“No film is every really finished, just abandoned by the filmmaker.”
This is the philosophy, or rather one of the facets of the real-life and filmmaking philosophies, of Richard Kelly. In something of a MotM miracle, I received an email last week advising that Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse would be hosting a screening of Kelly’s 2007 opus Southland Tales, with an introduction by the director and a Q&A following the film. As discussed in our email roundtable, I was a fan of Donnie Darko when it was first brought to my attention in 2003, when a DVD of the film was passed around like wildfire at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. Although time and distance (and a strong wave of hype backlash as the film caught on outside of the cult scene) have dulled my teenage enthusiasm for the film, my interest in Kelly’s work was piqued again by our viewing of The Box, a film I didn’t love but haven’t been able to stop thinking about. I never got the chance to see Southland Tales before this past Sunday, but I’m glad that my first viewing experience was on the big screen and not limited to the comparatively tiny television in my living room.
What’s the film about? I’ll try to be as succinct as I can: Southland Tales takes place in an alternate 2008, where post-9/11 paranoia and the overreach of infringement upon civil liberties that followed that incident has been further exacerbated by a nuclear attack on American soil (Texas, to be precise). The draft has been reinstated, interstate travel is extremely restricted, and citizens are heavily monitored via the use of information network USIdent and the deployment of heavily militarized Urban Pacification Units, which seem to have taken the place of standard police forces. The Republican Party, most notably represented by Texas Senator and potential VP Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne) and his wife, NSA Deputy Director cum USIdent overlord Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson), is seeking to swing California to the red in order to ensure the continued power of USIdent and the party. Popular action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), the husband of the Frosts’ daughter Madeleine (Mandy Moore), has recently awoken in the desert with amnesia; he makes his way into the arms of Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a psychic porn star seeking to expand her media and merchandise empires through diversification. Krysta has recently completed a screenplay entitled The Power, which foretells the end of the world.
Elsewhere, the underground liberal forces of the Neo-Marxists oppose the Republican Party (this entire group is composed almost entirely of former SNL cast members, including but not limited to Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, and Cheri Oteri). Their current plan involves staging a racially-motivated police shooting committed by haunted veteran Roland Taverner posing as his twin brother Ronald (Seann William Scott), an UPU officer; the intention is to have this captured on film by Boxer during a ride-along for research purposes, then use the footage to discredit Bush’s apparent successors. Their machinations are held in check by a series of double-crosses that undermine their ability to take any real political action. Elsewhere elsewhere, the wizard Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) has invented both a device that uses the power of the ocean to generate wireless electricity as well as several injectable liquids of various colors that are used as drugs for both recreational and psychic purposes. He and his band of assorted cronies (Bai Ling, Curtis Armstrong, Zelda Rubinsten, and Beth Grant) move throughout the various factions at play, gaining political power and prestige while well aware that the alternative energy source that they have created could bring about the end of humanity. And all of this is narrated by Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a former movie star whose face was disfigured by friendly fire in Iraq after he was drafted. And, hey, if you were starting to think any of this was too straightforward, don’t worry; there are also stable time loops, predestination paradoxes, mistaken identities, and all the other Kelly elements you’ve come to know and, perhaps, love. Plus a lip-synch music video.
Part multimedia experiment, part time travel film, part jeremiad prophecy of the dangers of unchecked rightwing expansion into surveillance and homeland policing, part philosophy lecture, but mostly a political satire, Southland Tales has been called many things: unwatchable, convoluted, pretentious, and incomprehensible. For my money, however, the film (and its expanded materials, which I hesitate to call “supplementary” given that they were always intended to be part of the experience) is simply too ambitious to ever have any kind of mainstream penetration, even on the level that Darko did. There’s also been a lot of name-calling and assumptions with regards to Kelly’s ego and affectations of intellectualism, even from those of us here at Swampflix; in person, however, Kelly comes across as approachable, well-spoken, thoughtful, and shy (and he’s a total babe as well– look up a picture or two if you haven’t already done yourself this great service; those triceps are poppin’). Kelly directed this film when he was twenty-nine; that’s my age, and all I have to show for a life is a stack of unopened mail and a heap of student loan debt that I’ll finish paying off seven years after I’m dead– if I’m lucky.
