2008: A Southland Odyssey (Part 3 of 5)

Part 3: Down the Rabbit Hole: Text and Hypertext In Southland Tales

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Cool Hand Luke

rock in mirror

Boxer’s body as a hypertextual array of religious iconography

Watching this film, I’m reminded of a stanza from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”:

This is the dead land

This is cactus land

Here the stone images

Are raised, here they receive

The supplication of a dead man’s hand

Under the twinkle of a fading star

Most critics thankfully picked up on Kelly’s use of Eliot in Pilot’s narration, but few, if any, took the time to explore the deeper significance of the association, nor indeed what the influence might mean for Kelly’s film as a whole.

Rather than mere borrowing, or artistic theft, Kelly’s efforts speak to a broader effort of the film to function as a living, breathing text, one that exists contemporaneously alongside the history it attempts to evoke and satirize. In order to do so, Kelly frequently relies on a mode of writing called intertexuality.

Intertextuality shapes the meaning of the source text through reference to another—homage of the most obvious degree. The act serves to import and invigorate the source text with the connotations of the referenced text. Watch a horror movie and it’s bound to reference Hitchcock at some point.

The danger with this practice is that intertextuality can substitute for originality. Rather than having anything meaningful to say, the text will simply refer to another to make the same point. It’s a difference between borrowing an idea and referencing an idea to make another—hypertext and intertext. This difference, according to Michael Riffaterre in his essay “Intertextuality vs. Hypertextuality”, is a distinction between a text and a work of literature. For while a simple text may reference another work, using that original point as a substitute for originality, the work of literature uses the reference to flesh out and provide nuance to the text’s idea.

In the case of Southland Tales, Kelly doesn’t simply borrow Eliot’s words, he uses them as semiotic signs to hypothesize, build, shape and, most importantly, provoke new meanings. “Intertextuality, then, depends on a system of difficulties to be reckoned with,” Riffaterre explains, “of limitations in our freedom of choice, of exclusions, since it is by renouncing incompatible associations within the text that we come to identify in the intertext their compatible counterparts”. That is to say, we begin to understand what is said through the process of eliminating what isn’t intended to be said. The challenge becomes leaving evidence of the sign’s insertion, so that it must be acknowledged by the viewer, yet leaving enough gaps that the linkages between ideas have room for ambiguity so as to allow for the construction of meaning. It’s like building a bridge over a chasm and leaving some of the planks out. The more ambitious the idea, the larger the gap it will create in the text which the intertextual sign must work to bridge. A skilled architect will know which steps to omit, and the enjoyment of the experience comes not only from the maker trusting you to make these intellectual leaps, but also from finding you’ve safely landed on the other side of the gap.

Compare this to the hypertextual world of American culture, a dense matrix of associations and coincidences. It’s a leap of intellectual faith and nothing to brace your fall. Intertextuality is the imposition of order on seeming chaos, it’s the safety net laid out to catch you, and the bridge to carry you across. It is, in so many ways, the function of a director: selecting faces, buildings, clothes and music from a world of sources. It presents a fully formed world (a Gestalt) replete with its own internal logic and connections.

This all sounds very abstract, I realize, seeming more like pseudo-intellectual slack for Kelly than it is a serious analysis of his work, but I’m going to get into specifically how Kelly uses intertexuality to fashion a glimpse of a proto-America. I’m going to suggest that instead of merely borrowing from Eliot, Kelly references the man’s work to critically evaluate American culture as Kelly saw it in 2005. Furthermore, I will argue that Kelly’s uses intertexuality to assemble an ambiguous vision of a new America.

apocalypse now

Pilot’s words mark one the audience’s first encounters with the film’s frequent intertextuality, “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a whimper but with a bang,” Kelly borrows from T.S. Eliot’s famous final stanza of his poem “The Hollow Men”. But that sly Kelly has inverted the last two verbs, a subtle gesture that he’s not simply keen to imitate Eliot’s work. If the lines sound familiar, you’ve probably heard Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz spout similar lines in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Kelly’s banking on both associations. He’s subtly prompting the audience to scrounge around in their brains to find some connective tissue between a film documenting the Apocalypse of the American Empire in Vietnam and Kelly’s own film about the consequences for the American nation following a barely-fictional war with various countries in the Middle East, and then to wonder how Eliot might factor into the mix.

