Part 4: Richard Kelly, The Anti-Whitman
Mistah Kurtz—he dead.
—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1857-1925)
Shantih shantih shantih
“Come, said my Soul, / Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one),” the great American poet Walt Whitman wrote in the preface to his 1874 Leaves of Grass. Whitman would frequently slip between the voice of the one and the many. For Whitman, who viewed poetry as a means of national unity, the soul of the poet connected to the soul of all men through the power of the word. “One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person,” he also wrote, “yet utter the word democratic, the word En-Masse.” Leaves of Grass was to be his symposium of the American identity, a sprawling collection of poems to form a rich tapestry of America. Kelly’s project with Southland Tales is not so different, using the language of cinema in place of poetry, trading stanzas for scenes.
What better way to show the panoply of American culture than on Independence Day? It’s no surprise that Kelly’s film takes place almost exclusively on that day.
Just as Kelly sees the state of American culture as a literal split between pre-9/11 and post 9/11 (the new B.C. and A.D.), the Independence Day of 2005 will be the complete anti-thesis of the day his film depicts in 2008. Where once hard-working, family oriented Americans pay tribute to their country, such that Whitman would have wept, the Americans of 2008 are split into factions, either violent or repressive, and few are willing to stand up and sing about the land of the free.
When Kelly finally shows just that, the scene is an overblown mockery of the American Dream. Rebekah Del Rio, whom you may remember as the artist lip-synching to her own voice in Mulholland Drive sings the “The Star Spangled Banner” with musical precision in front of a giant American flag as seemingly tone-deaf troubadours grate on behind her in their antiphonic dissonance. The crowd looks on apoplectic, as if they don’t know why they’re bothering with the ritual.
While Whitman was trying to build a nation with his poetry, Kelly treats cinema as a means of renewing that nation, perhaps ironically by destroying it first.
The next act up after “Star Spangled Banner” is the literal burlesque of the gospel choir—the four porn vixens from the start of the film do their choreographed ditty while the intelligence community of the NSA is gunned down in a hail of bullets. All narrative logic is suspended as the film gives over to revelry, a literal dance of death as the world is torn asunder. All of this just in time to send Independence Day, and the universe, off with a bang.
The moment is a jarring parallel to the opening scene. The film begins July 4, 2005 we’re told, as the camera sweeps through the throng of patriotic Americans just moments before an atomic blast will incinerate them. When the bomb drops it’s Kelly blowing away all pretenses, and gives a fair warning that he intends to wipe the cinematic slate clean.
The beginning is the end, for the long tracking shot through the crowd before the apocalyptic destruction recalls the party scene of the film’s ending.
In a stunning example of bravura filmmaking that cuts closer to Leni Riefenstahl than Scorsese, Kelly offers an extended tracking shot through the decadent party aboard the blimp. Ignoring the 180-degree line of cinema completely, the camera swirls around characters mixing and mingling in a choreographed collage of the bored and disaffected. A not so subtle ode to the Bush Administration, Kelly crafts a world of politicians, pop singers, movie stars and quantum wizards every bit as surreal as the figures he’s trying to subvert. The climax of the scene, a lingering shot on the Magician and Serpentine (Bai Ling) making out in front of a giant American flag, happily subverts Patton’s most famous shot of unbridled patriotism. Kelly pollutes it all with Riefenstahl’s imagery of the celebration of the Nazi congress at Nuremberg, exposing the barren promise of America. A modern Eliot of the cinematic arena, Kelly dives into his visual grab bag of tricks and ideas, cobbling it all together to offer an unflinching deconstruction of the fervor coursing through the American Dream.
Just as Whitman fashioned his Native American (not to be confused with First Nations) out of stock archetypes in the service of fashioning an American myth, Kelly’s film trades in mythic archetypes, too. Boxer as the strong, masculine hero, Pilot as the wise sage (keeper of the sacred ritual—the drug trip), as well as the antagonists: Senator Bobby Frost, the not-so-delicate caricature of a leader who lumps extortionists in with terrorists, and his paranoid wife, Nana Mae Frost, a not so distant reference to the evil step-mother trope. We’re told she’s “former prom queen,” as if it somehow had any bearing on the fact that she’s also the “deputy director of the NSA.” But as Sarah Palin’s Republican vice-presidential nomination would soon demonstrate, sometimes we’re not sure what the politicians are trying to sell us on. With each passing jab Kelly makes it clear that the movie is a few degrees removed from a roman-a-clef for modern culture circa 2006. The sad fact is that each character shares so much in common with so many top figures it’s hard to determine just who exactly Kelly is satirizing. But that seems to be the point. It’s all fodder for Kelly’s voracious imagination.
