse, Richard Kelly has it and it infects a number of his principals in Southland.
His first film, the similarly disdained-upon-release and now-recognized cult classic, Donnie Darko, begins with Donnie sleepwalking into an encounter with the hulking, cosplayed rabbit “Frank,” who informs Donnie that the world will end in “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.” In Southland Tales, that desire is regularly rendered eschatomaniacal, with numerous quotes from the Book of Revelations (the revised cut providing considerably more than the Cannes), delivered in a measured Southern drawl by the film’s omniscient narrator, Pilot Abilene, portrayed by Justin Timberlake.
Both cuts open in Abilene, TX, the first example of the many bizarre thematic rhymings with characters that occurs throughout Southland Tales. Effectively (not least around cost) leveraging faux “found footage” a few years after The Blair Witch Project and subsequent films like Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead made the trope a recognizable fetish of early 21st c. horror films, a July 4th party and its camcorder documentation by two young boys is interrupted by a nuclear attack on Abilene, followed by a similar incineration of El Paso. World War III commences, although it seems little changed from Bush’s War on Terror in scope — only Syria is added to the list of combatants Iraq and Afghanistan — but changed utterly for Kelly’s journey through the looking glass of the times within which Southland Tales was made.
We shift to Venice Beach, where we meet Boxer Santaros, prostrate, nervously mumbling to himself in silhouette near the surf, before rising and running to the boardwalk — in the revised cut, Pilot Abilene spells it out for us all right there in a voiceover, with others articulating it later in the Cannes cut:
This is the way world ends
This is the way world ends
This is the way world ends
Not with a whimper but with a bang
This inversion of T.S. Eliot’s apocalyptic stanza finds one rhyme in the last name of the Republican presidential candidate in this alternate universe’s 2008. His running mate, Senator Bobby Frost (Donnie Darko’s dad, Holmes Osborne), and his wife Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson) — not coincidentally, also Boxer’s in-laws — are the driving force behind US-IDENT, a Patriot Act-funded “think tank” which is actually more like the surveillance and special operations wing of the new security state. US-IDENT’s very presence leads to considerable insecurity, notably for the Neo-Marxists (“the last remnants of the Democratic Party,” Pilot Abilene observes), the more radical of whom operate throughout the “Venice Beach underground” in “The Southland,” agitating for US-IDENT’s closure as they gear up for urban insurrection. Pilot Abilene himself is in US-IDENT’s employ, joining other heavily-armed, laptop-enabled snipers along the Venice Beach boardwalk, looking for enemies from without, but mostly from within.
Meantime, World War III, our Pilot informs us, “was running out of gas. And there was no alternative; alternative fuel, that is. Until one day, when a renegade scientist arrived in The Southland with a cure for our sickness. He built this great big machine out in the ocean that would generate a hydroelectric energy field called Fluid Karma, a wireless network of electric power that would run machines by remote, machines that would never have to be refueled.” Enter Treer Products and its “wizard,” Baron Von Westphalen, portrayed exactly as you’d imagine by Wallace Shawn.
“Have you built the world's first perpetual motion machine?” the Baron is asked at a beachside press conference. He gestures to the Pacific behind him.
“The ocean is a perpetual motion machine…As long as the waves continue to crash, Fluid Karma will exist.”
As Treer operates a massive apparatus offshore to mine the ocean, drawing forth the “quantum entanglements” which are its lifeblood, Fluid Karma is also being employed as a mind-altering drug, with soldiers being used as guinea pigs, resulting in many flag-draped coffins. Those tested include our narrator, who keeps a steady trade running Fluid Karma out of a boardwalk-based PX/arcade.
His fellow vet Private Ronald Taverner, Official Roland’s twin brother, is being blackmailed by the Neo-Marxists into impersonating Roland, who has been kidnapped and given regular Fluid Karma injections. The Neo-Marxists hope to snare Boxer in a staged racist double-murder by Tavener, impersonating a different Tavener, thus damaging the Eliot/Frost ticket’s electability. Tavener meets Boxer — who is then the subject of an active missing person investigation at the behest of the Frost family — at the Manhattan Beach condo of pimp/dealer Fortunio Balducci (Will Sasso), where he and Krysta, to the accompaniment of Robert Aldrich’s 1955 atomic-age noir Kiss Me Deadly playing on a TV in the background, outline the premise of The Power.
