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Reel Retrospective: My Lengthy Defense of Southland Tales

“This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper… but with a bang.”

Or so says Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), the Iraq vet who sees all in Southland Tales, the epic dystopian comedy from the wildly underestimated mind of Richard Kelley. Kelley was the man behind Donnie Darko. The divisive The Box. And with Southland Tales, his eerily--no, uncannily--prescient Bush-era satire, he cemented in the minds of a few devoted followers a legacy. It may be one of the greatest movies of all time.

That said, the story of Southland Tales is one fraught with hardship. The film made its world-premiere in 2006 at the Cannes Film Festival to catastrophic reception. It was nuked with boos once the screening was finished, as the legend goes, then after Sony Pictures bought the rights the whole thing was butchered and pieced back together to make the story more palatable. Of course, the “Cannes Cut” was just released, and having seen both versions, I can safely say that neither makes a whole lot of sense on its surface. Instead, Kelley the visionary wrote a graphic novel to precede the film. He kept up a website for clue-hunters (as he did with his debut feature) but after the news of the Cannes screening, the word-of-mouth rumblings in the world of film-criticism promised nothing less than disaster and the film crashed harder than the Trier Mega-Zeppelin.

Today, the graphic novels are available but the website is nonexistent. Unarchived and left to rot on Kelley’s hard-drive somewhere, we the audience are left floundering in the film’s half-dead universe. Southland Tales is a movie with a brain well-beyond its budget and its time-constraints, surely, but don’t get it twisted: though contemporary audiences may have found it easy enough to write Southland Tales off as the textbook sophomore slump, if it had sat in a time capsule until this very moment, it’s difficult to imagine the response being anywhere close to the way it was then.

Imagine if you will, an alternate 2008. Texas has been bombed to hell, the internet is a tool of the government, Bud Lite and Hustler sponsor the war in Iraq, and every state’s border is locked-down like Fort Knox. Imagine California in this universe: a cultural-hub gone to the dogs, now a cesspool of crime and buffoonery. It’s a wasteland of rollerblading socialists, of ice-cream-truck-driving arms dealers, and a Fifth-Element-reject of a billionaire who’s harnessed the power of the ocean to achieve world-domination. Don’t worry. It’s even more confusing in context.

The story mostly centers around three (proportionally) normal characters: Boxer Santaros (Duane “The Rock” Johnson), an amnesiac actor and screenwriter with political ties; porn-star-cum-pop-culture-entreprenuer, Krysta Now (Sarah-Michelle Gellar); and Roland Taverner (Sean-William Scott), the twin of a racist cop adopted by left-wing militants. These three are practically the only pure hearts in California, but they’re also all of great interest to all powers-that-be in Los Angeles. These are the campaign of Republican Senator Bobby Frost, the underground Neo-Marxist movement, and the posse of Baron von Westphalen--the aforementioned nautical mastermind. Just in case it needs clarifying, these groups stand in today for the broken institution, the furious insurgence, and the elites with the sway to own both.

Bobby Frost, an obvious Bush-surrogate, also shares traits with our last president. He’s a foolish figurehead with the illusion of power while his wife, Nana Mae, pulls the strings from her office at the end of the hall. Nana Mae is the supervisor of US-IDENT, a terrorist-tracking juggernaut that adds up to the surveillance of any and all public activity including the internet. Casing public bathroom stalls and profiling Venice Beach, she calls in raids to her privatized police squad and raids the homes of suspected “liberal-extremists” while Vaughn Smallhouse--Bobby’s legs on the ground--makes calls to find footage of Boxer getting cozy with Krysta. Boxer is Bobby Frost’s son-in-law, it’s worth mentioning, and as neither side of the political coin can forget, it’s an election-year.

Boxer, meanwhile, has just returned from a mission in the Mojave Desert. No one knows what he was doing there, and now that he’s back he has no recollection of his ties to the Frost campaign. In the days since his return he’s shacked up with Krysta to finance a screenplay that apparently foretells the tale of our destruction.

This screenplay, “The Power,” finds itself linked inextricably to what is going down in the Southland. Each plot-point we discover has parallels to this 2008, but curiously enough, no one thinks that to be a pressing issue. They do nothing to stop it. With the tape (a simple kiss on a balcony) out there, the campaign is swayed only by short-term election goals.

This conflict of priorities froths beneath the surface like the waves in the Bay, drawing climate change parallels long before it was recognized as a global threat. Anyone who comes into contact with the screenplay sees it for what it is--a prophecy--but our getting hung up on its logistics as viewers is pointless “Who cares why the world is ending?” Kelley seems to say, “The fact is it’s ending.” The Baron--the campaign’s primary benefactor--seems to be counting on it.

He also finances the Neo-Marxists, a group of liberal extremists who conspire to overthrow the government in an empty Venice Beach warehouse. They bomb cars, traffic severed fingers to use at voting machines, and follow the law of Zora Carmichaels (Cheri Oteri), a disloyal loose-cannon who would--and does--kill any of her lackeys stupid enough to get in the way.

Now, what separates Southland Tales from its dystopian counterparts isn’t just its impartiality toward its subjects, but also in the fact that it doesn’t treat the situation as one with any other possible outcome. Both parties come out looking dreadful, but if either turns around and stops the other gains the upper hand. The impression one has coming out of Southland Tales is that every character in the Southland, sequestered away from the rest of the union has--in their own way--been sold a bill of goods on the American dream.

