[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMqlaezGJP0]At last! I finally saw “Southland Tales,” Richard Kelly’s much-maligned, barely released, long-awaited follow-up to “Donnie Darko” (which is one of my favorite movies ever). I had been a bit desperate to see the movie, but, alas, it wasn’t even released in San Diego during the week or so that 18 theaters were allowed to show it. So, I spent a weekend or two back in December trying to BitTorrent pirated versions, hoping someone had stuck an Academy screener DVD on the Interweb. But, alas, all that was available was a pretty shitty shot-in-the-theater-with-a-handicam version. (I guess there weren’t any Academy screeners. Natch.) Still, I downloaded it. And watched about 15 minutes. And I couldn’t stand how bad the video quality was. It was like watching a 20-year-old VHS tape during an earthquake. So, I chucked the file and waited. I was wasting some time (procrastinating like a mo-fo) on Netflix, and I saw that the DVD was coming out on the 18th. I had it in my mailbox on the 19th. How many ways I can say that I love Netflix? Anyhoo, after I finally finished writing my first qual paper (Woohoo! And more on that later…) I set about to watch the film that made all of $227,365 and Richard Roeper called “one of the most confusing, ridiculous, pretentious and disastrous cinematic train wrecks I’ve ever seen.” (For more critics trying to out-nasty each other, check out the Rotten Tomatoes site here.)
I think this would be a perfect moment to cite, in a Fisk-y but not really Fisk-y way, the wonderful essay by Joe Queenen in last week’s Guardian about what really makes a truly terrible movie:
To qualify as one of the worst films of all time, several strict requirements must be met.
Agreed. Too many people will simply state, as Queenen complains, that such-and-such is one of the all-time worst movies without thinking deeply about what really makes some awful.
For starters, a truly awful movie must have started out with some expectation of not being awful. That is why making a horrific, cheapo motion picture that stars Hilton or Jessica Simpson is not really much of an accomplishment. Did anyone seriously expect a film called The Hottie and The Nottie not to suck?
Totes! That’s why, say, “Bad Love,” a Jenny McCarthy vehicle for Chrissake, which scored all those Razzies a couple years ago, doesn’t count for me. Neither, really, does “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” which was God-awful, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be any much better than the first movie, which was pretty near-God-awful. But, yes, after making “Donnie Darko,” Richard Kelly was expected to make another truly great film. He had a cast of thousands, and he had a lot of money, and he had heaps and heaps of ambition. It seems as if he wanted to make something like a cross between “Nashville” and “Dr. Strangelove,” which is pretty ambitious.
Two, an authentically bad movie has to be famous; it can’t simply be an obscure student film about a boy who eats live rodents to impress dead girls.
Ah. The only people who knew about “Southland Tales” were indie film nerds and Hollywood. That’s obviously enough to makes its financial and critical failure a big deal, but this movie hardly counts as, say, “Showgirls” or “Gigli,” for which the fame was intense.
Three, the film cannot be a deliberate attempt to make the worst movie ever, as this is cheating.
Right. That’s why “Scary Movie 4” doesn’t count.
Four, the film must feature real movie stars, not jocks, bozos, has-beens or fleetingly famous media fabrications like Hilton.
Okay, “Southland Tales” does star the Rock. But he’s not a bozo; he’s proved himself adept at carrying and opening films, and for a wrestler-turned-actor, he’s a lot better than the Governator ever was. Seann Williams Scott is also the real deal, even if he’s a B-movie actor. Sarah Michelle Gellar is A-list. Justin Timberlake is a huge star, though not yet of the screen. And then there’s the supporting cast, who are mostly great SNL cast members, past and present, and really major Actors, like Miranda Richardson and Wallace Shawn and John Larroquette. But, no, there’s no Tom Hanks or Nicole Kidman. Still, there are enough CAA assets to give the movie potentiality.
