September 16, 2009

Flow My Tears, Jon Lovitz

An oldie but a goodie. We're looking at some movies from the last few years...
“I will show you something different from either your shadow at morning striding behind you or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” -T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Director Richard Kelly’s follow-up to his 2001 cult hit Donnie Darko, has finally arrived after gestating for years, earning the hatred of a Cannes audience in 2006, cutting 20 minutes in editing, spending a million dollars on explanatory special effects, and using a nearly non-existent press campaign. But, starting this Friday, controversial Southland Tales finally gets released nationwide. Southland Tales is a near-future dystopian satirical epic that starts with a bang, a home video sequence showing a nuclear attack on Texas from an unknown enemy. About 2 ¼ hours later, it ends with a bigger one, though whether it’s the end of the world, the space-time continuum, or just LA, is up for some debate. What does matter is that in the path between those bangs, one filled with plenty of smaller explosions and death, comes a film experience unlike anything else—an explosion of mass media and camp; a pop opera.
(more after the jump)
This movie’s big. Big, big, big. A huge ensemble cast of actors, more on those later, lead a complicated storyline of time travel, amnesia, the book of revelations, porn stars politicians, neo-Marxists, souped-up government surveillance, presidential elections to be determined by severed fingers, near-constant references to T.S. Eliot, and an awful lot else. Throw that into a style of comic books and the nightly news, along with the occasional lapse into commercials, music videos, or surveillance tapes, and you’ve got a movie that’s almost impossible to grasp entirely. There are more details than I know how to wrap my mind around, beyond the overwhelming feeling that what I’ve seen is among the greatest works of blockbuster art in American movie history. At a surface summary, which does offense to the amount of plot going on and feeding into other plots, here’s a quick sketch: it’s the year 2008, in the vastly more conservative environment following that nuclear attack, where the US is involved in costly wars all over the Middle East, leading to a draft and a mass oil shortage. Boxer Santoros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) an action celebrity married to Mandy Moore, playing the pouty daughter of the Republican vice-presidential candidate Bobby Frost (fds who campaigns for the presidentially candidate known only as Eliot, by constantly quoting Robert Frost), has lost his memory. He lives in a love nest with the porn star turned talk show host and media queen Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a scandal which internal left-wing revolutionary groups want to exploit. The two of them watch the film noir Kiss Me Deadly while writing a screenplay foretelling the end of the world in strangely prescient ways. The Republicans attempt to get him back, while the Neo-Marxists try to use him as blackmail, while at the same time exploiting Seann William Scott’s character Ronald Taverner as well as his twin brother Roland Taverner. Meanwhile, since the United States has run out of oil, a mysterious baron with ambitions of grandeur, as well as a megazeppelin, played by The Sicilian from Princess Bride, creates a new form of energy that acts as a perpetual motion device, gaining power from the ocean. The energy also works as a drug, which a bible-crazed Iraqi vet Abilene played by Justin Timberlake exploits, to “get closer to God” and also apparently to narrate. This is just scratching the surface, and to put it politely, the movie isn’t super-coherent. But that’s part of the joy in this over-the-top extravagant mess, that with so many details, most of the time the audience is dragged along for the ride without completely understanding most of what’s going on in the film. Or why most of the actors are in there. The number of recognizable actors is out of control. Aside from the ones mentioned above, Kevin Smith, Jon Lovitz, Amy Poehler, Miranda Richardson, most of the cast of Donnie Darko, Rebecca Del Rio, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and pretty much everyone else make appearances. The roles the recognizable actors play seem to be hyper-realized forms of the roles they usually play, which is comfortable, interesting, and in some ways distancing. There are long periods in which the interactions between characters are cringe-worthy, and yet others that the emotions take over, and these roles don’t disappear, rather they grow to fit the characters.

This isn’t a movie that can be described, or judged like most others. The film is full of reference, the poets everywhere, film noir, musicals, bad comedy, 80s science fiction, Philip K. Dick, indie rock of the ‘80s, Dr. Who, theology, comic books, Fox News, and really just about all pop culture since about 1982. 

But at the same time, there’s no way Southland Tales can be mistaken for anything else. Juvenile comedy and serious drama jump back and forth so quickly along with twists in plot, satire, and reference that it seemed most to me like a quick immersion into the life of a hyper-active ADHD child. For the most part, by most traditional, classical film standards, this is a horrible movie. Without consistency of tone, a vision all over the place, acting that revels in extravagance, a structure that cannot be fully grasped during the first viewing, as well as the important lines “pimps don’t commit suicide,” and “the future is far more futuristic than previously predicted,” nothing about this movie would pass a basic screenwriting class. But it works, not despite of, but because of all of this.

This is a film that can be better described in non-film terms. The moment in which Justin Timberlakes veteran character asks a soon-to-important character, who may be the anti-christ, or just some kid, if he “bleeds,” before applying a jolt of a drug sending him into a bowling alley musical set to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done,” is, basically, a rapturous, ecstatic and religious moment. The moment in which a government spy reads the screenplay Boxer and Krysta have written, and snaps into a fantasy world where she is one of the characters, has no good explanation, and despite the awkward way it sounds, is one of the most brilliant moments in a film full of brilliance. The Pixies play a large part; yet never feature in the plot, and only briefly in the soundtrack. Identity falls apart, just as the plot, and the city do. No character in this seems sure of who they are, and for the most part that fears seems well-founded: they aren’t who they seem. Everything about this explosion of the senses seems designed to drag the viewer out of a stupor, to say everything possible within the scope of a film. This is an opera of pop culture, the major artifact of its time. Every scene is memorable, and could survive on its own as a moment of insanity and beauty.

Which isn’t to say it has a message, or anything as boring and irritating as that. This film sets out to be entertaining, to be art, not to tell people what they’d be better off getting from the news. I may not have taken in even a third of everything going on throughout the movie (what was with those shining lights? How did Jericho Kaine get that gun? What was going on with the arms dealer?), but I was enthralled by half an hour into it. Accepting it as the pop extravagance it is, means I can’t stop recommending in no uncertain terms. Look for something else though, and you’ll be disappointed.

This isn’t a film to be watched once, while munching popcorn and hoping to get lucky later that night. Neither is it a film to be taken seriously and coldly. This is the strange one for which the term “cult movie” makes the most sense. I can only talk about this movie in terms of a serious relationship with myself, it does not exist on any other plane Don’t be surprised to see this disappear from the theaters, before being slowly revived like Donnie Darko, passed along to friends who are inducted in midnight screenings, and who accept the twisted explosion of taste that leads to the film’s repeated paraphrase of Eliot: “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a whimper, but a bang.”

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