This five-part essay is intended to disabuse the record of two notions:
1) That Southland Tales is anything less than a staggering, singular work of genius; one that provides cinema with its closest response to T.S. Eliot’s epic The Waste Land.
2) That despite what director Richard Kelly may publicly state in interviews, this film is anything but “cut and dried”
Part 1: “Pimps don’t commit suicide”: Surrealism and the Formation of Identity in Southland Tales
Surrealism, although a special part of its function is to examine with a critical eye the notions of reality and unreality, reason and irrationality, reflection and impulse, knowledge and “fatal” ignorance, usefulness and uselessness, is analogous at least in one respect with historical materialism in that it too tends to take as its point of departure the “colossal abortion” of the Hegelian system. It seems impossible to me to assign any limitations –economic limitations, for instance—to the exercise of a thought finally made tractable to negation, and to the negation of negation. How can one accept the fact that the dialectical method can only be validly applied to the solution of social problems? The entire aim of Surrealism is to supply it with practical possibilities in no way competitive in the most immediate realm of consciousness.
—Albert Breton, The Second Surrealist Manifesto (1929)
The questions which Breton grappled with in his writings are the same which Richard Kelly explores in his 2006 film Southland Tales. The notions of what distinguishes real from imaginary, truth from fiction, and what can be known from the unknowable is explored through Kelly’s labyrinthine vision of an American Apocalypse. Constrained only by the Hollywood system, not by his boundless imagination, Kelly’s pragmatism addresses fundamental and ostensibly disparate issues of society and culture, from the right to privacy to the limits of sexuality. Using the logic of the surreal to reflect and comment on the real, Kelly’s film is an unrivaled, unbridled romp through an American wasteland. Set a few years after a devastating nuclear attack on America, the film explores the metaphorical fallout of the blast on American culture, in the process pointing an unwavering mirror to the scarred psyche of contemporary America. Existing in a plane of reality just a few degrees off from normal, Southland Tales is a tour de force of surrealism reconfigured for the 21st century.
Intended as a reaction against the decadent idealism of 19th century German philosophers, Surrealism flourished in the early 20th century as an artistic mode of expression that sought to bridge the gap between the conscious and unconscious spheres. In his 1929 Second Surrealist Manifesto, Breton defined Surrealism as “[p]sychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought.” The expression of thought was only a small part of the manifesto however, it was the understanding of thought, both unconscious and conscious that preoccupied the surrealists. The goal became “studying […] the most complex mechanism of all, ‘inspiration’,” so that artists might “mak[e] it submit to them.” In the tradition of the great surrealist French poets then, Kelly tears down the barrier between his unconscious and conscious mind and floods cinema with a deluge of possibilities. Like the great surrealist painters before him, Kelly stirs truth with fiction, the sublime with the mundane, stretches the narrative confines of the cinematic canvas and sets it all down on the celluloid frame for all to see.
Breton went on to explain that surrealism was “[d]ictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” The sentiment fits Kelly’s cinema like a key to one of the most seemingly obtuse locks ever to grace the screen. Kelly’s film is infused with the spark of the marvelous such that only Ron Cobb (of Alien fame) and others could help dream up. Though he may fumble the execution, Kelly is nonetheless attempting to grasp something of that transcendental beauty he only briefly hinted at his debut film, Donnie Darko.
Kelly uses this surrealism to explore the question of identity in a way not seen since the avant-garde genius of David Lynch. Kelly presents a pantheon of characters all looking to be somebodies, all the while trying to figure out who those somebody’s might be. In the process, he asks us to consider how we can truly know who we imagine ourselves to be. And, more confusingly, whether the people we think ourselves to be are in fact who we really are, or will be. It’s a confounding question, and Kelly eventually needs quantum mechanics, time travel, two Sean William Scott’s and two of the Rock just to reason it out.
