Thursday, April 03, 2008

Southland Tales

Richard Kelly's follow-up to his sensational debut Donnie Darko is even more logic resistant than its predecessor. When it premiered at the Cannes film festival last year it was widely ridiculed and booed by critics and audiences. After reading a few reports and reviews it appeared to be the kind of film I would like but now that I have seen it I was a little disappointed by it. But only a little. Parts of it are excellent and very funny satire of contemporary American culture and politics and even though these parts never cohere to become one whole, which is actually part of the plan since the idea is to convey the essential chaos and fragmented and non-teleological nature of contemporary reality, which is absolutely fine, the film is still fitfully insightful about lots of things.

What happens in the film is very difficult to describe. The plot involves a porn actress with visionary pretensions named "Krysta Now" played by Sarah Michelle Gellar who also aspires to become an entrepreneur and a singer. The "Now" in her last name captures the philosophy of instant gratification which is the basic idea underlying pornography, and of course our entertainment industry in general. She also hosts a talk show and discusses violence, politics and argues why "teen Horniness is not a crime" (it is part of the song she sings.) Then there is an amnesiac action hero played "The Rock" who goes around looking blank-faced and at the same time mimicking Arnold Schwarzenegger. There are actually quite a few characters in the film who are suffering from amnesia which is obviously intended to be some kind of cultural commentary. Other characters include an Iraq veteran who keeps reading from the book of revelation about the apocalypse on the voiceover throughout the film and the republican candidates Eliot and Frost (yes, the great poets) who are being blackmailed by a bunch of self-styled terrorists who call themselves "Neo-Marxists". They want a ban on the Big Brother-style company USIDent which keeps an eye on all the citizens over the internet which is being run by a matriarch straight out of The Manchurian Candidate. And yes before all of this, there was a Nuclear attack on America and America is at war with Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea and a bunch of other countries.

People who didn't like Donnie Darko will have an even tougher time with this one. The same super-smart kiddie-sensibility is at work here too. Only this time it is not the time travel but contemporary American culture and politics. Still there is lot of stuff about "quantum entanglements" and "space time rift" and in general apocalypse for dummies in this film too. What made Donnie Darko so memorable for me was the main character played with such depth, intelligence and vulnerability by Jake Gyllenhal. There are no such characters in this film. In fact the whole notion of a "character" is out of place within the context of this film. Amnesia is not just a random device in the plot - it is what defines these people. Most actors seem to be aware of their celebrity and pop culture personae and act accordingly, either in line with their image or in contrast to that image.

Image is then what all these people are. The film seems to capture this postmodern sense of reality very well. There is nothing like a foundational reality. It has been completely taken over by manufactured images. Images don't "represent" anything "real", they just refer to other images. Our networked world is nothing but a giant mesh of intertextuality. People who are familiar with the postmdodern theories of media (McLuhan, Baudrillad ) will have more interesting things to say about this film. Kelly is aware of the dark social and political implications of this nihilistic philosophy but doesn't seem to able to put his fingers on the nerve. There is no consistent thread of anger which could bind these disparate threads together as a result his satirical attacks come out as scattershot and blunted as a result. In fact this film reminded me a lot of The Manchurian Candidate which is similarly over the top and bizarre but which has a heart in the centre too, and a sincere anger at the state of the things. There are lot of other references to classic movies too - like the apocalyptic noir classic Kiss Me Deadly by Robert Aldrich and even Mulholland Dr. There is similar "I had a dream last night" scene in the diner in this too. And another in which "Rebekah Del Rio" performs star spangled banner. I also don't think the humour of the film will travel easily. I myself had a lot of problems since I couldn't figure out so many references to contemporary pop culture. On the other hand the scene where a man asks his girlfriend in a deadpan manner, "Do you want to fuck or watch a movie" had me in splits. I can't say about other people.

There is a fantastic essay on the film by Steven Shaviro which goes in depth and discusses its "post-cinematic" form and other postmodernist ideas in the context of this film. Long and slightly highfalutin but worth reading. There is also a very helpful plot summary and a FAQ about the film on Salon.

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