Textual promiscuity is not a crime

Discussed: Richard Kelly's fall from critical grace / the incomprehensible storyline of "Southland Tales" / Michel Foucault's concept of heterotopia / Justin Timberlake lip-syncing to The Killers / the experimental convolution of a scene in which a fake policeman meets a real policeman who may be fake

Southland Tales is a film riddled with heterotopias. By producing unusual filmic spaces, out of joint with the general expectations of Hollywood cinema, Southland Tales develops both its primary weaknesses, but also its greatest experiments in film-making. It is a film that denies its own status as a film in order to engage with other genres and media: videogames, comic books, theatre, poster art, soap operas, music video, home video, film noir, pornography, documentary, and celebrity journalism. It is a film that engages in the most motley assortment of B-list actors, who seem strangely out-of-place in their roles, but also completely within their element as television character actors. It makes little sense as either the narrative science fiction movie that it pretends to be, nor as the acceptably antagonistic or psychological artwork that we might expect from the director of Donnie Darko (2001). If it is to have a critical capacity redeemed from its frames, then Southland Tales finds its strength in its ability to produce questions as to what “orthodox experimentation” might be, and contains its pleasures for the viewer in passing over and through the assemblage of this motley, mange-ridden narrative, rather than dwelling on the content and the meaning of the individual sequences.

The first step to exhuming the redeeming qualities of Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is to acknowledge the total accuracy of all criticism of the film’s narrative; the second step is not to mistake this essay’s goal as an attempt to find a masochistic joy in the truly bad elements of the film. The issue, then, is to extract the enjoyable elements without consigning the piece as a whole to the dustbin of disappointments. In order to appreciate Southland Tales it is worth quickly detailing the extent to which the film was totally excoriated by many film critics; after all, it is only from the absolute nadir of criticism that we can look up and appreciate the faint glow of sunlight. It may be possible to consider being booed at Cannes to be a rite of passage, but this was only one of the many critical frames that descended from aesthetic distaste to ad hominem vitriol. While the New York Times presented a favourable review,¹ much of the remaining criticism is highly unfavourable. Empire’s Damon Wise after watching the pre-release cut classed it as an immediate career ender for Kelly, and described the theatrical release as “both too much and too little” mainly in reference to the narrative, with the political critique of the US wars in the middle east as “clumsy and a bit redundant.”² Roger Ebert’s own review refers to Kelly’s work as having “no sympathy at all for an audience unable to understand his plot.”³ At the most extreme comes Lou Lumenick, stating: “If a more incoherent and self-indulgent movie has been released so far this century, I’m not aware of it.”⁴ Perhaps we can take something from this. The simplest of responses to this would be to say that Southland Tales was designed to operate as a self-reflexive exposure of orthodox Hollywood cinema as a generally self-indulgent exercise, and that Lumenick “doesn’t get it,” but I don’t think that this is a particularly meritorious means of addressing the film. Such acts of prescriptive intentionality are seldom useful in film criticism.

¹ Manohla Dargis, “Apocalypse Soon: A Mushroom Cloud Doesn’t Stall 2008 Electioneering,” New York Times, 14 November 2007.

² Damon Wise, “Southland Tales” (review), Empire.

³ Roger Ebert, “Southland Tales” (review), Chicago Sun-Times, 16 November 2007.

⁴ Lou Lumenick, “Let’s not do the timewarp,” New York Post, 14 November 2007.

The goal to watching a film for critical aesthetic purposes cannot simply be a case of pure pessimism. In other modes of criticism, certainly: let us break apart the economic or gendered political contents of any film! But when aesthetics are concerned, pessimism only stifles creative experimentation. Coincidences that point to a new shift in aesthetic delights are all too easily prevented from emerging under the gaze of strikingly dogmatic film reviewers like Roger Ebert. We should seek to undermine the approaches of such reviewers and champion new developments – intentional or otherwise. Finding the gems within Southland Tales requires us, as viewers, to accept that the narrative is barely comprehensible and delivered in strangely extra-diegetic moments where characters debate their own purpose in the film. There are two developments that Southland Tales provides cinema viewers: one is the function of the bad narrative, the second is the complications of viewer expectations of celebrity and genre.