“The basic concept is this,” Boxer explains. “I play an LAPD cop who isn't who he seems.” There is an “apocalyptic crime rate” occurring because of “global deceleration… disrupting the chemical equilibrium in the human brain, causing very irrational criminal behavior.” “Sounds neat,” Tavener deadpans. Boxer concludes: “My character, his name…is Jericho Cane.” Ronald/Roland stands, remarking: “You're going to have to wear a bulletproof vest.”
US-IDENT is on to this Neo-Marxist cell and their scheme, sending operatives to follow a supposed mole back to the cell’s lair. The mole coaxes a visibly tripping Roland into escaping just before he and his cadre are wiped out. Separately, Frost is being shaken down by USIDeath, a Neo-Marxist website seeking to bring down US-IDENT, controlled by Cyndi Pinziki (Nora Dunn), a porn director who tries to leverage compromising footage of Boxer and Krysta. She reaches the Frost brain trust via voice-scrambled web calls, referring to herself as “Deep Throat 2” (“Are you Deep Throat 2?” Krysta is asked by a Frost factotum later in the film — “Oh, I’m not in that movie,” she amiably replies).
All the while, Treer is preparing to launch their crowning achievement: The Mega Zeppelin, powered by Fluid Karma. But Treer’s own brain trust also has designs on Boxer which remain unclear, as the Baron’s mother Dr. Inga Von Westphalen, as well as Dr. Katarina Kuntzler and the mysterious Serpentine (Beth Grant, Zelda Rubinstein and Bai Ling, respectively), appear as a trio of doom to inform him that they have downloaded The Power from the Net (as it turns out, they aren’t alone). “Don't look so scared, Mr. Santaros,” Serpentine scarcely assures Boxer. “The future is just like you imagined.”
As the staged double-murder becomes real, courtesy of the malevolent Southland cop Bart Bookman (Jon Lovitz, hair bleached white) who has his own connection to the Neo-Marxists, Boxer and Tavener flee in different directions, the twins ultimately both searching for each other across The Southland as the double-crosses multiply, very irrational criminal behaviors proliferate, snipers take out their fellow citizens, the Mega Zeppelin launches, fighting in the street ensues, and certain truths are revealed while other remain ambiguous at best; Boxer takes it all in with a combined sense of déjà vu and inevitability. There’s even time for a trashed Pilot Abilene to engage in a song-and-dance number, choreographed to The Killers’ “All These Things That I've Done,” beginning with its refrain “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier.” This is far from the only instance of indie rock making an appearance in Southland Tales: Chapter VI, for example, takes its title from the soundtrack to Santaros and Tavener’s flight, post-double-murder: The Pixies’ ominous surfcore ballad “Wave of Mutilation.”
I cannot even begin to outline the plenitude of additional plot points and sub-points my convoluted synopsis leaves out. It all builds to The Other Big Bang, alongside revolution, war crime guilt, space-time anomalies, a handshake (“How does it end?” Boxer’s wife asks towards the end — Boxer replies: “A handshake.”), mass murder, suicide and, come the end of the film, one final instance of Pilot Abilene partying with his crew at the PX.
Is this scene a parting note of hope? One more ambivalence to put a bow on the many that preceded it? I can’t say honestly if it’s either of these or something else entirely — someone could quite reasonably see this as prima facie evidence of the film’s failure. I can’t help but feel this and many other instances of resolute irresolution mark Southland Tales as a major artwork by a serious artist.
Memory believes before knowing remembers.
— William Faulkner, Light in August
“What? You've got amnesia?” exclaims Boxer’s incredulous wife Madeline (Mandy Moore, all aggrieved, savage-tanned, lip-glossed pout) in her eventual showdown with Boxer and Krysta — and who can blame her? This most hoary of Hollywood clichés extending to multiple characters in Southland Tales is joined by so many others: the sinister top-secret government organization, triple and quadruple crosses best lampooned on Rick & Morty, the fictional hero who “who is not who he seems,” echoed by Krysta late in the film regarding the “real” Boxer: “He's not the person you think he is.”