In case you weren’t aware, Southland was originally envisioned as the final three chapters in a six-chapter arc, with the first three components released as graphic novels (Kelly said that when these materials, which were not quite complete at the time of the Cannes premiere, were given to the press, they sneered). There is a certain feeling of incompleteness that can be felt in the film as a result, but this is not the same thing as saying that the film is, as Kelly said in his introduction, “unfinished.” There’s certainly an element of that in play in the theatrical version that was screened, but I didn’t find it as distracting as others have. He discussed the nature of the release of the film, the way that certain visual effects were never quite completed due to the fact that the money for said polishing was to have come from one studio that held the international distribution rights, but there were issues with the domestic distributor. It’s all information that you can find elsewhere, I’m sure, so I won’t get into it here. There were some new tidbits that were shared in the Q&A that I’ll share here, though.
Why is Janeane Garofalo in the final scene? In the earlier, longer version of the film that was screened at Cannes, there is an additional subplot in which Garofalo plays a general who is engaged in a Dungeons & Dragons game with veteran Simon Theory (Kevin Smith) and a couple of other characters, with that game serving as an additional metaphorical layer to the events of the film, just line the screenplay for The Power. (I did see a credit for a D&D consultant in the final credits, which confused me until this was explained.)
Was this movie inspired by Brazil? Yes, Kelly loves Brazil.
Where did the character names come from? Kelly discussed that there’s a music to character names, and described how some come from more obvious sources (like the Robert Frost-quoting Senator Bobby Frost), and some a bit more obscure from sources both historical (like the von Westphalen family, whose true allegiances are obvious from the outset for those who know Jenny von Westphalen was the wife of Karl Marx), and literary (the Taverners share their surname with Jason Taverner, protagonist of Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which shares a rightwing autocratic dictatorship with Southland). So, like many of the references to extratextual real-world works that we mentioned in The Box discussion, they’re present less because Kelly wants to prove how smart he is and more because he thinks we’re all on his level, which is a compliment more than anything else.
Why so many Saturday Night Live actors? Besides the aforementioned Poehler, Oteri, Dunn, and Garofalo, other SNL alums include Jon Lovitz and John Larroquette. I really liked Kelly’s answer to this question; when we talk about political satire, at least in America, SNL is the troupe that is on the cutting edge of that discussion.
Is the recurring theme of free will versus predestination representative of a personal philosophy or just something that Kelly finds intriguing to play with on film? This was my question, and was admittedly a little longer in the actual asking (which involved referencing the Job-like structure of The Box and eschatological nature of Southland, leading Richard Kelly to compliment me personally, so take that, world!), but Kelly stated that this was something that he thinks about a lot, that humans beings are often bandied about by forces outside of their control, and how much agency any of us have at all (one audience member asked about Krysta Now’s agency in regards to the film, but I missed the answer to that one trying to calm myself enough to ask my question). Kelly had previously mentioned that Southland was intended to be a cathartic film experience; given that the themes of the film boil down to the idea that salvation comes from forgiving the self, which is an entirely internal emotional journey, I think that this could be reflective of that idea. Forgiving one’s self, like Taverner does in the film’s final moments, removes the external elements of predestination and is purely an act of personal decision, and through that comes real existential relief.
Whatever happened to the Norma Lewis prosthetic foot prop? This one I had to ask for Britnee, per her final thoughts on The Box. As it turns out, Kelly’s father, who really did work on the Mars Viking Lander project, did something similar for Kelly’s mother, whose own foot was disfigured, not unlike Norma’s. As for the prop, Kelly said he would have to make some calls to be absolutely certain, but he’s pretty sure it’s in a props warehouse in Boston.
For more on September’s Movie of the Month, Richard Kelly’s sci-fi mystery thriller The Box, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how the film works as a literary adaptation.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond