Southland Tales – Ozymandian Mythopoeic Masterpiece?

March 9, 2008

I caught up with Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales recently on DVD. I was impressed with its ozymandian ambition, mythopoeic zest and crazed execution. The film has been unjustly criticised for its lack of logic and fragmented story line, thats partly missing the film’s point, the film itself is part of the fragmented world it portrays. Even so, some criticism of the films various plot lines may be valid. But the real ambitions of Kelly’s new project do not strive for coherent plot, but aim for a nightmare Lynchian like fever dream of an alternate (Kristal) Now.

Unlike many, I didn’t completely love Donnie Darko but I did find it a very impressive debut feature and an 80’s style mystery with Surrealist ambitions and spooky atmosphere. The director’s cut I thought was not as good as the original as it tried to explain the mystery and changed some cool music cue’s. Can you imagine David Lynch trying to explain in a new version of Lost Highway how the two main characters actually transform into each other? Anyway, Darko wet our appetite for more of Kelly’s urbane suburban surrealism and with Southland Tales here it is.

While I can’t outright call this film a masterpiece, as the it draws a long bow in its scope and ambition and does not always succeed in the achievement thereof, you have to seriously admire Kelly for attempting such a grandiose project and in part realizing it. The film has its forerunners in films like Strange Days and shows like Wild Palms and other LA set sci fi. Combining poetry from Robert Frost, an inversion of TS Eliot’s “whimper and not a bang” and a strong dose of quotes from The Book Of Revelation, Kelly weaves a fractured postmodern myth about the end of the world – Hell A style. The plot is convoluted at best about an action hero slash prophet Boxer Santoros (Dwayne Johnson) who writes a screenplay called that The Power, from which the film sort of unfolds. Set in an alternative ozymandian fascist state of the near now (2008), the story revolves around a mad scientist who invents a new power source based on the movement of the ocean and who secretly organises time travel experiments involving Boxer and ex soldier Ronald Taverner from a time rift created by his new technology. War is on going all over the Mid East after a nuclear bomb explodes in Texas but also strife is rife between the US based Neo-Marxist underground and the fascist police state. Various other plots intertwine with intrigues and diversions but I think the plot of Southland Tales is secondary to its dream scape world of porn stars, terrorism, violence, pop culture, fascism, movie culture, new technology, Neo-Marxism, musicals, the environmental crisis and of course, the Apocalypse.

Kelly explore his favorite theme of time travel again and creates an apocalyptic myth that resonates beyond its sometimes corn hole plot, producing the odd moment of true cinematic poetry and beauty. Kelly borrows from David Lynch the notion of the complete movie dreamscape and takes it on a bizarre pop culture youth trip. Music is used exceptionally well (like in Darko) to invoke ecstatic sequences of decadence, decline, melancholy and post modern emptiness. Not really science fiction, this film is set Now and even includes some shots of the filmmakers actually making the film and actors talking about tracking shots and the like, which is inspired.

Great sequences include: Justin Timberlake (who plays a facially deformed ex soldier wounded by comrade Ronald Taverner in friendly fire) lip syncing to The Killers covered in blood and surrounded by dancing Marilyn Monroe’s, a cool Neo Marxist riot in down town LA, bizarre religious sequences at the climax of the film involving a floating ice cream bus, time bubble, rocket launcher and a giant Zeppelin… and the pinnacle set piece Rebekah Del Rio (from Mulholland Drive) singing a perverted haunting strings version of the US national Anthem. Only thing that could top that is to have had porn star Vanessa Del Rio sing it, that would have been apt and even more perverse. Other highlights include an Oprah (or The View) style talk show hosted by porn stars Kristal Now and friends that discuss such high falutin’ subjects as teen horniness and anal, bumbling right wing politicians involved in intrigues and sex scandals and a savage portrait of the left wing activists of Venice beach.

The casting is classic using many comedians in semi serious roles, many cast against type. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is good as the bumbling slightly effeminate finger twitching Boxer, Sarah Michell Gellar steals her scenes as porn star Kristal Now with many classic lines and Sean William Scott is looking for more than his car in this movie ending up bringing about the end of the world when he meets his time travel self. Look out for Wallace Shawn, John Laroquette, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Lambert, Bai Ling, Mandy Moore, Miranda Richardson, Curtis Armstrong, Zelda Rubinstein and Kevin Smith all excellent in grotesque and outlandish supporting roles.

What is important in Kelly’s new film is its portrait of a Los Angeles dystopia – that is no science fiction. It uses comedy and satire to make its points within a mythological structure. It’s warnings about various forms of extremism and its vision of a time traveling Biblical apocalypse are feverish creations and prescient. Kelly has been involved also in a series of comics that provide background to the strange plot. I feel all things said Southland Tales succeeds on its ambitions of presenting a post modern day meditation on the Book of Revelation that is beautiful, young and Now in its portrayal of the present shared nightmare we call US reality. While it may be a flawed masterpiece, I can’t help feel it is something close to such a word through its sheer daring, poetic verve and ambition. It’s a welcome relief to the unthinking Hollywood pap we are generally served and it could age well as portrait of today.

Kelly is making a new film The Box now in post production.

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