Kelly’s first exploration into identity comes with the film’s surreal introduction of Roland. Gazing through the looking glass, Roland notices, as the audience quickly does, that the reflection doesn’t synch up with his real-life counterpart. A visual mind-fuck wrapped around a tangled cluster of evocative symbolism: these people are not what they seem; they are at one-step removed from their persona. David Lynch would toy with the notion of reality in Mulholland Drive, as the announcer at Club Silencio blatantly informs us: “Everything is an illusion”. So too in this film, nothing is what it appears. Identity in this scene is configured as a mode of self-perception, a sort of literal Lacanian mirror-stage. But as Lacan warns us, this process of self-identification leads to the creation of the imago, or Gestalt (the sum of being in totality), the complete individual which we as spectators invest with cathectic energy. We strive to attain that mirror image, if only because it approximates what we imagine ourselves to be. But since it’s only a reflection, and not the original self, incorporating this other self within the original self is impossible. Like the time lag between Roland’s self and his mirror projection, appearances in this film, as they do in life, never quite reveal truth.
In making this statement, Kelly’s also inviting us through the looking glass, just as he tantalized with his debut film, Donnie Darko. And just as he did before with that film’s uncompromising story-line, he’s going to bring us kicking and screaming if he has to. Like Roland, we’re held hostage by a Neo-Marxist revolutionary, and we’re drugged into acquiescence by the hypnotic structure of the film, just as we are in any surrealist fantasy.
Ironically, for all this surrealism, the film begins straight forward enough with two children filming themselves in a mirror, a visual echo to Roland’s introductory scene, as it will be for Boxer (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). In this first shot of the film, Kelly crams his composition with information both literal and symbolic. The shot introduces many of the themes that play throughout his film, from the question of identity and selfhood, to the notion of surveillance and voyeurism. These children film themselves as an extension of their personalities. They are the type who film, just as we are the type who watch. They invite us into their personal space, their Independence Day celebration, just as we will later force ourselves into the other celebration aboard the blimp with an extended tracking shot. It’s no coincidence the party is run by the NSA, who take surveillance in this film to the level of voyeurism.
Everyone in this film seems to be filming everyone. Boxer’s character carries around a digital camera for the first half of the movie, research for a film he hopes to make. The film within a film eventually takes over Kelly’s own, leading the audience to question whether Kelly’s really in control of his own film. It’s as if the film itself is suffering from an identity crisis, just as Boxer and Roland are.
Boxer’s character fluctuates wildly from scene to scene, in one moment he is The Rock, movie star god; the next, a blathering idiot. Like the great vacillators before him, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Fellini’s Guido, Boxer can’t decide on a single plot line for his film perhaps because he can’t decide on a single person he wants to be. Is he Jericho or is he Boxer? The same logic applies to the whole movie. Just what exactly does it want to be? Is it a satire or an action film? A comedy or a tragedy? The answer is all and none, it’s the Waste Land, where reproduction trades freely with authenticity, and nothing is truly what it seems.
“Let’s talk about your film,” one of the character’s asks Boxer, “what’s it really about?” It’s no coincidence that the explanation changes every time.
On the subject of Boxer’s first monologue, his film pitch: it’s total nonsense delivered with the dramatic flair of a pastor to his congregation, reinforced by Krysta’s ridiculous line “But the New York Times said that God is dead.” A sentiment espoused by Nietzsche in his philosophical treatise The Gay Science, but let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who. In response to the growing rise of Evangelical preaching in America, Kelly installs Boxer and Krysta as prophets, with all the pseudo-profundity that entails. This is Kelly giving his audience permission to laugh at the surrealism, if only to keep from crying at how closely it mimics reality.
In his search for selfhood, and suffering from time-travel induced amnesia, Boxer begins acting out his own script as lead character Jericho. The fabricated scenario takes the place of his own memory. On his quest to recover his identity, he receives an anonymous call from an NSA voyeur, Starla. “Through the looking glass you’ll find what you’re looking for,” she tells Boxer/Jericho. Suddenly all the pieces start falling into place and all the time spent gazing into mirror throughout this film is drawn into stark definition.
We soon find out that Roland’s Gestalt is literally manifested as another version of himself, only from a past time. The same is true of Boxer (The Rock). Both men suffer from amnesia, their bodies separated from their selves. Both men are introduced gazing at their respective reflections in mirrors, both seeking a reconciliation between their bodies and their Ideal-I’s.
