So, Richard Kelly has a new movie coming out. Entitled The Box, it’s based on a Twilight Zone episode written by Richard Matheson, which is in turn based on a short story, also written by Richard Matheson. And I’m pretty sure there’s an entire article in Matheson’s impact on the screen arts, but this isn’t that article.
This is an article about Megazeppelins and the men who crash them. This is an article about Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales.
Kelly is probably (actually, there’s no probably about it) best known for Donnie Darko. The cult of Donnie Darko seems to me to have as much to do with what it’s not as it does with that it is. Marketed and packaged like a typical teen slasher, Donnie Darko was instead a curious, (often overly-) intellectual ‘burb-noir tone poem of a movie, full of ideas, twists and structural challenges. The fact that most of these elements remain unresolved actually helped it work as a horror film, and as a film about adolescence.
That tendency toward fray and periphery is apparent again in Kelly’s script for Tony Scott’s supersaturated can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-subplots true fiction biopic Domino.
But Southland Tales goes further. Southland Tales is urban sprawl in screenplay form. It’s all crescents and culs-de-sac, industrial parks and highway overpasses. It stretches to the smoggy horizon. It doesn’t lack ambition, just coherence.
Now, I’m not big on the auteur theory of filmmaking, but I’m willing to call this film “Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales” in all instances. Kelly wrote and directed it, and carved three prequel graphic novel scripts out of his initial screenplay as well, only one of which was actually produced to the best of my knowledge (Carol?). In addition, the film’s official website was to be one of the largest and most elaborate ever designed for a feature film. Kelly described the film and graphic novels as “work[ing] in tandem with the website, creating a more epic multimedia experience for those interested in taking the plunge.” You can see for yourself how that worked out.
So, what is Southland Tales about?
What follows are the notes – keywords and sentences – that I jotted down the day after watching Southland Tales, in an effort to understand its rococo plot so that I could talk to people about it. Because I had to share that baffling experience. Unedited, here they are:
Wallace Shawn owns it when he’s not making out with Bai Ling
Bible-quoting voiceover by Justin Timberlake doesn’t clarify – then he gets a musical sequence (might be an hallucination) – spends most of his time sitting in a gun turret on top of the Santa Monica pier.
Sean William Scott is twins (maybe)
Sarah Michelle Gellar is a porn star trying to launch her new energy drink and host her reality chat show
She’s sleeping with The Rock – son-in-law of a presidential candidate – married to Mandy Moore. He and SMG wrote a screenplay that seems to be predicting the future.
The Rock has amnesia
There may be a space/time rift in the desert
Plot by “neo Marxists” to upset the presidential election by faking the deaths of a couple of spoken word poets
BUT they don’t count on badass racist cop Jon Lovitz showing up.
Christopher Lambert sells guns out of an ice cream truck
John Larroquette tries to negotiate with the neo Marxists.
Subplot with Wallace Shawn and the prime minister of Japan
Justin Timberlake is smuggling drugs – which are also Wallace Shawn’s energy source – trading for weed from the son of his plastic surgeon. Right – Wallace Shawn has a new form of energy – powers the megazeppelin.
Meanwhile, there’s some sort of a big-brother internet monitoring thing set up, which seems to employ a lot of dwarves. We see them doing calisthenics a lot.
Dance sequence with SMG, The Rock and Mandy Moore.
Backstory: Nuclear terrorist attacks in Texas – making CA the deciding state in presidential elections.
Inasmuch as the film has a structure, it’s structured as a countdown to the launch of Wallace Shawn’s Megazeppelin, the proof-of-concept of his revolutionary energy technology named (unironically, I think) Fluid Karma. As my notes above point out, Fluid Karma is also a drug (we’re addicted to energy, get it?), one of many metaphors that mean very little and many plots that lead precisely nowhere. It’s at once thuddingly obvious and maddeningly opaque; it’s not hard to decipher what things are meant to mean to us outside the movie, but within the context of Southland Tales, meaning and resolution are precious commodities.
So I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that the Megazeppelin eventually goes down in flames. Or that the film seems to attach both great significance and no significance to its destruction.
Because, despite its repeated invocation/inversion of T.S. Elliot’s “The Hollow Men”, this is not a film in which the world ends. It’s a film in which the world goes on, messily and humanly, with no central narrative. As I said above, Southland Tales is cinematic urban sprawl, so far from its own core that it has its own zip code, probably its own time zone. No one calls it home, but everyone lives there.
Ian Driscoll got Soul but he’s not a Soldier.