The central site for criticism of Southland Tales is the confusing storyline, which, in its incomprehensibility, pushes the aesthetic considerations that are most rewarding to the surface. Soap opera stories of long-lost twins, missing husbands, amnesia, multiple identity disorder, religious overtones, changing career paths, changing frames of reference and satirical commentaries forced into play combine to produce a mire of metastable plots and subplots. Included into this witches’ brew is the sci-fi staple of multiple characters engaging in time-travel, which totally upsets any reliability of the previous dramatic elements. On top of this is a layer of untrustworthy narration, extra-textual plot development, and multiply-nested frame narratives which do nothing to help the film to make any overall sense in the long run. Finally, the film starts in act four! Three whole chapters of explanation have already been developed in a series of comic books. This confusion has not prevented various dedicated denizens of the richardkellyfans.com forums (not a real website) from redeeming a narrative from this mess. After Kelly had already cut his teeth on a complex but well-developed non-linear time travel narrative in Donnie Darko, he should have been able to effectively render the time travel in a comprehensible manner in Southland Tales. The complexity that the various narrative tricks provide are at total odds with the simplicity of the underlying narratives themselves, for instance the conspiracy theory subplot; a conspiracy theory that is so obtuse and simplistic that all it amounts to is a monolithic corporation’s control of governments and global energy resources that is denied by no character in the film.

Why, why, why, why, why induce such a stupid and insipid set of conflicting storytelling devices? Is there a more trite establishment of a character than the “Hello, I have amnesia” routine? Maybe there is, and it’s to be found in the character of Ronald/Roland who is his own twin. The schizophrenic politics of the militant feminist neo-Marxists are just a vague excuse for elements of a conspiracy theory genre. But that’s just it. The narrative as a whole is an excuse, a distraction, and a necessary basis for experimentations in genre and acting that are worthwhile and enjoyable. The claim isn’t that there is no narrative, that the narrative is anything other than conventional, nor that the film does not provide anything to be unpacked, but rather that (the) film’s most interesting creative decisions become much more apparent when the narrative is considered as a ruse, to be ignored and nothing else. All the elements of instability that the critics claim to apply to Southland Tales operate to destabilize the viewer’s ability to tell what it is that they’re actually observing in terms of a storyline, and instead encourages the viewer to focus on the immediate.

⁵ Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” 1967. Published in Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité, October 1984.

So, what enjoyments can we have in the immediate then? Before discussing this, I’ll return to the idea of the heterotopia. The idea of the heterotopia stems from medical discourse, and describes a section of the body that is out of place within an organism. We can think to the news reports of lambs with two heads, or dolphins born with an additional set of flippers over their vestigial rear legs, in order to understand the most literal representations of biological heterotopias. Perhaps a more uncomfortable idea is the emergence of teeth in organs with developmental differences. It is Michel Foucault who takes this idea and turns it into a useful concept outside of medical discourse.⁵ We can think of a heterotopia as not solely a biological organ, but a social one. A heterotopia then becomes a social space designated for a specific purpose or role, which engages in the specifics of this role in a utopian fashion; that is to say, a space that serves a purpose, and serves only that particular purpose. The particular idea emerges when Foucault attempts to deal with the problem of the utopia, and proposes that, instead of utopian perfect spaces, humanity produces spaces that are utopian for particular purposes: these are the heterotopias outside social time and space. The heterotopia is a slice through society that is found in the cemetery, as a perfect means of dealing with the dead, or in the honeymoon, as a perfect means outside society to deal with the ritualized loss of virginity. Museums, schools, libraries, zoos, and all manner of other specialized spaces are different types of heterotopia designed to suspend the normal operations of social time or space in order to achieve some specific task, such as the enclosure of children or animals, or the storage and display of cultural objects outside of their conditions of production. The list could go on and on, but the issue of the heterotopia as a specific site for the development of a particular task is necessary in order to appreciate Southland Tales in the way that I believe it should be appreciated.

