PART 2: American Burlesque
“What’s it all about?”
While the section before detailed just one aspect of Richard Kelly’s aesthetic drives for Southland Tales, this part will explore the film’s dramatic style and tone. One of the frequent accusations levied against this film is that it is jarring and tonally inconsistent: a comedy that isn’t really funny, a drama that isn’t really dramatic, a science-fiction fantasy that has little of either. Yet the problem seems more that critics have been categorizing it according to genre rather than style. Indeed, some of the more bizarre and abstract qualities of Southland Tales come into stark focus when contextualised as a satirical and farcical burlesque.
Kelly’s film is a brilliant send-up of everyone and everything American. One of the first targets in his sights is the military industrial complex.
Kelly’s satirical send-up of America’s increasing military presence begins with Justin Timberlake’s character, Pilot Abilene. An Iraq war veteran on deployment, Pilot is not in Iraq but the Southland of America—Kelly’s reflection of the encroaching police state, where soldiers patrol the streets with machine guns, and tanks sponsored by Hustler roll down the streets of LA. It’s all ridiculous, but only half as much as the real military-industrial complex.
Kelly’s not done with this scene however; he also turns his satiric gaze to America’s overwhelming religiosity. While he’s sitting in a Gatling turret, Pilot’s also reading a bible with the measured speed of someone who knows each word by heart. But he’s not just reading any verse, it’s the Book of Revelation, St. John of Patmos’ sprawling psychedelic romp through the Apocalypse. A prophetic allusion to the fall of Rome, the Book of Revelation is transposed by Kelly onto his own decadent Empire, suggesting an uneasy parallel between the two great civilizations, if only for their similar trajectories. This is Kelly’s skewed vision of his nation’s Armageddon committed to film, and in the vein of all true burlesque nothing is sacred.
Under the influence of potent hallucinogens, Pilot spouts his own prophetic vision of the apocalypse, and he’s going to use the immortal words of The Killers to do so. Kelly takes care to frame the experience as a divine, transcendental one; Pilot claims beforehand to witness angels on his drug trips. Veins flooded with the “elixir of god”, Pilot leads us on one of the most unusual and bizarre scenes in the film, an extended montage of Justin Timberlake/Pilot lip-synching to The Killers’ “All These Things that I have Done”, while a chorus line of Marilyn Monroe look-alikes parade around him in skimpy, fetishistic nurse uniforms. “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier,” he recites like a hymn, a jarring clash with our initial introduction to the character and a loaded metaphor for all soldiers serving overseas. Is this Kelly’s suggestion that the America which bills itself as a Christian Nation is at incompatible odds with the military Empire they were slowly becoming? Pilot speaks but another’s voice is heard, on that sings the anthem of America’s fall. The voice of the soldier is on the backburner and you, America, are “gonna bring yourself down”. This is Kelly’s Book of Revelation, foretelling the death-knell of contemporary America. Pray he got it wrong.
Locked in his throne of death for most of the film, Pilot is a figure borrowed almost directly from the Book of Revelation, the One who sits on the Throne. Look as he makes all things new. But he’s not the messianic figure, rather he fulfills the role of prophet and unwitting disciple of the film. His role echoes Tiresias, the blind prophet of Greek mythology mentioned in Eliot’s The Waste Land:
And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.
Pilot’s drug induced dreams are his prophecies, and the Southland is his city of the dead. Rome is burning. These are Southland tales as much as they are shadowy reflections of our own.