Kelly’s first real target is undoubtedly the Patriot Act, anachronistically passed in his film in January 2007, a first clue to the alternate reality the film operates within, just shy of reality. We all know that a similar terrorist incident in 2001 incited the passing of the bill, a Republican act which Kelly not so subtly compares to elephants fornicating, but damn if it doesn’t make good television. Kelly would repeat the visual again for an apt rendition of every car commercial of the last decade. The ensuing chaos split the nation, the narration explains, giving rise to the Neo-Marxists. The narrator describes how inter-state visas became required, echoing the “Stop and identify” statutes which come to sound more and more every day as legislated racism.
Kelly also turns his satiric focus on the porn industry. The issue of liberalized sexuality was introduced earlier in the film with Krysta Now’s asinine broadcast, the topic continues during her conversation with the pimp Fortunio immediately following. “We’re a bisexual nation living in denial, all because of a bunch of nerds,” Krysta proudly declares, like she’s got it all figured out. “A bunch of nerds who got off a boat in the middle of the 15th century and decided that sex was something to be ashamed of. All the Pilgrims did was ruin the American Indian Orgy of Freedom”. Here Kelly kills two birds with one stone, mocking the restrictive puritanical position of contemporary America towards sex as well as ignorant narcissists who inadvertently mix truth with idiocy. She’s off by about a century on the arrival of the Mayflower, it’s impossible to have American Indians a century before America was ever founded, and I’m not even going to touch the Orgy of Freedom, but don’t let any of these lapses in reason dull the impact of her message.
Kelly returns to this theme again, not-so-subtly, with the group of women who call themselves Deep Throat 2. The name itself is a double entendre, for they plan to blackmail the senator with scandalous photos of his son-in-law canoodling a talented porn star, but the name of course also references the Deep Throat of the Watergate scandal who leaked confidential information to reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, a triple entendre then. And yet, they also stand for the emancipation of women from traditional roles. That film of the same name is similarly credited with launching porn into the mainstream and freeing certain notions of sexuality. A quadruple entendre. But as if that weren’t enough, Kelly also throws the number two in there to remind us of our obsession with familiarity, our crippling fear to trust our own creativity and dare to dream bigger than what has come before. Rather than innovate, the name remains the same. The opposite of Kelly’s intent, as my section on the film’s use of hypertext argued.
These sexual politics skillfully weave into a broader conflict within the nation’s politics, in a literal state of war following the introduction of Prop 69, Kelly’s Magna Carta, drafted to introduce some measure of control to the power of the USIDent. (In an eerily prophetic remark, Pilot notes that in order to properly conduct a war on terror “cyber space was placed under federal control”, yet another byproduct of the US Patriot Act.)
It may have sounded all a bit like nonsense when it premiered, but the words are becoming ever clearer to us now.
The logic of this film is the logic of Dali, Breton and Brecht. Pseudo pop ballads take the place of melting clocks, and the entire thread line of this film is spiritually lifted from Waiting for Godot. These characters are waiting for God. Oh…
Take for instance that hypnotic dream sequence where a drug-addled Pilot mutters along to the thrum of The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done”. Beneath the dog tags he clutches like holy relics a blood red Rorschach test stains his otherwise plain white T. Singing though silent, surrounded by beautiful sirens though gazing only at the camera, the scene recalls Whitman’s chilling end to “I Sit and Look Out”: “All these—all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon, / See, hear, and am silent”.
Compare this scene and those lines to the scene which preceded it, its opening visual a secularized mock-up of DaVinci’s The Last Supper, with the middle chair, the throne of the messiah, vacant. Consider then another stanza of “Song of Myself”:
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now
Who is the messiah in this film? Not Pilot; he’s too busy playing the apostle, giving testament to the life of Boxer. Boxer then? Surely the man does enough prophesying, and there is that bloody Jesus tattoo bleeding with all the sense of a stigmata before he’s vaporized in a blaze of divine light (and the explosion of an RPG).
But then what about Roland? How does he fit in to all this?
Roland seems destined to fulfill another function, our first clue to this is by his name, no doubt inspired by Robert Browning’s 1855 poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came—known more familiarly to modern culture as the basis for Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series. (Or perhaps Kelly was dabbling in Shakespeare when he took the name; King Lear’s nonsense babble spits out a reference to the “Childe Rowland” fairy tale.) In place of a Dark Tower, Kelly has the King of Elfland, here-after known as the President of USIDent, shack up in a Fluid Karma fueled zeppelin, filled with fairy tale creatures—pop stars and celebrities—and even a few quantum wizards to boot. In any version of the myth, from Arthurian legend all the way to Southland Tales, the goal remains the same: restore the kingdom to its former glory. Childe (squire) Roland is Sir Galahad, on a quest to restore the Kingdom of Arthur, whose lands have fallen into ruin. The association for Kelly is clear, America is Camelot in ruins, brought low by the wounding of its king; pick your President and envisage the wound.
