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Apocalypso, Apocalyptus, Apocalypsync
by Lucius Shepard
November 25, 2007

Everything you may have heard about Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is true. Tedious, brilliant, too long, not long enough, sophomoric, hilarious, Dick-ian, Ick-ian, foul-mouthed, Chaucerian, derivative, unique, epic, a waste of two hours and twenty-four minutes, crap on a stick, the work of a burgeoning genius, nothing like his first film, Darko-esque, visionary, pretentious, angry, petulant, mesmerizing, sleep-inducing, a parody, a comedy . . . Got a favorite adjective or adjectival phrase? It probably can be applied to some portion of this movie. What Kelly has given us is not so much a portrait of an alternate America, but rather an attempt to embody the country as it has come to be after President Lower Primate and his gang of monkey-chunks have beaten on it with their ugly sticks for eight years, leaving behind a blitzed, paranoid, chaotic wreck saturated with Day-Glo pop culture and violent imagery, populated by the confused, the stupefied, and the downright deluded, a runaway train of a nation heading full-out for the Lake of Fire, packed with party-goers and doomsayers whose arms and legs and heads are sticking out the windows, yelling, “Whee!” and “The end is nigh!” and so on, while an enormous boombox drowns out their cries with corporate rock anthems advertising scented panty shields and persimmon-flavored energy drinks.

I don’t know about you, but to me all that sounds like 21st century naturalism, a big, nasty, sloppy joke-kiss blown by a grinning skull.

If Kelly, whose first film, 2001’s Donnie Darko, has become a cult touchstone, essaying a bittersweet portrait of pre-millennial America and its more humanistic, soulful obsessions, dealing with teenagers, time travel, and love . . . if Kelly had wanted to play it safe, he would have made a lean, gritty little film with conspicuous acting and joyless bloodletting, illustrating the dark side of contemporary America, something to ponder and absorb, to meditate grimly upon, and he would have offered it up to the critical establishment, saying, “See, I am one of you. Let me in. Here. Take my child, but please don’t hurt it.” And the critical establishment, composed of trivial old or old-in-spirit men and women, whose hearts are sometimes touched by such abasements, would have given that movie grudging praise and replied, “We anoint you.” For whatever reason, however, Kelly decided that managing his career was less important than making the picture he wanted, a decision both foolhardy and admirably brave. As happens with many second films (many second novels, as well), encouraged by his rookie success, he attempted to stuff everything he knew into the film and thus ended up with idiot jam on his face. That he did not succeed, that he is not yet and may never be a sufficiently fluent artist to pull off this trick, should not be held against him—or maybe it should, but it shouldn’t be hung about his neck like an albatross, and the virtues of his movie should not be neglected, as they have been, in favor of dwelling on its flaws.

Leaving the theater after a viewing of Southland Tales, I had a mental image that seemed to sum up what I had seen and I offer it here for whatever it’s worth. I was watching an old-fashioned Peter Max-inspired, Yellow Submarine-type animation: a wild-haired young man was walking down a city street straight toward the camera, and once he drew close to the fourth wall, he projectile-vomited all over the lens, a psychedelic spew of daisies and yuck and puppies and Che Guevara heads and toasters and farm animals and Aces of Spades and so forth that evolved in the way of a kaleidoscope, the images changing to suit every new pattern, the patterns dissolving into fractures of light and still more yuck . . . and then this, too, dissolved and I saw one of the people who had been vomited on, a young woman, walking down the same city street, spattered with Lava Lamp-colored puke, each spatter yielding its own smell (some quite fragrant, some not), each gradually fading until finally, two hours and twenty-four minutes later, a single stubborn stain remained on her coat sleeve and she paused at the entrance to a dry cleaners, sniffing the sleeve, as if debating whether or not to have the stain removed.

Southland Tales has been called Lynch-ian. I’m not too sure. Kelly proudly announces his influences (every now and again one floats bargelike down the Celluloid River, bearing a sign, “Notable Influence Here!”), and Lynch is definitely listed among them; yet Lynch has a touch of Andy Warhol in him. He likes to be coy with the audience, employing his “Ooh, I’m so sinister and mysterious” schtick, whereas in Southland Tales Kelly takes more of the exuberant, pissed-off, demented Jackson Pollock approach to narrative architecture or the lack thereof. While Lynch’s films are mannered and arrogantly try to persuade us that he knows what he’s about, even if we can’t understand it, the impression left by Southland Tales is that Kelly simply couldn’t fit all his architecture in, or else he couldn’t wrap his head around such a totally awesome concept as the end of the world without running a little amok, and he’s sorry, really he is, and he wants to explain everything and will gladly sell you some graphic novels to help clarify matters (Chapters 1, 2, and 3 of the story are for sale in that form; the movie consists of Chapters 4, 5, and 6).