In some ways, it calls to mind the COVID-19 Pandemic. The country is dealt an unexpected wakeup-call, and the establishment is unequipped to deal with it. The federal government is practically unreachable, and each state is left to fester with minimal discretion. But the central conflict, the omnipresent threat, is the war in Iraq. The bombing of Texas that sets the story in motion is what set the stage for the Baron’s move toward alternative fuel sources and to make his move on the world (which isn’t to say the film is opposed to alternative fuel, but in making any country so dependent on one individual, Kelley argues all would be left at that individual’s mercy). Locked away from the rest of the world, the conflict at home is pushed to the fore as war-profiteering and draft-fatigue set in.

Timberlake’s “Pilot Abilene”--so called because he pilots a sniper rifle in the San-Francisco bay and hails from Abilene, Texas--tells the film’s story like a cold, all-seeing eye from his turret and waxes omniscient on all but himself. As we decipher from news-reels, character-interactions and our own knowledge of his past, we find that not only is he a veteran himself, but was also experimented on by the Baron in Fallujah. Just like Boxer Santaros, he was an actor, but without the backing of a political figurehead he was rendered a cog in the war-machine and dependent on the very drug that was administered to him by the Baron’s men.

Because the Baron--just like the war--hangs over the film like Elon’s sticky musk. He’s cruel and opportunistic, at the center of every decision, and the poster-child for American solipsism. While the Utopia 3--his enigmatic facility that sits like an eyesore in the fog off the coast of Santa Monica--generates renewable hydropower, it also creates Fluid Karma, the favorite drug of the Southland’s vets. Fluid Karma is smuggled to the pier in its raw form by Abilene’s war-buddies, but leaks into the sea like an oil spill (in one telling news report, an anchor assures swimmers that “the red tide” is nothing to worry about, but advises a shower after swimming).

It’s this interdependence between the alternative fuel of the Utopia 3 and its mind-altering byproduct that proves one of the most fascinating and prescient clues of the Southland Tales ethos. One would be forgiven for believing that Fluid Karma was the idea behind the Utopia 3 all along, but I’ve since come around to the idea that its corollary presence was instead a simple bonus. The soldiers are slaves to their government, the Baron figures, so they serve the same function as willing test-subjects. In 2008 such a man was mere conjecture, but with tech-billionaires today reaching past public policy to fly to space, profit from virtual real-estate and try to microchip human brains, the idea, at the very least, seems plausible.

Thousands die in these experiments, but it’s not the enemy that’s killing them. It’s “friendly fire” and the price of scientific advancement. Nothing can ever be sustainable when the bottom-line is involved, and cruelty--wouldn’t you know it--is cheaper than morality.

Survivor’s guilt wracks Roland Taverner. He wanders the streets an amnesiac like Boxer, trying to forgive himself, but the battle at home rages on. There’s no winning a Civil War, but he does his best to keep the peace and do what’s right for himself.

What Southland Tales amounts to is all said and done is exactly what every dystopian tale seeks to say. It’s not about staying alive in an uncertain time, but about staying human. Lurking beneath the machismo and rage is a deep-seated sadness. Krysta has everything to lose, Boxer is confused by his affiliations and past, and Taverner is, as mentioned, battling PTSD.

It’s also a comedy after all, so this humanity emerges through sex. Krysta is an entrepreneur, but is wholly in touch with her sexuality, and once Boxer has been freed from his partisan ties, so is he. Her status in porn is no fatal flaw, but instead is the key to her confidence and an unwavering sense of self. She’s the keeper of a tape that both parties want to claim for their upper-hand, but she keeps it as leverage to further her career. She’s a symbol of the allure of simple happiness. She fights the power in her own way, but at her core Krysta’s her own brand (it’s all about “Now”), and while she hasn’t fostered such a cult of personality as the Frost campaign, the Neo-Marxists, or the Baron, she fancies herself an icon. It’s that very reason she is one.

“Teen horniness is not a crime…” Bobby Frost reads from the cover of Krysta’s self-promoted pop album, “I never said it was…” But the down-the-nose-smirkers that form his party’s backbone have all-but forbade it. In a world without privacy, sex is put on the backburner until only porn-stars and those unburdened of their “memory gospel” can stomach it. The Baron can afford to tote his Bohemian mistress about town, but most of the pawns of the Southland are sexless, relegated mostly to secret trysts and in one hilarious sequence, a demand for fellatio at gunpoint on a crowded beach.

So it’s telling that the only sex scene in a film so riddled with sexual undertones is one between two American SUV’s. It’s a commercial for the Trier Saltair, a line of cars from the Baron’s own company, and a work of consumerist masturbation theretofore unseen. It’s an American car for the American driver, but “I wouldn’t worry,” Vaughn Smallhouse tells Frost. “It’s the European version.”

It’s brilliant. It’s just brilliant. Here’s a xenophobic America dependent on the others it loathes. An America that orders hits on Iraq and every other country in the middle east by to be carried-out by its petrified citizens (and whether it’s due to the fact that they no longer need their oil, they don’t want anyone else to have it, or are just keen on putting their patsy-boogeyman in his place, the effect remains the same). It’s an America that uses scare-tactics to win elections, makes stark-raving lunatics of its counter-culture and all indebted to it. It’s a warzone. It’s cosmically hilarious. It’s screenplay-as-prophecy. Southland Tales has brilliantly foretold the tale of our destruction. We’ll end not with a whimper… but with a bang.


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