The only healing power, the holy grail—that sacred quest driving the hero’s journey—in this film goes by the aptly titled Fluid Karma, “a wireless network of electric power that would run on machines by remote.” Described as a perpetual motion machine, its mechanics are based on the theory of “quantum teleportation”, as Zelda Rubenstein’s magician declares in her no-nonsense voice, refusing to elaborate much to the interviewer’s (and our) cognitive distress. Fluid Karma, so we learn, is also a drug. One that allows the user to break down the metaphysical barrier and swim through time and space. In the final moment, for example, dreamspace, narrative space and literally physical space all collapse when Ronald/Roland shakes his own hand, an act which corrupts the fourth dimension and destroys the universe. In a potent metaphor for Kelly’s ambitious trans-reconciliation with Whitman’s American Dream and Eliot’s vision of the Waste Land, Roland to the Dark Tower comes using quantum drugs to enter into his scarred psyche for a trans-spiritual reconciliation with his past.
Fluid Karma bears more than a passing resemblance to Whitman’s vision of the universal in “Kosmos”:
Who includes diversity and is Nature,
Who is the amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness and sexuality of
the earth, and the great charity of the earth, and the equilibrium
Who has not look’d forth from the windows the eyes for nothing,
or whose brain held audience with messengers for nothing,
Who contains believers and disbelievers, who is the most majestic lover,
Who holds duly his or her triune proportion of realism,
spiritualism, and of the aesthetic or intellectual,
Who having consider’d the body finds all its organs and parts good,
Who, out of the theory of the earth and of his or her body
understands by subtle analogies all other theories,
The theory of a city, a poem, and of the large politics of these States;
Who believes not only in our globe with its sun and moon, but in
other globes with their suns and moons,
Who, constructing the house of himself or herself, not for a day
but for all time, sees races, eras, dates, generations,
The past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together.
Kosmos, Whitman reveals, is not solely the realm of the organized universe or cosmos, but a structure within us. He would follow a similar tactic in “I Sing the Body Electric”, equal parts soulful ode to selfhood vis-à-vis the world’s body and self-less hymn to the soul (a theme also featured in “A Song of Myself”). And lo and behold, Simon Theory (Kevin Smith) reveals the universal power of Fluid Karma flows within the body and mind of Boxer’s doppelganger, his past self. But then Fluid Karma also encircles the world, like the roots of Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree, with the Treer company as Nidhogg, the dragon which gluts on corpses and gnaws at the roots. Perhaps that’s why the project is called “Serpentine Dream Theory”.
The song of the body electric courses through Kelly’s film. How else to explain the numerous and gratuitous shots of the Rock’s chiseled physique, unless it be to show, as Whitman wrote, that:
[…] the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face;
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists;
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees—dress does not hide him;
The strong, sweet, supple quality he has, strikes through the cotton and flannel;
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more;
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side.
(“I Sing the Body Electric”)
Just as Whitman turned his poetic gaze to the American people he saw around him and spun lyrics of what he saw their potential to be, Kelly turns his camera to the American people and rhapsodized what they stood to become. Unlike the glorious mosaic of perfected peoples Whitman envisioned in a goal bordering on eugenics, Kelly projects a botched tie-dye of beer-guzzling, vacant-eyed bystanders. The people in this film are so bizarre that the New York Times review of the film reports it left “one critic actually wondering if its director had ever met another human being”. Of course he has, he’s met them all, and he took notes. But Kelly doesn’t judge them, he can’t blame the people, his ire is focused squarely on the people running the show—the ones on top who should know better, even when they seem too ignorant to know otherwise.
Caught in this ouroboric cycle of history, the only answer for Kelly seems a total break with what has come before, using an apocalyptic light to guide the way. Whitman also wrote in “I Sing the Body Electric” that “The flush of the known universe is in [man].” No small wonder that Kelly puts that same glow within Roland, a radiant light spilling from his right hand.
Between Roland’s hand-shake with himself and Pilot’s drug-induced dream song I’m reminded of that moment in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive when Betty begins convulsing rapidly at Club Silencio, right hand clenching Rita’s. Confronted with the truth of her illusionary existence, Betty’s dawning realization of her illusory existence sends her body into an epileptic fit. She keeps the dream going however, and it’s not until she finally looks inside the blue box that she can’t escape the truth any longer. Pandora’s Box opened, the truth unleashed, the reality of the film as it existed comes to a literal and metaphoric end. The moment is like the world-ending climax of the atomic briefcase being finally opened in Kiss Me Deadly, as it is the apocalyptic hand-shake of Southland Tales. The American Nation that Whitman dreamed of is still but a dream. The people are trapped in a world of illusion, a fluid karma dream powered by the media—a matrix of culture and history Whitman himself helped to install with his poetry. Faced with the understanding we are dreaming the only sensible course of action would be to wake up. That so many people spurned Kelly and his film for daring to suggest just that in a way proved his point. Maybe someday they’ll get it. No Hay Banda.
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