Who is? One of Southland Tales’ unambiguous pleasures is its use of boilerplate banalities to its advantage. As Madeline waves one of Krysta’s DVDs in her face — “Cock Chuggers Two? ‘Cock Chugging’?!?” — Boxer rises to her defense, while also providing a not-so-subtle critique of the then-nascent trend for self-branding: “Hey, hey! She just cut her own pop album…She's developing her own reality show, clothing line, jewelry, perfume, and not to mention an energy drink, which I tried,” pausing for effect, then concluding with quiet solemnity, “and her drink tastes really, really good.” After another pause, Boxer inquires: “Can I see the Cock Chuggers?”
That such humorous exchanges in Southland Tales often take the audience by surprise goes a long way towards demonstrating that this satire is by no means a comedy, or not exclusively. Another of the Hollywood commonplaces the film satirizes is the multi-character, interwoven plot that was the hallmark of the late Robert Altman. By 2005, multiple ambitious indie directors, most famously Paul Thomas Anderson, but also Richard Linklater, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Michael Winterbottom among others pledged allegiance to the late master’s discursive ways across a narrative, but never with the reckless near-recalcitrance of Kelly and his film. As with Altman’s masterful critique of American life, 1975’s Nashville, Southland Tales also concludes with drama on a big, flag-draped stage, with buildups that include a minor key “Star-Spangled Banner” sung by Rebekah Del Rio and a pas de trois danced by Boxer, Krysta and Madeline (“Is it some kind of an orgy or something?” inquires a puzzled Sen. Frost).
Kelly himself names both Andy Warhol and Philip K. Dick as influences on the film, both of which resonate: Warhol’s embrace of pop on its own terms which then radically redefines those terms, and Dick’s similar capacity to defamiliarize the superficialities of modern life, revealing hidden forces at work behind them. Certainly, the transformation of Los Angeles, two words we never hear uttered in Southland Tales, into “The Southland” renders even the most recognizable aspects of L.A. — Venice Beach, the Staples Center, etc. — as equally iconic but swept away to a mythic realm that both is and is not the City of Angels.
Another film with surprising affinities to Southland Tales is Alex Cox’ Repo Man, sharing with that film covertly evil government agencies; a nearly continuous stream of radio, television and other media providing commentary in the background; concluding scenes featuring vehicles glowing from within and flying around the LA skyline; and a similar, almost axiomatic fixation with Kiss Me Deadly (something, in this respect, both share with such unlikely films as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Godard’s impenetrable adaptation of King Lear). The “Great Whatzit” from that 50’s indictment of mass destruction, deception and their close relation to the American Dream, has mutated into various lethal, localized particulars and, towards this end, perhaps the experience of Southland Tales resembles nothing so much as the year it was made.
2005’s hangover from George W. Bush’s re-election, even after revelations of the torture at Abu Ghraib and the failure to find WMDs revealed the deceit driving the Iraq invasion but failed to prevent a second term, congealed into a queasy uncertainty about what would come next. A new surveillance state was being manufactured under the ostensibly protective aegis of The PATRIOT Act and the development of a far-from-consensual Big Brother hovered behind every press conference, every defense of the Iraq War and even the Internet itself. America was a nation uncertain, wondering how we got there and what comes next, much like Boxer on the beach at the opening of Southland Tales.
Into this volatile mix of anxious paranoia, Kelly’s evident inspirations range from rock music of the era to cable news and even network comedies. One major change in the revised cut is the introduction of the framing device, the “Doomsday Scenario Interface” or DSI, resembling a standard cable news network’s layering of images and scrolling text, somewhat spelling out what is often left implicit in the Cannes cut. And then, there’s his casting, drawing on Johnson’s celebrity still very tied up with the WWF, alongside any number of middle-period SNL veterans. There’s the sense that Southland Tales’ ultimate source material is a 2005-vintage thickened reduction of post 9/11 PTSD, psychedelics, Napster and basic cable, boiled down into one very strange brew.
