Not With a Bang

This is the way the world ends,

This is the way the world ends,

This is the way the world ends,

Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S.Eliot, The Hollow Men


Southland Tales

Written and Directed by Richard Kelly

Starring:            Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Wallace Shawn, Jon Lovitz, Justin Timberlake, John Larroquette, Christopher Lambert, Mandy Moore and a whole bunch of people you would recognize including that guy from American Pie and Bulletproof Monk.


(Contains Spoilers)


So I watched Southland Tales.  I think this brings the total viewership up to twelve. Was this direct-to-video or what?  Did it really get nominated for a golden palm at Cannes in 2006, or is that a hoax?


This was in the “Cult” section of my favorite movie rental place.  I’ve heard it described as “science fiction” and “futuristic.” Richard Kelly, writer and director, is the creator of the cult classic Donnie Darko, so you kind of expect weirdness.  With Southland, Kelly brings the weird.


The movie is episodic, a little slow to get started, and over two hours long. I thought perhaps I dozed off between the time that Rebekah del Rios sang the national anthem aboard the giant zeppelin and the point where the ice cream truck hit the ATM machine being dragged behind the SUV and went airborne, but later I figured out that, no, I didn’t really. . .just that nothing much happened for a little bit. 


I ‘m not sure, but I think the movie is meant to be funny.  I think it’s a satire on current political and pop-cultural events, including (maybe) the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is California’s governor (“Boxer Santeros” is a Schwarzenegger-type character, right?).The movie seems funny.  Dwayne Johnson does funny stuff, Sarah Michelle Geller is delightfully deadpan, and it’s got all these great comic actors doing darkly comedic things.     


I could try to recap some key plot points here, but what would be the point?  If you’re really interested in what people think the movie is about (and you’re not) go look it up on  Okay, here are a few elements:  1) Richard Kelly has unresolved issues about gunshot wounds to the head; 2) there is an alternate energy source that also may confer telepathic ability on people who inject it as a drug;  3) neo-con fascists have taken over America; 4) liberals are stupid and duplicitous also; 5) “Southland” is southern California; 6)Geller plays an ex porn star and 7) that hair she has at the beginning of the movie has to be a wig.  Oh, wait—there a metaphysical time-travel element (sound familiar at all?), a giant zeppelin, and Justin Timeberlake, as Pilot Abilene, hanging out on the beach, quoting the book of Revelations and shooting people with some fancy-schmancy hi-tech sniper gun. He only shoots people we don’t like, though, so it’s okay.


(The metaphysical time-travel element is a temporal rift.  Really, I don’t think people realize just how serious a hole in the fabric of time/space is.  It’s not like you can just slap some two-sided tape on it.  I am outraged that the conventional media has not addressed more air time to this serious problem.)


If I were going to complain about the plot—which is what I usually complain about—I would say that Kelly short-hands too much stuff at the beginning of the film. He could cut a good ten minutes here and we’d never miss it, and yet the back-story isn’t fleshed out. He resorts to voice-over narration which is almost always, to me, the sign of a failure.  This time however, it kind of worked for me; even though the computer view screen and the anagram stuff got annoying quickly. After some aimless darting around with pseudo-plots about amnesiac-Republican-movie-action-heroes, screenplays, blackmail, double-triple-quadruple crosses, the movie kind of gets down to it with the guy from American Pie, who plays a dual characters, twins.  Only, remember there’s a metaphysical time-travel element, so maybe he’s not exactly a twin, but . .  These characters become the heart of the movie in some strange way, along with Timberlake’s apocalyptic v.o. narrator and a slacker kid who shoots down the zeppelin from atop a levitating ice cream truck while Dwayne Johnson does a three-way tango number (no, the dance, mind-in-the-gutter) with Geller and Moore.


Really.  I don’t think I’ve got it wrong. That is what happens.


Did I mention the music video segment where Justin Timberlake sings something like, “I’ve got soul, but I’m no soldier?”


And then, when we’re on the big blimp (and should I get the reference to the name of the thing?) am I crazy, or does it start feeling a little bit like 1969’s The Magic Christian?      


Throughout the movie, characters say, “Not with a whimper, but with a bang.” Unless they are referring to Geller’s ex-porn-star character’s profession, they’re wrong.  It’s a whimper. The characters I liked best were the porn-producer/blackmailer and her friend/lover(?).  They were kind of blue-collar and cool.  And I liked Timberlake’s weird, damaged war veteran, and the twin guys too; they were all right.  I thought Johnson gave a fine performance in a movie no one will see; I admire Geller for the whole post-modernist-ironical thing, but she didn’t really show us anything new here except for the hair she has at the end of the movie.  She should definitely go back to being brunette. The actress who played Starla was screamingly funny (spoiler alert) right up until she was shot. Far, far, far too many people put guns against their temples.  You know what?  It was actually funny when Cleavon Little did it in Blazing Saddles and it has never been funny since.  Richard, find another theme.


So did I like it?  Not really and yet. . .kinda.  Why?  You’re thinking, “Why on earth would she have liked it?” and I would have to reply that sometimes, for me, an intriguing failure holds my attention more than a by-the-numbers success.


Maybe Kelly is self-indulgent and undisciplined, or maybe this is just the way he makes movies.  He seems big on poetry. Maybe he approaches these projects as sprawling visual poems rather than coherent stories.


I don’t think Southland Tales is as good as it could have been, but it’s a fine might-have-been of a movie. It feels like it could make a nice triple feature with Kiss Me Deadly, and Strange Days, as long at there were lots of margaritas at the party.


This is the way the movie ends,

This is the way the movie ends,

This is the way the movie ends,

Not with a whimper but a “hunh?”

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