2000s

Revelation as Retroactive in ‘Southland Tales’ and ‘Kaboom’

Southland Tales Movie Film

Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006) and Gregg Araki’s Kaboom (2010) — two mind-tripping science fiction cult classics — harness drastically disparate aesthetics, with the former being a dystopian epic about a dystopian American surveillance state, and the latter a deliciously indulgent blast through the sexual deluge of college life. Yet both films culminate in the end of the Earth as humankind knows it, uniquely tying them together with their apocalyptic finales.

The biblical definition of “apocalypse” from Greek is a prophetic revelation, usually of cataclysmic nature, thus coming to its modern meaning of catastrophic event. (“Apocalypse” will henceforth refer to a world-ending global disaster, while “revelation” will refer to the definition of apocalypse as a prophetic message.) The concept of revelation as retroactive and “[refusing] to submit to the linearity of temporal developments,” as discussed in Gerd Bayer’s reading of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, envisions the apocalypse as an ongoing process rather than a cataclysmic event of later times. Rather than an emphasis on the future-oriented idealism of prophecy, this conception specifically engages with “[redefining] the meaning of past events and, through that, the significance of present institutions.” 

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Fixated on events within a pre-apocalyptic period, Kaboom and Southland Tales critically reframe the past and the present in this manner. The apocalypses themselves are simultaneously both implied and an afterthought, and the specifics of the catastrophic event are effectively irrelevant, both narratively and visually. In Southland Tales, the viewer is never privy to the act of the world being destroyed, instead cutting to black moments before, leaving the viewer on a close-up of Ronald Taverner’s (Seann William Scott) face. In Kaboom, the viewer is granted a comically exaggerated shot of the Earth exploding — rather than the more realistic descent of nuclear missiles upon the Earth — as exemplified in the titular onomatopoeia, simplified to a cause-and-effect of Smith’s father (Michael James Spall), cult leader of the New Order, pushing a large red button and triggering the destruction of the Earth in a nuclear apocalypse.

The process of the characters in each film receiving a revelation — that is, also “receiving” an apocalypse — is never complete, but rather compounded over time through multiple occurrences and characters. Through dreams, prophetic imagination, hallucinogenic experiences and deliberate breaks in spacetime, the disruption of temporality and spatial existence is a key element of the foundational construction of both films. Southland Tales notably highlights the world’s preoccupation with the fictional fluid karma — a futuristic source of energy that allows the harnessing of tidal generators to create a perpetual motion machine — which slows the Earth’s rotation and creates a rift in spacetime. Fluid karma, acting also as a psychotropic drug, also allows the viewer to mentally travel through time and see both forwards and backwards in time. Yet Southland Tales is fixated on the past, as demonstrated through actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) and the aforementioned Taverner traveling through the rift, which lands them 69 seconds back and time and thus creates an exact copy of each of them. While the former’s double dies in a remote-controlled explosion and the latter, Roland, creates a twin named Ronald Taverner, all three still left alive have amnesia.

In the Southland Tales graphic novels, which act as a narrative tie-in and critical context for the film, adult film and reality TV star Krysta Kapowski/Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) gains psychic powers when United Airlines flight 23 flies through the spacetime rift, leaving all passengers but her with amnesia. After the great-grandson of Karl Marx, Treer Industries owner Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), compels Krysta to foretell the end of the world after she is read the Book of Revelation while hypnotized, she writes a screenplay — The Power —  which becomes the blueprint for the last three days. As Krysta entertains Boxer, she convinces the amnesiac that they co-wrote the screenplay together, and the film takes this in stride and leaves Boxer as the primary author of the screenplay. Southland Tales abandons Krysta’s forward-looking revelation and turns to Boxer’s take on events, which forces him to reckon with his pre-spacetime-travel past and the events he cannot recall. Instead of a fixation on the future and his own death, Boxer accepts his fate and the revelation he receives — even shared by his wife, Madeline Frost Santaros (Mandy Moore) — more so reveals the revelation than it does foretell or bring it into existence.