Southland Tales is a journey across cinematic heterotopias. The metastable narrative allows Kelly to cut diagonally across genres, media, and aesthetics in an exploratory fashion. If one attempts to follow these changes expecting stability then what emerges from this is a terrible cacophony of loud mise en scène and frustrated viewer expectations that is not dissimilar to attempting to watch someone else’s evening spent television channel switching. Think instead of Canterbury Tales, or 1001 Arabian Nights, or If on a winter’s night a traveller — grand narrative cohesion is far less important to the readers than the significance of the individual stories. The radical nature of this cut through filmic genres is hidden by the familiarity with both the actors—wrestling’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Buffy’s Sarah Michelle Gellar, pop musician Justin Timberlake, and so on—and the familiarity with high-gloss/bad-plot science fiction film. If this cut across cinema is not enough to appreciate on its own for the audacity of this move in such a high-budget film, then perhaps we can reconcile an appreciation of the individual filmic moments in the manner of an assemblage of cinematic experimentation.

There are so many examples to choose for discussing Southland Tales and its relationship to satire and film criticism, due to the fact the film consists almost totally of barely connected vignettes, but we should perhaps address a few of the most interesting.

The first heterotopia I wish to highlight is the music video sequence involving Justin Timberlake lip-syncing The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” at the midpoint of the film. It is a dance sequence shot in lush long-shots that focuses on a direct address to the camera by Timberlake’s character, Private Pilot Abilene. The scene functions solely within the genre of music video, and its purpose is barely narratively excused as a drug experience, but it’s totally unclear as to whose. Music videos are where Timberlake is most at home in his screen presence as a celebrity, but his role in this piece within Southland Tales is at odds with his star persona as a pop musician. The clip confounds a directly diegetic or non-diegetic origin for the vocals, as Abilene switches between singing, drinking, and mute stares at the camera and his surroundings, without the vocals of the song ever ceasing. Out of nowhere a crew of white-blonde nurses appear, and centralize Abilene at the focus of the stage, and yet, Abilene only seems vaguely aware of them. More content to stumble drunkenly through the set, pouring beer and women everywhere, the confusion of this three minute piece with regards to its genre and narrative motivations places Timberlake, not Abilene, as the critical aspect for examination. So far as this is concerned, Timberlake’s star persona is addressed from a totally new angle. Covered in facial scars, only barely cognizant of his surrounds, Timberlake’s performance as a drug-addled war veteran, incapable of walking straight, let alone able to perform his usual complex dance routines, Timberlake’s regular celebrity status finds its sarcastic and farcical representation in his performance as the violent and crude Pilot Abilene. Replacing his usual metrosexual class stylings with a boorish military jockishness, the idea of “Timberlake” as a star is recast at the site where it is at its strongest. The threshold between Abilene/Timberlake, presentation/representation, diegetic/non-diegetic is doubled once more, as Timberlake is the narrator for Southland Tales itself. In his role as narrator he retains a level of clarity about geopolitical events, and the beginnings of World War 3, with his lucidity placing him external to the role of Abilene, but still implicated totally within the star persona of Justin Timberlake. This scene is totally narratively isolated from all the other scenes in the film, pays homage to concerns that are entirely external to the film, and engages in direct criticism of a number of cultural objects: star persona, pop music, masculine heterosexual objectification of women, and the drug-addled veterans of US military engagement.