Five, the film must generate a negative buzz long before it reaches cinemas; like the Black Plague or the Mongol invasions, it must be an impending disaster of which there has been abundant advance warning; it cannot simply appear out of nowhere. And it must, upon release, answer the question: could it possibly be as bad as everyone says it is? This is what separates “Waterworld,” a financial disaster but not an uncompromisingly dreadful film, and “Ishtar,” which has one or two amusing moments, from “The Postman,” “Gigli” and “Heaven’s Gate,” all of which are bona fide nightmares…
Ah, yes. When “Southland Tales” opened at Cannes…well, here’s what Wikipedia says:
Critical reaction to the movie in its original, longer form was almost entirely negative. Many critics responded unfavorably to the film’s long running time and sprawling nature. Roger Ebert described the Cannes screening as “The most disastrous since, yes, The Brown Bunny.” Salon.com critic Andrew O’Hehir called the Cannes cut “about the biggest, ugliest mess I’ve ever seen.” Jason Solomons, in The Observer (UK), said that “Southland Tales was so bad it made me wonder if [Kelly] had ever met a human being” and that ten minutes of the “sprawling, plotless, post-apocalyptic farrago” gave him the “sinking feeling that this may be one of the worst films ever presented in [Cannes] competition.” A handful of the American and European critics, however, were far more positive. Village Voice critic J. Hoberman, for example, called Southland Tales “a visionary film about the end of times” comparable in recent American film only to David Lynch‘s acclaimed Mulholland Drive.
It took a year and a half to get to US screens, and during the wait, the bad buzz just grew and grew. Still, Kelly reedited and rerecorded the voice-over–making Justin Timberlake’s narration serious as opposed to ironic–and cut something like 45 minutes. Still, the critics, in their bitter, bitter, bitter ways, sharpened their knives. Roeper’s quote above is kinda lunatic.
Six, to qualify as one of the worst movies ever made, a motion picture must induce a sense of dread in those who have seen it, a fear that they may one day be forced to watch the film again – and again – and again.
And that’s why “Southland Tales” is not one of the worst movies ever made. Hell, it’s not even one of the worst movies I’ve seen in the past six months. It was certainly more interesting and provocative than “Juno,” which I liked, but which is really not much more than a series of Ellen Page monologues about getting knocked up. “Southland Tales,” despite its many and deeply problematic failures, is about something. Granted, it’s the Cliff Notes of something, as summarized by Don DeLillo, with additional lyrics by Perry Ferrell and Dennis Cooper. The dread that I felt while watching, say, “Meet Joe Black,” which never seemed to end, the badness of which seemed unstoppable, has a sort of hopelessness to it that only true badness can create. There’s no hope that the movie will get better. There’s only hope that it will end soon. “Southland Tales” is confusing, and there are plots holes created by characters that don’t behave consistently, but much of this is part of the ethos of the movie. It’s about rips in the time-space continuum, for Chrissake. (It’s also about the collapse of American values and freedoms after the beginning of World War 3. And it’s about the comedy in the tragedy of political extremism in America.)
Yes, it’s confusing. But it also, ultimately, all makes sense. Maybe you need to learn how to watch movies like this; you need to have grown up on the high-nerd science fiction like the 1980s X-Men or “Twin Peaks” to have the narrative-interpreting part of your brain follow the paradoxes and flashbacks and twists. If you only like, or can only understand, narratives as simple straight-forward as, say, ‘Ratatouille” or “Juno,” then you may be filled with a sense of dread while watching “Southland Tales,” waiting with fear and trepidation for the next possibly confusing scene as if it might be another passage from Gramsci’s Notebooks. (Actually, that would give me a feeling of dread.) But what I loved about “Southland Tales” was that the next scene could be something like the clip posted above, which I think is inspired: Justin Timberlake, playing a drugged out Iraq veteran, lip syncing to the Killers in some sort of fever dream. The back-up dancers rock. Or it could be the dialogue between Seann William Scott and the Rock about what cops are looking for while on patrol. Or anything Amy Poehler, playing a (ha!) Neo-Marxist performance artist-cum-terrorist, does. At all. Or porn-star-cum-(ha!)-media-mogul Sarah Michelle Gellar explaining why her screenplay is so very important: “Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted.” Which is my new tagline.