Kelly makes clear that the way in which the world ends does not matter by eliminating both cinematic or narrative clues to how the Earth — or, for that matter, the nebulous concept of “the world” — will cease to exist. Instead, Kelly uses the apocalypse as a way to reframe the institutions explored in the film. Southland Tales is, most notably, a critique of Hollywood commercialism and the military-industrial complex while also simultaneously serving as a critique of anti-capitalist movements that evolutionarily must turn to practice the very things they seek to destroy. While Boxer takes on the role of conveying revelations, Krysta is bestowed with the role of infotainment critique, notably with the film’s fixation on her single, “Teen Horniness Is Not a Crime.” The three days before the end of the world, as depicted in the film, are merely a snapshot of the battle between the neo-Marxists and the government, specifically its massive surveillance enterprise enabled by USIDent, a government-financed think tank. Through its weblike and multi-protagonist structure, the film narrator, Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), periodically recites verses from the Book of Revelation, the New Testament’s book of apocalyptic literature. However, Southland Tales’  ultimate rhetorical lynchpin is a modified excerpt from the T.S. Eliot poem, “The Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a whimper, but with a bang.” Repeated throughout the film by Pilot, who acts as the film’s narrator speaking from an indeterminate time, in an indeterminate setting, this phrase makes mention of this revelatory apocalypse but nothing more than Boxer’s dreams of the fact that he will die — and vague allusions to the end of the world.

Southland Tales Movie Film

The world does not come to an end via the direct conflict between these combatant institutions. Instead, Ronald and Roland Taverner touch, which inevitably and irrevocably disrupts spacetime because they are two identical souls, tracing back the cause of the end of the world through a complex tree of nonlinear causality and chain of events. As a product of Treer Industries’ meddling, the Taverners bring about the end of the world because of Roland’s need to forgive himself for injuring his best friend, Pilot, while they were drafted in the Army to fight in Fallujah — “friendly fire.” This single touch — that is, this handshake and the end of the world reveals to the viewer a massive, winding lineage of past trauma inflicted upon the people of America and the complex history that is thus redefined by Roland’s need to find peace.

Kaboom similarly embraces nonlinearity as a key driver of the revelatory process. The film opens on Smith’s (Thomas Dekker) recurring dream upon arriving at college, one that prefaces the work with the important characters he has yet to meet. Coming upon a door with the number 19 and opening it to reveal a bright red dumpster, Smith takes this dream less as prophecy and more as university jitters. But as he begins to meet the people in his dream — specifically the witchy Lorelei (Roxane Mesquida) and a mysterious red-haired girl later revealed to be Rebecca Novak (Nicole LaLiberte) — despite having never seen them before, Smith is forced to reckon — alongside his best friend Stella (Haley Bennett) — with this dream as an unusual revelation: one that reveals the future but provides little to no meaning of their purpose, correlation or importance. Araki sneaks in sly mentions to dreams of nuclear catastrophe from the start through the blatantly named Messiah (James Duval) only seven minutes into the film — and while implying he’s high — but in such an unobtrusive way that it’s one of the less intrusively bizarre things about Kaboom.

Kaboom Movie Film

Araki’s purposefully careless mentions of the world ending thus become commonplace rather than the center of attention. The Messiah’s two mentions of the end of the world are, ironically, so in character that they appear irrelevant to the film’s narrative until the viewer discovers that his unnoteworthy “revelations” suddenly become true. However, they are actually indicators of revelations from Smith’s father, the leader of the New Order cult, who has a dream that his son will return and that the world will be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust — a dream that much more fully resembles the traditional definition of a revelation. As he takes steps to fulfill this destiny, Smith is more or less left in the dark like Southland Tales’ Boxer; even Smith’s half-sister and friend-with-benefits London (Juno Temple) is aware of Smith’s complex family history. Yet he is ultimately the bearer of the revelation as the “chosen son,” the Jesus proxy, as Roland Taverner is in Southland Tales — as Pilot Abilene reaffirms at the very end of the film: “Revelation 21 — And God wiped away the tears from his eyes so the new Messiah could see out to the new Jerusalem. His name was Officer Roland Taverner of Hermosa Beach, California… my best friend.” Both Smith and Roland fulfill their destinies without truly knowing what they are, doing so not through the end of the world, but through their ongoing actions and interactions with the institutions in which they live.