The music sequence is much more than a crass excuse to get Timberlake singing, indeed he doesn’t utter a lyric. Rather, the tone is infused with the spirit of burlesque. Not to be confused with more contemporary examples of the chorus-line pageantry of American burlesque (and least of all that crass and derisible film) burlesque was a style derived from the Italian word burlesco, meaning to ‘joke’ or ‘ridicule’ and though it traces back to Elizabethan drama, the style failed to gain much traction other than as a side-show amusement in the grander plot (see the Bottom and his company’s dramatic interludes in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). That is until John Gay dipped his quill into the generic ink, churning out a string of hits like The What d’ye Call it (1715), Three Hours After Marriage (1717) but it wasn’t until he penned his 1728 masterpiece The Beggar’s Opera, that the genre became cemented in the theatrical lexicon. Nowadays we have smash-hits like Spamalot to remind us of what made the genre so popular among artists and audiences alike. Like Kelly’s film, Gay’s ballad opera also met with poor reviews, one going so far as to accuse Gay of libel, so perhaps Kelly was let off easy (despite all the negative criticism his film inspired). And while Kelly’s film was ignobly dumped from theatres after only a few short weeks, it would be nonetheless shuffled onto DVD only months after. Gay’s opera, meanwhile, was banned for more than fifty years. What was so licentious about Gay’s work that it warranted such venom? It’s political satire of course, which Kelly’s film shares in abundance.
Instances of political satire abound in the abundant burlesque newscast interludes which rival Shakespeare’s best episodes. Sequences bombard us with splashy news infographic such that one might find on The Situation Report with Wolf Blitzer, or the menu screen of a Command & Conquer game—players in the conflict (entire nation states) listed as though they were teams in a sports match. This stunningly condensed approximation of history brought to you by the kind folks at Panasonic, Bud Light and Hustler. The propaganda is thrown at the viewer with all the same pep and gusto as a WWE match card—the characters are only one flipped number away from spelling just that.
In another news interlude images coagulate and interpose on one another, intertextuality for the digital age, as a 1950s B&W documentary about a US atomic weapons program is overlaid by a flashy title card, while in the background the channels flip all the way up to 1070. The logo at the bottom proudly proclaims the service to be provided by the awkward-to-pronounce and incoherent mash-up neologism USIDentelevision, a cogent metaphor for the film itself. The anonymous user widens the screen on channel 1069 just as another atomic blast whites-out the screen of the documentary. Kelly certainly has a thing for the power.
Kelly even uses that interlude as a metaphor for his film. When Krysta Now’s newscast runs the ticker tape infomatic right to left only to have the issues stream left to right an awkward mishmash of information ensues. The information flowing at cross-purposes is as jarring as it is overwhelming—just as the film itself is. The top ticker tape is a parade of hot-button topics packaged and ready for consumption by the LCD, where issues like “Quantum Teleportation” and “Terrorism” jostle for position alongside “Teen Horniness” and “Abortion”. All of the issues to be addressed in turn by Krista Now’s panel of esteemed Malibu commentators, Shoshana Cox, Sheena Gee, and Deena Storm. Before the audience has a chance to wonder if this is the cast of a porno, Krista Now confirms it. Unlike the sex-tape releasing deniers of our reality, in Kelly’s world these women at least have the gumption to call a spade a spade (and a hoe a hoe). They never do get to those aforementioned issues though, instead getting sidetracked by more pressing topics: the acceptable severity of intercourse, and the role of violence in porn. Just as the film seems to keep getting sidetracked, the scene itself gets sidetracked by Krista’s arrival, prompting Will Sasso’s character Fortunio to sarcastically quip “Great social changes are impossible without feminine upheaval”—who knew pimps read Marx?
Kelly’s sarcasm is also his fodder for irony, for we soon realize it is women who hold the true power in this film, while all the men dance like puppets on their tangled strings. In some cases metaphorically, such as the skillful machinations of Nana Mae, in others quite literally—a man convulsing after Deep Throat 2 tasers a man’s testicles comes to mind. Kelly enjoys the gag so much he even repeats it.
When Kelly turns his caustic lens to people, he sends his film into the trajectory of farce. Derived from the Latin farcire, “to stuff”, Kelly’s film overflows with visuals, characters, story lines, myth lines, plot lines; it’s a bit much to take in on your first date. But if you want the birth of the 21st century in all its chaotic and contradictory glory, this is the film to watch.