One extra biblical reference from the in the revised cut occurs as the camera pans towards a parked ice cream truck near the Venice boardwalk, as Timberlake intones: “Revelation 6:8: ‘And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death’,” by way of an introduction to a character played by the unlikely horseperson of the Apocalypse, Cheri Oteri. Portraying the Neo-Marxist firebrand/comedian Zora Carmichaels, Oteri does occasionally play the role for laughs —her short frame in one scene needing to jump repeatedly in order to look out the peephole of her lair’s secure front door — but watching her as a revolutionary leader with several malignant double-crosses of her own sometimes strains credibility. This extends to others including Lovitz, in an effective if equally on-paper implausible turn from the former Tommy Flanagan.
In fairness, the Cannes cut does seem more bloated and even more inchoate than the comparatively more direct, pared-down revision. One absolutely superfluous role in the longer version is Janeane Garofalo’s General Teena MacArthur, whose primary contribution to the narrative is to stand around in military fatigues, looking cross; the revised cut gains much more than it loses from her absence. That said, there’s also a certain depth to the Cannes cut, luxuriating not just in the extended running time but also its sequencing, evincing a greater refusal to corral Kelly’s ideas into a more coherent, more easily digestible whole. After watching both cuts, we can call this disposition towards his work any number of things, but it certainly isn’t unintentional and I’d be hard-pressed to call it laziness.
And, in further fairness, there is much in both versions that simply don’t work as well as Kelly may have intended. The notion of a war effort sponsored by Hustler, its logo emblazoned on tanks, feels both farfetched and forced; the plot-critical Martin Kefauver (Lou Taylor Pucci) is a cipher, although no less intriguing for his mysteriousness; for all of Gellar’s best efforts, Krysta emerges as little more than a punchline delivery system, though Kelly has since spoken of her as more prophetic than he has rendered her cinematically; and the less said about cars and elephants fucking, the better. Fluid Karma is used as synecdoche for everything short of dessert toppings. The explosive climax also layers it on, with Christ imagery mysteriously emerging on Boxer like the Shroud of Turin and an anodyne professional voice over a P.A. announcing with stilted irony: “Have a nice Apocalypse.”
Kelly has left many aporia in his characters’ wakes, but they mostly made me sit up, take notice and ponder how they and we got from A to B — for instance, what happens to Boxer after he drives off with his convertible top down into a dubious Southern California downpour, only to appear later on Venice Beach, drinking a can of Bud Light still attached to its six-pack? We aren’t told. Kelly leaving so much to be interpreted by an audience also speaks to his trust of them, his unwillingness to lead them by a nose ring, making Southland Tales, among its many other strengths, one of the most uncompromising American films to emerge this century, though it’s rarely recognized much less celebrated for this quality.
I keep returning to that final party scene in the PX (and, hopefully, you’re no longer concerned about the lack of spoiler alerts here), which saves one of the biggest WTF moments in the film for last: Pilot Abilene refers to Pt. Ronald Tavener as “my best friend” — the two characters never meet once in the film, much less discuss one another. It’s inconceivable Kelly just happened to miss this connection between two of his major characters and it’s led me to one interpretation of Southland Tales I have yet to read anywhere: that what we have just watched is the inebriated fantasy of a wasted war vet, trying to make sense of the zeitgeist while dancing with his friends to the music of his times.
Abilene’s reveal does privilege the Taveners’ dual role, which solidifies into something like a moral center for the film and highlights what is, for me, its greatest, unlikeliest performance from Stifler himself, Seann William Scott. The dude-iest of actors from American Pie, Road Trip and other infinitely more superficial, bro-centric comedies, Scott realizes a stoic gravity never seen before or since, though his subsequent career including the Goon films has shown a flickering ambition you might have been forgiven for thinking he’d never aspire to. Southland Tales is never more serious, anchored or searching than in its scenes with Scott, who also works unusually well with himself.
The achievement of Southland Tales is undeniable and the experience of watching either version is truly incomparable. I could conjecture more and, trust me, so could you. Before I do, I have three graphic novels to obsessively consume first.
James Keepnews’ writing has appeared in Chronogram, Pacific Sun Magazine, New Haven Advocate and other publications. His previous piece for Story Screen Beacon was “Archives and Morals: Jean-Luc Godard and the Boundless Provocations of The Image Book”