Kelly’s not just throwing in the line to sound self-important. The poem is vital to his work. “We are the hollow men”, so the poem starts,“We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw”. The men of Kelly’s film are the Hollow men. Pilot and Boxer and Roland, the lost men, the dead men, they who “in this last of meeting places […] grope together / And avoid speech” as Eliot wrote in his poem. They are not alone, for Kelly sees America as the final resting place of all Hollow men:

Remember us—if at all—not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men.

The sentiment could be applied to the film as a whole.

More intertextuality in the very next scene reinforces the connection to Eliot’s poem.  “Boxer Santeros had returned from the desert with a case of amnesia, someone had gotten under his skin,” Pilot explains, before the shot lingers on a tattoo of Jesus writ large in the back of the man’s bronzed flesh (along with symbols of all other major world religions). The shot is also a reference to Boxer’s screenplay, whose character, Jericho Cain, features the same tattoo–an allusion which in itself requires deference to Kelly’s graphic novel prequel trilogy. Meanwhile, in another intertexual moment, Robert Aldrich’s 1955 atomic tour de force Kiss Me Deadly blasts in the background. For those keeping score at home, the film was a startlingly unfaithful and satirical adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel that traded crass detective pulp for cold-war paranoia of the bomb. This is not merely a hypertextual insertion on Kelly’s part, for in that film, just as in Kelly’s, one man’s life is irrevocably undone by the allure of a tantalizing blonde femme fatale, played in Kelly’s film by Sarah Michelle Gellar. Krysta Kapowski, who moments later goes by the name Krysta Now, and Boxer Santeros, watch the film, while the narration explains that “together they had written a screenplay that foretold the tale of our destruction”—sounds uncannily reminiscent of Kiss Me Deadly’s story, the first of many apocalyptic revelations in this film.

kiss me deadly DVD cover

Here we can see Kelly’s architectural genius on display. The intertext linkages call our attention to some grand themes circulating through the film. Nuclear war, Religion, Karma, Destiny. In order to traverse the towering ideas, Kelly tosses the viewer a single tether in this scene, Aldrich’s film, and expects you to make the leap over yourself.

The film’s intertextuality, the almost irreconcialable concepts I’ve just listed, allows the viewer to suggest their own alternative meanings of the events. In that scene for instance we have to wonder, in light of the intertexual reference, are these “prophetic” characters really divinely inspired or merely impressionable Netflix abusers? Kelly never answers, partly because uncertainty over the extent of the media’s power to influence seems to be his point.

In another example, Texas becomes an “American Hiroshima”. It’s not simply Kelly’s lazy title, it harkens back to a whole panoply of issues, ranging from American hegemony (first they bomb the Hiroshima and now they claim the tragedy as their own), to the reductionary spin tactics of the media, with its catchy “gotcha” headlines (to quote Sarah Palin). It also forces the viewer to ask why Texas, of all places? Who knows, that’s why, it showed up as a rumour on the almighty internet somewhere, it might as well be true; another of Kelly’s obscure indictments. From here on out, Kelly warns, the satire is going to come hot and heavy, so you had better be ready.

Sure enough, we’re immediately assaulted with a dizzying presentation of facts as media jumble and combine, overlap and interfere with one another—a statement of the film as a whole. Kelly also uses collage for another purpose, to replicate the illusory authenticity of media, so that he can expose it for all its manipulations.

Kelly plays with these signs to satirize, reforming old materials into new statements. He’s making the new world by tearing the face off the old one. In the process, he creates a world not so far off from our own, where, for example, the most successful porn star named Krysta in the business can become a media mogul with ambitions for her own fashion and jewelry line. Kelly wasn’t just being contemporary by having a character named Krysta Now represent the unholy trinity of Paris Hilton, Arianna Huffington and Jenna Jameson.

Kelly’s patching together a tapestry of American history, and he’s collecting all the fragments he can, no matter what their source. His attempt at mosaic recalls such hallowed efforts as those by Walt Whitman, for the film is large, and contains multitudes. (Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself). Southland Tales is Kelly’s Leaves of Grass, each character a new blade in the rich soil of contemporary American history. But unlike Whitman’s vision of “the battle-fields of the earth,” where “grass grows upon them and blossoms and corn” (“Salut au Monde!”), Kelly’s America borrows more from Eliot’s The Waste Land, a “dead land” held in the clutch of a proverbial winter of the spirit. Kelly’s America is in non-stop crisis, every available moment of the film packed with pronouncements of doom by the media, a parallel to the real-world.