Though Boxer scours the Southland searching for his self, he attains his identity by looking within himself. γνῶθι σεαυτόν, know thyself. Boxer’s discovery of self renders down to a simple axiom. How does he know who he is and whether he’s the type to commit suicide? Because he’s a pimp, “and pimps don’t commit suicide.” You have to laugh at the insanity of it all, but then you can’t help marveling at its sophisticatedly simple ingenuity.
At one point during his research Boxer asks what the audience must no doubt be wondering as well, “What are we doing here?” Roland replies that “[t]o be honest we’re just looking out for the niggers.” The remark prompts Boxer (noticeably not Caucasian) to remove his sunglasses, break character and deliver a trademarked The Rock stare©. “I’m just fucking with you man,” Roland says after a pause. Is it perhaps also Kelly’s confession to his audience? Honesty tinged with humour, truth imbedded in falsity; it’s cinema in a nutshell.
Are the characters realistic portrayals or mere stock characters? Are the actors acting as their characters, or acting as themselves? Persona, imago, or id? Are they one and the same?
Roland is playing a cop, just as Sean William Scott is playing Roland. Does Kelly want us to take the recursion one step further and ask if someone is playing Scott? Is he the mask of celebrity he presents to us through the gaudy lens of Hollywood tinselstry? Or is he really someone else?
The casting of Justin Timberlake, at that period of his career, encapsulates these questions. Shooting constraints and time commitments meant that Kelly would only have access to the actor for a single day. Why take the risk and the pressure unless he needed Timberlake for the role? Kelly no doubt traded in the pop star’s Disney roots and boy band success. But then, some people asked, why go to all the trouble of getting a pretty face if you’re just going to bury it under scars? It was trade-in, not a cash-in. Kelly used Timberlake, and everything his celebrity entailed at that time and tore it all to pieces. But who’s image are we watching? Though he still sings, this Timberlake swears, shoots up and has a face scarred by war. There are no fresh-faced youths anymore. The parallel universe of Southland Tales corresponds with our own, since in both a war left scars on all of us, not solely on our flesh. Just as the Southland represents the splintered memory of an America torn to pieces, we’re still recovering from the aftermath, and we will be for the rest of our lives. The memory and our perception of the tragedy remains with us. Kelly’s film transposes this memory into a physical presence—Boxer’s dual self, whom he confronts in the finale. The familiar visual of The Rock, turned surreal by placing him in a death-like pose, sealed inside a futuristic coffin, with the right side of his face burned away is an uneasy reminder of the countless soldiers who returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan under similar circumstances. We are not who we once were, we never shall be again. Kelly turns the looking glass back on us, and invites us to see something of our world projected (not merely reflected) in it.
“Do you ever feel like there’s a thousand people locked inside of you?” Boxer asks Roland at one point. “Sometimes,” he replies. “But it’s your memory that keeps them glued together,” Boxer offers, “Keeps all those people from fighting one another.”
Boxer could just as easily be referring to Kelly at this point, juggling a thousand and one characters through all their manifold instantiations. These are deep thoughts treated through The Rock’s performance with all the pseudo-profundity of a Deepak Chopra impersonation, though that seems more Kelly’s satirical point than his creative problem.
There can be no doubt that Kelly’s film holds more than a passing influence to the French surrealist movement, that off-shoot of Dadaism. Reeling from the horrors of the First World War, the only response of these French poets of the 1920s was to compose nonsense verse. Such was the only way to give structure to the nonsense they had witnessed, as it seems to be for Kelly, an American reeling from the horrors of 9/11 and his country’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. Confronted with this world devoid of sense, the only measure of understanding Kelly could offer was this film.
In an interview with Abraham Reisman, Kelly explained his intention behind Southland Tales: “The whole film was my long-simmering response to 9/11 and response to the anxiety of terror and the terrorist threat, and trying to make a big piece of satire that would be comfort food in light of the terrorist threat. That’s what the film is intended to be for people.”
