Sunday, August 24, 2008

California hallucinatin'

One of my favorite Hollywood anecdotes involves the first screening of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Oddity. According to legend, Rock Hudson stood up when the lights came on and yelled, "What the fuck did I just watch?" Gee, I hope that's true.

If there's a movie made in the last few years that invites, even demands that kind of response, Richard Kelly's Southland Tales is that movie. Kelly, of course, first came to attention as the director of Donnie Darko. Your liking one does not guarantee you liking the other. There are themes that run between the two movies, but the treatment is markedly difference.

ST could be seen as a mixture of Philip K. Dick, Saturday Night Live (a major source of supporting actors), Left Behind, Alan Moore's graphic novels, that stupid reality show with Britney and K-Fed, and a host of other things I won't name now. While I believe that I understood pretty much everything I saw, it defies synopsis. Trying to describe the plot to a friend earlier tonight, I got a couple of sentences in, stumbled into a "wait a minute, but really..." and got no further.

The Iraq War is involved, and because of a nuclear attack that destroys Abilene, TX, PATRIOT Act measures have become even more draconian. To the point where just about anything you see happen, someone else is watching on some kind of screen. Republican's are hoping to ride a wave of xenophobia to an easy third term, and as for the Democrats, a brief shot of a Clinton-Lieberman logo is all you hear of them. Opposition mainly comes from the Neo-Marxists, a bombthrowing radical organization with some major Judaean People's Front/People's Front of Judaea issues. But there's a good chance both the rebels and the Empire are being manipulated by Baron von Westphalen (Wally Shawn), a melodrama villain who's become an environmental savior in the public eye. Oh, and time is destroying itself, so all the above may be moot.

You see the problems that might arise for Kelly. He spent five years and tens of millions of dollars making a self-negating art film. (Not quite, though. See update.) Too big to recoup its costs on the arthouse circuit, too iffy and strange for most exhibitors, it never really opened in secondary markets and below. Basically, Kelly courted disaster and disaster said, "Yes."

But what is it like watching the movie? Not perfect. There's no Darko-like character to identify with. Seann William Scott's out-of-depth cop is the protagonist by default. Infodumps are necessary to keep the plot somewhat comprehensible, in part because no one has ever read the comic books Kelly wrote to introduce the premise and characters. That produces some clunky exchanges, although the clunkiness is self-aware.

Yet overall, I'd give it a positive, even glowing review. Part of the reason is that if you approach it as comedy, it works. It's funny. There's a dichotomy. The story juggles a dozen oblique scientific and philosophical ideas, but the cast never hesitates to go for a gut-level laugh. As the amnesiac actor who sets the plot in motion (maybe) Dwayne "No longer the Rock" Johnson takes comic stiffness to Adam West levels. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays it so dumb, real porn stars will stand up and scream "Lies!", but she's kind of lovable in her thickness. And Cheri Oteri (one of the SNL emigres) gives fiery support as a scheming Neo-Marxist. Plutonium in the form of a Venice CA crunchy.

Another thing I like about Southland Tales is the way it puts grim aspects of current American life onscreen without being horribly depressing. Reality TV and wartime desperation are treated with a kind of slapstick catharsis. Meanwhile there's something that comes next, even if that something is oblivion.

Finally, I'd recommend it as a unique experience. This movie has not been made before, and won't be again. It's massive commercial failure is part of the reason. But it's also a film that nobody else would have thought of. It may actually be a good thing that Kelly made it right after Donnie Darko. If he had waited, he might get to know better.

Will Southland Tales be vindicated by history? Is it at least on its way to becoming a cult classic? I don't know. It's definitely the kind of work where either you like it or you really don't. But I requested it through the Providence Library many weeks ago, and spent most of the summer waiting. People out there are starting to pay attention to it. What kind of voodoo it will work remains to be seen.

Update: According to this interview, the budget ran to 12-15 million, fairly cheap for a studio film. Inside-industry stuff doesn't really interest me, but I could have sworn that it was somewhere in the 100 mil neighborhood, especially factoring in star salaries. Credit him for getting bang for the buck.


Matthew Frederick said...

Perhaps, then, it will have the same trajectory as Donnie Darko in the end - a short box office life resurrected by word-of-mouth and dvd.

Ben said...

I think you may be right, Matthew. The qualified approval of this post came the night after I saw the movie for the first time. My sense is that repeated viewings add to the experience, so word of mouth should snowball.