The second heterotopia that is worth considering is the filming of the real-fake-murders of Dion Element and Dream. Dion Element is played by Wood Harris, probably best known as Avon Barksdale from HBO’s The Wire, whereas Dream is played by Amy Poehler – better known for her comedic roles, particularly as Leslie Knope in NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Dream and Dion are part of a plot to fake an extra-judicial killing by a police officer. Also implicated in the plot are a fake police officer Ronald Taverner (played by Seann William Scott), and action movie star Boxer Santaros (played by action movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Santaros is engaging in his first role as director, and innocently joins Taverner as a cameraman in a reference to the documentary police television shows such as COPS. Dion and Dream are outfitted with extensive and unconvincing facial prosthetics, fake teeth, blood packs, and squibs, and engage in the most obtusely under-prepared improvisation of a domestic argument. “Ooooohhhh! I fucking hate you! You don’t marry a ho – you can’t make a ho a housewife! Aaaarrrgh!” Combined with ineffectual air punches and puerile tantrums, the acting of bad acting is an excellent expression of Roland Barthes’ idea of “the third meaning” of the image. After Taverner and Santaros are called to the disturbance at the house, the film starts alternating between a handicam video aesthetic – complete with markers of authenticity such as timestamp and shaky camera operation – and a standard steadicam. Fog starts to creep across the set, and the film engages in an ethereal slow-mo panning shot of the actors emerging from the house’s boundary hedge in a manner more reminiscent of a jungle than a southern Californian garden.

This scene reaches its climax when a real police officer arrives at the disturbance (we’ll ignore for now the fact that he is later revealed to be a fake as well). In response to a terrible free verse poem from Dream (”My vagina will not be denied a vote in your subjective election – that’s an original poem…by Dream!”), police brutality comes to the fore, and Santaros films this unexpected officer executing Dion and Dream at close range (”Dream over”). Hearing the gunshots from offscreen, a film technician queues the squabs in Dion and Dream’s blood packs, which explode several seconds after the shots have been fired. The murderous police officer coolly grabs the camera and turns it on Santaros and tells him to leave. “You’re not really here,” he tells Taverner, who then flees the scene, before the film dives into the fog. In the non-place of the fog, a traumatized and finger-tapping Santaros loses his self-identity and takes on the role Jericho Kane—a character from his film script—before the scene then cuts to an advertisement of two cars copulating.

As is highly apparent, this nesting of multiple truths within truths is needlessly complex and serves little narrative purpose other than to render much of the earlier parts of the film redundant in terms of plot progression. Kelly’s ability to shift registers within the script is probably at its most apparent at this point in the film, and does the greatest amount of work to undermine any particular plot progression by having multiple levels of truth confound each other. These elements alone are not what this scene provides for film criticism; rather, it is the immediacy of filmic truth. None of these realities can be granted supremacy over the others, and even once some semblance of “what really happened” starts to become apparent later in the film, the actual significance of the scene has been dropped. Only the immediacy of the mise-en-scène can be treated as real. For Kelly to take Harris and Johnson, who are so overcoded in their masculinity in other texts, and extract such interestingly nervous and uncomfortable performances from them is a wondrous thing. The actors thrust a punctum through the surface of the film, and we can no longer consider the narrative to be the primary site of appreciation.

These heterotopias point to particular sites where a variety of immediate, surface-based exercises in filmmaking can be appreciated, primarily in terms of the mise-en-scène. Perhaps this isn’t an act of experimentation worthy of a manifesto on the level of the Dogme 95 movement, but it at least makes a cut through a form of experimentation in cinema that needs to be made more often. I agree that these examples I have chosen could be addressed as critical political commentary on the US military or the ineffectual nature of many leftist political organizations, but I believe that this is not the ideal manner to address the film as a whole. Yes, the narrative is bad, but it doesn’t matter. Kelly cuts to the core of character actors and generic styles in order to expose their radical potential for experimentation, and Southland Tales should be appreciated for this reason. Southland Tales, as suggested by its name, is not a story, but many stories, many moments, and all should be independently examined beyond their relationship to each other.

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Commissioned with funding from Copyright Agency Limited.