Kaboom fluctuates heavily between being a film rooted in reality to one that isn’t — and back again. As Lorelei is discovered to have supernatural abilities, the characters regard them as bizarre but not a particular stretch of the imagination, something within the realms of possibility within Araki’s world. Rather, the strangest elements become the moments when Smith is chased by men in animal masks, first seemingly while tripping on drugs and then later when completely sober. Araki turns the hallucinatory into the real and the real into the hallucinatory, making Smith’s revelations increasingly mundane. Instead, they lead him to question the life he lives and the oddness of characters around him, whether the life he’s been leading is a lie and the one in his dream is actually more real. Compelled to his computer in the middle of the night, Smith’s act of discovery — his half-asleep, half-awake revelation that his father is the leader of the New Order cult — is one heavily tied to past events, including his father’s disappearance and the death of Rebecca Novak, rather than one tied to the nuclear apocalypse that his father is plotting. This allows Smith to redefine his life from one that is purely a sexually-saturated college experience to one that has Earth-shattering consequences.

Kaboom Movie Film

The ending of Kaboom hangs so tantalizingly in plain sight, first in the title itself and then amidst the subtle mentions and indications that something more sinister is afoot. Smith’s recurring revelatory dream does little more than allow him to look back on his dream and realize that events are coming true — making the revelation retroactive in nature rather than forward-looking. By “[abandoning] the linear logic of development and promise,” which might traditionally be perceived as confusing or chaotic for viewers comfortable with the visual and narrative linearity of conventional Hollywood norms, Araki and Kelly also begin to engage with cinematic post-temporality and forgoing causality as empirically defined. Both films’ apocalypses act not as a signpost for such “development and promise” — rather, on the surface, they apparently destroy all narrative progress made in the film while reemphasizing the irrelevance of the linearity depicted in the film. 

When Pilot Abilene parties in the Fire Arcade while lip-syncing to The Killers “All These Things That I’ve Done” at the end of Southland Tales, seemingly celebrating the end of the world, Kelly suggests that these scenes could ultimately take place at any time. Pilot himself transcends temporal linearity as the narrator and, being on fluid karma, he is able to traverse time with ease. As a final finger to the viewer with the lack of visual resolution, the rift in spacetime that allows engagement with the fourth dimension, and Pilot’s ability to act both within the film and independently of the film’s narrative structure, Kelly allows Southland Tales to disregard cohesive causality as fundamental to the viewer’s understanding of the film. Similarly, by alluding to a future in Kaboom after the nuclear apocalypse, one that leaves Smith the ruler of what’s left of the world, Araki plants the seeds for a post-temporal “time after time” while leaving absolutely no room for processing of whether Smith, London and the remaining characters survive the nuclear apocalypse with an immediate cut to credits right after the world explodes.

Kaboom Movie Film

Like Southland Tales, the revelations of Kaboom are fragmented, piecemeal — the events of both films don’t intend to serve as a preface for the apocalypse à la Melancholia, but rather the apocalypse acting as an afterthought-like epilogue. Southland Tales and Kaboom aren’t defined by their end-of-days narratives, as their apocalypses define the contents through the fulfillment of apocalyptic revelations. Both movies fundamentally reimagine their contents in their final moments, turning them not into acts of destruction but acts of creation. However, no complicated emotional reckonings occur, no life-altering discoveries take place. The world merely ends in those moments — just as quietly foretold and just as it should.

Olivia Popp (@itsoliviapopp) is a film, television and culture writer with a particular interest in stories about suburbia, queer socialization, Asian America and speculative worlds.

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