Intertextuality takes on a hyper-meta level of meaning when characters in the movie begin acting out scenes from Boxer and Kysta’s script. We are told by Pilot that “Starla’s romantic obsession [with Boxer’s screenplay] had lead to a spiritual transformation”; she too begins to live according to a character in a script, just as Boxer does. When he agrees to meet Starla at the pier, it leads to a bizarre exchange that ends with her death. She warned him beforehand in a line taken directly from his script that it wasn’t safe, that they were being watched. One coincidental intercession by Pilot and Boxer’s script turns prophecy. With that well-timed shot by Pilot diegetic reality and diegetic fantasy collapse in upon each other. From that point on we’re as confused as Boxer about what’s real and what’s illusion. Is this all Boxer’s elaborate fantasy? A self-reinforcing delusion? Or is it the real? Did Boxer’s script possibly get it right?  Or have his late nights watching Kiss Me Deadly rotted his brain? Has that film’s red menace and atom bomb fear been transposed into NSA surveillance, the modern day boogey man? Is that why the film features a snippet of Kiss Me Deadly’s apocalyptic finale at the climax aboard the NSA blimp?

Just like Kiss Me Deadly before it, this is one paranoid movie. Everyone is under surveillance, in no small part because everyone is filming everything.

Amateur filmmaking abounds in Southland Tales, the opening of the film is literally comprised of found footage and even the Rock’s character Boxer spends the opening of the film with a camera in tow. Paradoxically, Kelly documents our incessant and overwhelming urge to document everything, whether we intend it to be documented or not. He also uses the idea to dispel the notion that filmmaking represents truth-making. After all, how are we supposed to have seen the opening of the film if the camera was vaporized along with the child filming the scene? Or take the scene where Boxer is filming Roland in the police car while they’re on their way to a staged domestic dispute. Boxer films what he and the audience the film is intended to fool assume to be the truth, unaware that Roland is acting, that it’s a scenario. It’s all an allusion staged by Wood Harris and Amy Poehler’s characters to incite a revolution against the government. The audience watching the tape don’t know that Roland is being directed, with Poehler and Harris cueing him off-screen like egomaniacal directors controlling their star. In a brilliant moment of reflection, we the audience are suddenly reminded of Kelly doing the same thing. It’s all an illusion, though for less incendiary reasons than political revolution.

The range of meanings that Kelly allows his film to supply ironically gave some credence to the argument put forth by critics and audiences alike. The film was deemed an incomprehensible, incoherent, complicated mess. A similar remark could be made of any hypertextual work, since as Riffaterre notes in his essay, hypertexuality “proffers [the reader] an endless supply of opportunities to choose from without limitations”. The accusation against the film stuck, and audiences avoided the film in droves. Not so surprisingly, Laura Miller once noted in The New York Times Book Review that “no one really wants to read [hypertext fiction], not even out of idle curiosity”. The problem with hypertext is that it’s overwhelming, and ostensibly defeats the purpose of making a film, which is expressly intended to make a statement of some kind or another.

If Kelly doesn’t take time to explain himself, it’s only because he, just as Eliot before him, hates didacticism, and poseur exposition. This is intertextuality bordering on hypertextual, and it’s cinema at its finest. After all, what is a film if not a seemingly unrelated mass of images structured into meaning through montage? In place of explication, Kelly gives you verbal and visual complexity, irony and symbolism, all through the careful application of intertextuality. Like Eliot before him, the effort places his work in line with the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets—of all people. Perhaps that sheds some much needed light on the lapses into quantum dream states. It certainly explains Kelly’s frequent use of conceits (a sort of intellectual metaphor turned simile comparing two initially jarring ideas). One is Kelly’s conceit of oxymoron: one must destroy in order to create. Another is his use of blazon: the frequent shots of The Rock, in all his movie star charms and perfections, comes immediately to mind. The whole film functions as a conceit, a metaphor turned real, as it is a hypertextual romp through our collective nightmares. Though Kelly straddles a fine line between conceit and conceited, he makes sure to interject just enough intertext to get his ideas across.

