Richard Kelly’s magnum opus, Southland Tales, begins with a Fourth of July party recording. There’s laughing, celebrating and people shoot each other with squirt guns. Above all, the party patrons are existing in a space, physically and harmoniously, where being recorded is not yet threatening but instead welcomed, where being with each other still has the simple pleasure of being. It’s emotional, raw and honest, but the drop of a nuclear warhead immediately upends it.
While many films in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks can be deemed “Post 9/11” — either in their direct portrayal of the events like United 93 or in a sort of vague sense of the term applied to internet age films like The Social Network — Southland Tales uses 9/11 and the resulting sociopolitical fallout as its genre. In this, Kelly’s film posits itself truly as Post 9/11, showing a holistic breakdown in identity, media and privacy. With that being said, Southland Tales is both an incredible masterpiece and a frustrating mess.
In the opening scene, Kelly depicts the scattered remnants of pre-9/11 existence being utterly wiped from our homes. It’s the last sliver of honest humanity shown before ushering in the madcap existence of a finalized post 9/11 world, as the United States government soon rushes an almost complete surveillance state encompassing the country and Internet, called USIDent. In this world of constant, ever-present surveillance, people normalize the camera and perform for it, too.
Kelly depicts a world in which our virtual avatars and their output are synonymous with our self. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Krystal Now dominates the television circuit, pop music airwaves, energy drink market and manages to be a part of a neo-liberalist conspiracy at the same time. She is the person and the product that she is selling to the American consumers. “Join us for an in-depth discussion of the penetrating issues facing society today. Issues like abortion, terrorism, crime, poverty, social reform, quantum teleportation, teen horniness and war”, says Krysta on her day time talk show (hosted with fellow pornstars) as she sells her hit single ”Teen Horniness Is Not a Crime.” It’d be easy to dismiss exchanges like this as complete farce (certainly most critics of Southland Tales felt this way), but for Krysta, it’s real — it’s the life she’s living in. It’s not hard to find the Krysta Now’s of our world today in the new media saturation that followed 9/11. As the walls between self, product and media broke down with the onset of the internet, so too is this reflected in Southland Tales.
The breakdown in privacy that the Patriot Act ushered in is reflected brilliantly in Southland Tales. Every one of its characters is either a celebrity, performance artist, politician or all three. It feels that most of their fame was bestowed upon them through the virtue of merely existing, that being caught by both Kelly’s camera and the Big Brother eye of USIDent has all given them their roles and statuses. Boxer Santaros, played by Dwayne Johnson, starts the film with his memory entirely wiped and yet he can’t stop performing. He jitters, feeling around for the right line in regular conversation and slips into a character from his screenplay, Jericho Kane. In a scene where Officer Bart Bookman foils the recording of a faked murder by making it a very real one (all while quoting Philip K. Dick), Johnson portrays Boxer as falling back and forth between being himself and Jericho Kane. He personifies the broken walls between self and output as he tries to act out a new medium between the two. Even with his mind wiped, Boxer Santaros is still painfully aware of an audience.
Kelly delivers his film in complete bombast, flooding the screen with screens. The movie feels like a fever dream or an obsessive night of conspiracy theory research with multiple tabs, audio clips and videos all playing simultaneously. It seems that Kelly is playing the screens that we’ve been seeing in mainstream media right back at us. There are three graphic novels that act as prelude for the film, but I get the impression that the first viewing of Southland Tales is meant to be virginal and disorientating. Kelly seemingly wants viewers to have the will for further research and dissection to open the additional screen of graphic novels. In our world, where every bit of news or media can be approached from any angle with infinite resources through the use of the internet, Kelly focuses on that concept.
With the amount of screens present in Southland Tales, one would be quick to think that Kelly is playing to them in a vaudeville fashion. And in some aspects, he is. He litters the film with character actors like Jon Lovitz, Christopher Lambert and Will Sasso. He tends to play with the actors, too, either making them perform painfully against type or entirely subverting the norm. Kelly uses his characters like an early internet meme come to life; they all have an instant quality about them that gives a sort of hazy, undefinable familiarity. This vague nostalgia gives the film an early YouTube-like quality, as mashups of old PSA’s and B-movies once proliferated the website. Kelly wants viewers to have a gut reaction, yet he doesn’t seem to be laughing at his characters, just with them.
This fine line between the indefinable and the garish manifests itself through Boxer Santaros’ physicality. As a born action star, he has an immaculate figure, but tattooed on his body are every major religious symbol, existing together but still vying for dominance, like that episode of South Park where the afterlife exists and there is a correct answer. It’s like a Tumblr post — both earnest and naïve in its scattershot approach. He takes the images at their base, memetic value and simultaneously uses them for that instant sort of sigil power they exude. It’s McDonald’s religion — instant and cheap — yet Boxer treats it with the weight of devotion. He’s pressed the “Like” button on every religion he’s seen and wants to share them with the world.
There’s a sequence where Roland Taverner, played by Seann William Scott, wakes up out of a Fluid Karma-induced stupor (Fluid Karma being simultaneously an alternative fuel source and a hallucinogenic drug). He recognizes himself, but there’s a delay. He waves, a moment passes, and then his reflection waves back. It’s uniquely sinister, as the grasp for normalcy and identity by Southland Tales’ characters is openly mocked right to their face, by their faces. Kelly insinuates that the future is coming, and there’s only a slight delay.
Southland Tales sees itself in every screen, in every file shared, in every conspiracy and, above all, it wants viewers to see as well. To catch the eye of Southland Tales is to look back on our past and future simultaneously, on the limitations of our technology and the humanity that screeches through it. Prophetic in its approach, Southland Tales can only be categorized in the context that it simultaneously satirizes and embraces the chaotic struggle of America’s ego being shattered, and the public struggle of its citizens smiling for the cameras through the wake.
Justin Micallef (@justinrmicallef) is a critic who loves nothing ironically. Find his work at The Outhousers, Loser City, Detroit Music Magazine and your nearest bathroom stall.