But what is this film? It’s a question critics and audiences have grappled with since its now legendary debut at Cannes in the spring of 2006. Amid the vitriol and confusion, everyone seemed to be nonetheless asking the same question. What the hell is it?
It’s an allegorical, metaphorical, symbolic masterpiece; a modern cinematic rendition of the Death and Resurrection, with the Book of Revelation as its geomatrical blueprint.
It’s Kelly’s nonsense world, where somehow Karl Marx is a German philosopher, and the pilgrims landed a century prior.
It’s Kelly’s not so lopsided view askew of a nation where NSA officers order citizens killed without moral impunity not just because of their political leanings but because they’re offended by their foul language.
It’s his equally scathing critique of modern culture, in which the most romantic dialogue is delivered by Jon Lovitz (of all people) as a choice between two options: “Fuck, or watch a movie?” Both equally sensible.
Filled with excursus, the film might be better served retitled Excursion. But excursion into what? Into nonsense—not no sense, but rather anti-sense. Like a mythical drop of celluloid anti-matter. It’s perhaps no coincidence then that this film imploded in the culture. It’s exergasia at its most maddening.
The film is anti-film. Just as in the tradition of the anti-novel, Kelly isn’t interested in achieving any kind of naturalism. There are countless other films like that, why bother making yet another? This is experimentation on a grand scale, filled with all the usual trappings of an anti-text: lack of an obvious plot, variations in time sequence and a chaotic lack of narrative structure. Missing its entire unfilmed first half (available as graphic novels for the curious few), and notoriously hacked to bits after its disastrous debut, it’s difficult to tell which lapses in narrative are Kelly’s intention or jarring impositions. Regardless, it all works in a surrealist way. His bold style of anti-story (configured as a career-ender by most critics) allows his work to enter the pantheon of other classic anti-texts such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. It’s stream of consciousness at its most absurd, direct from the filmmaker’s mind to the celluloid image.
Take for instance the scene where officer Bookman (Jon Lovitz) murders both Poehler and Harris’s characters for assaulting him with inane beat poetry. Next he turns to shoot Boxer, not with a gun but with a camera. Scarred out of his wits, driven insensible by the sight, Boxer runs out of the house, and out of frame. He nonetheless catches Kelly’s meta-diegetic camera just outside, just in time to deliver a stream of nonsense Dadaist babble. It’s another of Kelly’s winks to the audience. This is stream of consciousness rambling, and it’s suitably incoherent.
Or is it incoherent?
Speaking with Reisman, Kelly was quoted as believing his film was “cut-and-dried”. The statement is arguable. It’s not that the film is incoherent as most critics claim, nor is it intentionally illogical, it’s simply operating on Richard Kelly’s logic, a man who knows his material backwards and forwards and sometimes seems to forget which direction he’s shown it to you. Though Kelly may consider the story “cut-and-dried”, there’s no such thing when you’re treading on the Machiavellian. You can’t point a mirror at the scarred visage of America and expect everyone to see as you do. But then maybe Kelly was expecting that, mapping post-9/11 anxiety of what America was quickly becoming onto an existential search for self; the confusion of the main characters over who they are and what they’re becoming echoing those of contemporary America.
In no short way, the film is an avant-garde creation, a glorious validation of by-gone fixation with nonsense. And unfortunately for Kelly and his film, as it is for all advanced guards, they were first to face the fire. They faced it twice for also having the gall to be so revolutionary. That Kelly has managed to limp back from the frontlines and survived to fight another day is all the more testament to his skill. But like all shell-shocked veterans, he seems to have never fully recovered from the ordeal. Here’s hoping that the top-brass come to see what he managed to do with this film before they unceremoniously dump this upstart revolutionary in front of a firing squad once again. Make no mistake, Kelly accomplished the cinematic equivalent of throwing himself on a grenade so that he might shield you from the banality of cinema’s fast encroaching future. He may have lobbed another grenade in the process, but let’s not demean the original sentiment.
Don’t forget, this is only part one of my five-part series. Keep this chorus line going: “Part 2: American Burlesque”.
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