Perhaps the reason why Kelly found the film so straight-forward is that for all of its eccentricities, and its anarchistic response to modern cinema’s strictures of logic and editing, the film nonetheless functions according to the intertextual bridge he laid out. Perhaps the only problem then is that Kelly left the gaps too big, and the film’s hypertextuality got the better of it, leading most people to fall into the yawning chasm of the film’s critical reception.

To quote Robert Frost, another poet referenced in the film (I almost wonder if that’s where Kelly got the name for his Senator Bobby), “the woods are lovely, dark and deep”; it’s just a pity so many viewers got lost along the way. They never got to see Kelly’s vision awaiting them on the other side.

southland tales opening

Kelly provides a clue to his vision of America in the prologue. The sequence ends on a shot of a crudely shaped profile of America (Alaska and Hawaii sold separately), stained in a garish mix of red and blue like some botched tie-dye job. A plume of white smoke washes over the unsightly mess like flanks of a wispy curtain closing on the humiliating drama (a recurring visual motif, one Kelly no doubt expected the audience to make note of). The gaudy scene of truthiness and fear-mongering, and more importantly that final image, seems a metonym for America itself—as Kelly sees it at least.

Faced with this Waste Land, Kelly asks the same question the poet in Eliot’s epic does. “Shall I at least set my lands in order?”—a paraphrase of Isaiah 38.1. The poet turns to Dante’s Purgatorio for the answer, “Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina” (“he hid himself in the fire that refines them”), and Kelly does the same.

His answer is to end his film with his own Battle of Jericho. Neo-Marxists clash in the streets with the military, and the entire kingdom is in strife. When the army of God emerged victorious in the biblical battle, Jericho was razed and the land cursed, never to be used again. The cost would be the first-born son of any man who dared. With ever-mounting casualties in the war of Iraq, it seems clear why Kelly’s film takes the route of Eliot’s epic and doesn’t show the renewal stage. Instead all we get is that “final meeting / In the twilight kingdom” between the two Roland’s in a white van floating thousands of feet above the doomed city.

Just like Eliot’s The Waste Land before it, this film is not affirmative, the quest for regeneration (the cycle of the vegetation myth) remains unfulfilled. The Waste Land is swept away in both instances by the cleansing and renewing flames of Apocalypse, but we never learn what comes to take its place. Shantih Shantih shantih, “the peace which passeth understanding,” so sayeth Eliot. Though we do not see the renewal, Kelly leaves us with hope. Though it all comes to a crashing end in the fictional world, Kelly seems to offer the film as a hope that it needn’t be so in the real world. The end is yet to be written, the current still ongoing.

Like the perpetual motion machines which abound in the living spaces of the Neo-Marxists, or the fluid karma of the film’s complicated narrative, or the ocean tides Kelly’s script keeps referencing, the film itself is one big perpetual motion machine. Or perhaps it’s better understood as a Möbius strip, where the end is the beginning is the end again. The film is a hypertextualized intertext looping back in on itself. It’s the future of cinema conducted by a master architect.

If you like where my words are going, follow me on Twitter:


Don’t forget, this is only part three of my five-part series. Be sure to continue on to “Part 4: Richard Kelly, The Anti-Whitman”.

In the meantime, food for thought:

What to make of that intertextual script within a script in relation to Kelly’s vision of American Apocalypse? Why fill it with such profoundly stupid yet still intellectually charged lines such as “He was the kind of man that God forgot how to make… before The New York Times declared him dead. (beat) God… that is”? (That man, in case you’re wondering is Cane, Jericho Cane—a name borrowed, in another intertexual move, from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in End of Days). And why do some of those lines and scenes recur in Southland Tales?

Support my work and the film:

Southland Tales [Blu-ray]

Southland Tales Book 1: Two Roads Diverge (Bk. 1)

Southland Tales Book 2: Fingerprints (Bk. 2)

Southland Tales Book 3: The Mechanicals (Bk. 3)

Support both even more by commenting! Post questions, ideas, hypotheses, insights; hurl abuses at me (preferably at my work), at the movie, at anything, but comment nonetheless! Let’s discuss.


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