Since debuting the film at Cannes, where it was vilified by critics, booed by a portion of the audience, and had its entrails displayed on a pike before a picture of the Lion King in catacombs beneath Paris, where the house of Navarre still reigns, Kelly has gone back in and redone the voiceover (a necessary evil, in this instance), added special effects and a prologue to flesh out the backstory, and trimmed about twenty minutes, losing several sub-plots and a character or two in the process; but there are too many characters to name, in any case, and sub-plots still dangle from the movie like (to overwork a metaphor) the roots of an aquatic plant torn loose from its mooring and set adrift on a stormy sea, rendered ungainly and on the verge of being capsized by these loose ends. It opens with camcorder footage taken at a Texan 4th of July shindig back in 2005, showing a mushroom cloud blooming above the town of Abilene; terrorists subsequently destroy El Paso, thereby initiating WWIII, a conflict fought on fronts in North Korea, Syria, Iraq, etc., and our country is buttoned down tight. Homeland Security has been morphed into an agency called USIDent, which spies on the citizenry and controls the Internet. Interstate travel has been virtually banned. Some Venice Beach-based Marxist revolutionaries led by Zora Charmichaels (Cheri Oteri, one of four or five ex-SNL vets in the cast), a group constituted chiefly of slam poets, actors, and filmmakers, are attempting to overthrow the government. We’re swiftly running out of oil, but help is on the way in the person of Baron Von Westphalen (played by a shrilly annoying Wallace Shawn), an eccentric German scientist who has developed an alternative power source, Fluid Karma, that utilizes the motion of ocean waves—FK also serves as a hallucinogenic drug that was tested on (among other soldiers) Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a scarred Iraqi vet who hangs around Venice Beach and provides the film with a sardonic narration, laced with quotes from the Book of Revelations. That takes care of the prologue.

The plot . . . well, there’s a lot of it, most taking place in LA over the July 4th weekend of 2008, just prior to an important presidential primary. Here are the basics. Action superstar Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson) has been kidnapped and stricken with amnesia during a trip into the desert and has forgotten about his marriage to Madeline Frost (Mandy Moore), the daughter of Senator Bobby Frost and his wife Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson), who dresses like a dowager Vulcan and runs USIDent and hopes to Lady-Macbeth her way to the White House a la Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. Since his return from the desert, Boxer has hooked up with Krista Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a simple-minded, New Age-y porn star and the host of a View-like TV show for porn actresses who give good talk, with whom he has co-written an apocalyptic screenplay called The Power that has some eerie similarities to what is secretly happening in the world.

Boxer, as it turns out, is being manipulated by two allied conspiracies, the first engineered by a pornographer (Nora Dunn) who is using sex videos she made with Boxer to blackmail Senator Frost into influencing a vote that will drastically curtail the powers of USIDent. Meanwhile, the Venice Beach Marxists have a plan to foment a violent revolt against the government. They have kidnapped a cop, Ronald Taverner (Sean William Scott), and replaced him with his twin, Roland Taverner (also Scott), a disturbed war vet whose reflection doesn’t appear to be acting in concert with his body. The intent is for Roland to take Boxer on a drive-along (research for his next film role) and involve him a racist murder; but before they can achieve their ends, a real racist cop (Jon Lovitz, who manages to out-annoy Wallace Shawn) commits a real racist murder. And before the streets of LA erupt in violent rebellion, before a mega-zeppelin carries most of the principals off to their respective destinies, before a flying ice cream truck—the mobile salesroom of weapons dealer Walter Mung (Christophe Lambert)—unites with a power station that may be causing a rift in the fourth dimension, there’s much, much more, including a baby whose impending bowel movement may prove to be a thermonuclear trigger.

There were a great many things I liked about Southland Tales. Dwayne Johnson impressed me—he just might have the chops to be a more-than-decent actor if he quits working in cute-kid movies. Sara Michelle Gellar’s performance reminded me of why I dug her in Buffy. I liked Bai Ling as Von Westphalen’s dragon lady and Amy Poehler as Dream, a Neo-Marxist slam poet. I liked a hilariously obscene automobile commercial, some of the freaky news casts, and a number of fragments and scenes that are probably going to wind up as hits on YouTube, which may be the best way to see the movie. I liked the musical numbers: Krista Now’s single “Teen Horniness Is Not a Crime”; Rebekah Del Rio’s rendition of the National Anthem, doing for Kelly’s film what she did for David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, when she dropped in to belt out Roy Orbison’s “Crying”; and I like Timberlake lip-synching to the Killers’ “All the Things That I’ve Done,” while nurses wearing blond wigs recline atop pinball machines behind him . . . though I haven’t the foggiest why this scene was included in the movie.

So much of Southland Tales falls flat, however, it’s impossible to embrace fully. From moment to moment, the film plays like a farce, a doomsday noir, a paranoid fantasy, an SNL sketch, and at times I had the idea that I was listening to a meth-head ramble on about his favorite conspiracy theories, lapsing now and again into unintelligible babble, perking up and almost making sense for a minute or two. Yet I’ve rarely been so conflicted about a movie, so unwilling to go thumbs up or thumbs down. It may be I sympathize with Kelly, having written an incoherent second novel myself, or it may be that there are so many lame, by-the-numbers left-wing movies out there (Lions for Lambs and Rendition, for example), I appreciate the fact that he took a chance and went for it, that his ambition exceeded his grasp, and I’m curious to see whether the excised twenty minutes add to or detract from the film, and I want to see this version again, on the off-chance that I’ve misjudged it terribly. Until then, I join the rest of the world in their conviction that Kelly should be excoriated, given prizes, pilloried, praised, beaten by chimps, encouraged in his madness, charged with crimes against the Aesthetic, awarded the Accolade, shunned, taken to our collective bosom, scathingly renounced, treated to grapes and honey by beautiful maidens, ordered to commit seppuku . . .