Originating in French liturgical dramas of the Middle Ages, farce was usually short, lyrical gags meant to mock and ridicule foibles and vices of everyday life. Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, perhaps the most well-known English farce of the late 14th century, employs the style to mock courtly virtue, turning it into a bawdy affair by transposing the tenets of chivalry literally and metaphorically onto the bodies of its tangled threesome, using the fetishism of the female to mock the trope of the hopelessly infatuated lover. The brilliantly composed scene has the newly cuckolded husband ascending the lofty heights of his ramshackle barn to plant his lips on his wife’s tender flesh, blind to the fact that what he supposes to be the opening of her mouth is an opening of someplace else, but he’s aware soon enough when she blows him a nasty flatulent kiss. Though Kelly doesn’t aim quite so lofty as fart jokes (his loss, really, and perhaps the only thing this film doesn’t have), he does include one moment of scatological humour, when Amy Poehler and Wood Harris discuss the sinfulness of bowel movements. They’re referring to an off-the-cuff remark by Roland, who admits to not having had one in almost a week, 6 days in fact, for you biblical scholars to get interested.
Farce is intended to provoke wide emotion, not subtle gesture. Looney Tunes logic: you don’t just hit a coyote with a rock, you don’t shoot him till he’s down, you don’t even crush him with a car. No, first you drop an anvil on his head, wait until he crawls out from under it, and then you blow him up—with his own bomb no less. Part VI, “the Wave of Mutilation”, bears testament to this. Kelly stuffs the panoply of America onto the empyrean blimp and sends it all up with a mighty blast of an RPG to that Fluid Karma fueled lead zeppelin.
The incendiary apocalypse of the film’s conclusion is Kelly’s answer to the problem of the whole wide world. Strains of Bowie come echoing in my ear, “Set it on fire with gasoline”. But of course Kelly doesn’t do just that. If he did then there would be nothing left to say—the film would be an incoherent slog of effulgent nihilism, though there’s certainly that, as the most banal of critics have observed—but Kelly shows us the apocalypse. From the Greek apocalypsis, meaning “to uncover”, the term denotes more a revelation than it does is a complete termination. It’s the threshold into a new passage of existence, a literal and metaphorical unveiling, not coincidentally featured in the Bible as burning light; Kelly’s blinding finale revealed.
Kelly’s rambunctious spirit for mockery also places the film within the pantheon of the anti-masque. An invention of Ben Jonson in 1609, an anti-masque was meant to be shown before the court masque as a satirical send-up of its themes and characters. Kelly’s film, similarly, is a madcap satire of science-fiction, action, the entire cinema itself. It’s like a Greek satyr play on CGI steroids. Perhaps Kelly should have considered beginning his film with just such a piece? But if the anti-masque is meant to come before the show, what’s Kelly doing presenting his over a century after the show started? Well unlike the characters in the film, Kelly doesn’t have a time machine (so far as we know, though certain predictions suggest otherwise), and you can’t very well send-up something that hasn’t come before.
Authors of court masques didn’t have this problem because they drew their inspiration from the mythologies of the Greeks and Romans, a venerable and respected neoclassical tradition of Hellenism going back centuries. The figures portrayed in the court masque would be known to any self-respecting theatre goer (nevermind that the theatre was the court in the opulent palaces of the aristocracy), though heaven forefend one should ever admit to not understanding a reference. It’s a sad fact of our modern culture that not only is such ignorance of cinema’s own allusions accepted but that the ignorant are given a celebrated platform from which to imprudently cry their idiocy. The problem, it seems, is that Kelly played it for the wrong audience. But what is past is prologue. Let it now serve as it was originally intended, as an anti-masque. Eight years after its now legendary implosion at the Cannes Film Festival let this incendiary tale of American Armageddon sweep away all expectations of American cinema that has come before. Let it stand as the shining prologue to the new cinema, as Hollywood turns to its own rich history of figures for inspiration just as the Greek-loving classicists of yore did to shape them to the demands of their modern aesthetics.
Don’t forget, this is only part two of my five-part series. Chase the rabbit: “Part 3: Down the Rabbit Hole: Text and Hypertext In Southland Tales”.
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