Photos by Joshua Shultz
Given that one of the protagonists in Southland Tales -- an ensemble postmodern action-musical satire set in pre-apocalyptic Los Angeles -- is a psychic porn star who writes a screenplay based on prophetic visions; and given that the film's sprawling narrative drew inspiration from vision-questers Philip K. Dick and Andy Warhol; and given that the movie can be an impenetrable mind-fuck no matter how many times one sees it; I wanted to give its writer/director, Richard Kelly, the benefit of the doubt.
I asked him earnestly if any parts of his movie were inspired by his own supernatural visions.
We were sitting over lunch one afternoon in April, in the city where, at the age of 29, he directed the film in question, one of the most ambitious, spectacular, and commercially disastrous oddities in Hollywood history.
He chuckled at my question.
"There was definitely some alien intelligence running through my DNA at some point in the process," Kelly said. "I look back and sort of laugh at where some of this could've come from."
I asked him for an example, and Kelly -- now a muscular, clean-cut 38 -- looked down at his ham-and-cheese omelet and paused. His brow, glistening from the heat of a Venice Beach afternoon, furrowed. He shook his head and, after a beat, corrected himself.
"Y'know, on second thought, it all comes from a logical place," Kelly said. "I just think the ambition of it and the density of it is something that" -- he paused again -- "is very intimidating, in retrospect."
(This response infuriated me a little bit. But I'm getting ahead of myself.)
"Intimidating" is one of the many adjectives that have been used to describe Southland Tales. Some others, used by various critics: "incomprehensible," "ridiculous," "pretentious," and "indulgent." One unbiased adjective for it: unprofitable. It cost about $17 million to make, but earned only $374,743 after its release in 2007.
The story describes an America in the thrall of its own self-destruction, with hearty doses of climate change, government surveillance, corporate control, PTSD, media overload, and the porn industry. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Dwayne Johnson (aka the Rock), Justin Timberlake, Amy Poehler, Mandy Moore, Miranda Richardson, Will Sasso, Lou Taylor Pucci, Seann William Scott, and other recognizable faces are in the picture. The music was made by Moby. It debuted at Cannes. It was the much-anticipated second film of the writer and director of Donnie Darko, when Donnie Darko was at the height of its cult fame.
How could the sum of all that be a movie that makes less than $400,000 and earns angry boos at its first public screening?
Kelly still isn't sure. But every day, the movie haunts him.
"I think about it all the time. It's definitely the thing that I'm most proud of, and I feel like it's sort of the misunderstood child or the banished child," Kelly told me. "It was a lot to wrestle into submission, but it was such a wonderful obsession to have, and that I continue to have."
He's not alone: the movie's fanbase has developed a complex relationship with its creator. Kelly refuses to give up on the film. It's "unfinished," he says, and he's convinced its day will come. Nearly six years after America largely rejected this tale of a distinctly American apocalypse, it remains as vital and baffling as it ever was.
This is a story about ambition, but also about failure, and fixation, and rebirth. To quote Justin Timberlake's character, this is the way the world ends; not with a whimper, but with a bang.
This is the life and afterlife of Southland Tales.
The timing for this article is based on a little white lie.
Ostensibly, it's pegged to the fifth anniversary of something that never actually happened: the end of the universe, as depicted in Southland Tales. That event occurs on a sweltering July 4th in an alternate-reality 2008. Inside a flying ice cream truck, Seann William Scott's character shakes hands with a mysterious double of himself, causing spacetime to implode. Happy Independence Day.
But really, this article is being published now because Richard Kelly and I can't let go.
On March 26th of this year, I was lying in bed and thinking about Southland Tales, as I am wont to do (in this particular case, it was because I'd just seen Spring Breakers, which evoked some of Southland Tales' violent neon insanity). I tweeted the following:
More than anything, I wanna interview @JRichardKelly about SOUTHLAND TALES. For like three hours. I'd do it for free.— Abraham Riesman (@abrahamjoseph) March 27, 2013
A mere 23 minutes later, I was astounded to see that this happened:
@abrahamjoseph I would happily talk to you about it.— Richard Kelly (@JRichardKelly) March 27, 2013
We followed up via email within the hour. He was serious. I was serious.
I bought a plane ticket to Los Angeles and we arranged to meet up at Venice Beach's semi-famous Sidewalk Cafe, where many of the film's scenes were shot.
Before we even sat down, I realized that there would be no truly appropriate time to publish the fruits of our conversation. But then again, Southland Tales has always been a movie without an appropriate time: simultaneously prophetic and dated, a vision of the future set only a few months after its release date.
So now is as good a time as any, I suppose, to say that attention must be paid.
But what, exactly, is Southland Tales about?
Okay. Here goes nothing.
It's a dystopian sci-fi thriller/farce, based loosely on the Book of Revelation, and set in Los Angeles. A movie star named Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) is tricked into traveling through time alongside a World War 3 veteran named Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott). In the process, both get amnesia and the spacetime rift they have created subsequently spawns doubles of each of them (but Boxer's double dies). Boxer begins an affair with an entrepreneurial porn star named Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who has written a screenplay that accurately foretells the end of the world.
These characters are then attacked, guided, and/or manipulated by various larger-than-life figures and organizations. They include a Neo-Marxist terror cell with a mostly female leadership (Amy Poehler, Cheri Oteri, and Nora Dunn, amongst others); a mad scientist named Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), who has developed a mystical fuel called Fluid Karma; and a Republican operative (Miranda Richardson) in charge of the government's Internet surveillance program, USIDENT. Eventually, the Taverner doubles tearfully shake hands in the aforementioned ice cream truck, destroying reality.
Oh, and I almost forgot Justin Timberlake. He plays Pilot Abilene, a Bible- and Eliot-quoting, drug-addled World War 3 vet -- and friend of Taverner's -- who narrates the entire film through an Apocalypse Now-esque voiceover.
Believe it or not, this is an incredibly abbreviated summary. A few years ago, Thomas Rogers made a noble attempt at explaining the plot, which you can read at Salon, if you're so inclined. But this is one of those movies that's so fractured, so packed with detail, that any synopsis is going to be subjective, because you pick out what details you think are most salient. The story is so intricate and strange, you really have no other choice.
The film is a visual pastiche of guns, graffiti, muscle-beach bodies, walls of chattering TV screens, and colorful psychedelia.
I recently forced three friends to watch the movie for the first time and, a few minutes after it ended, asked them individually to summarize what they'd just seen. From their descriptions, it seemed like we were watching different movies.
One said it was "an LA narcissist's take on what would happen if you put an all-comedic cast and then B-list actors who can't really act into a social commentary on consumption and oil policy." Another said it was a collection of "Buñuelian surrealist symbols and weird things thrown in for no apparent reason," clearly not intended to make any sense. The third said it was all obviously a hallucination Taverner was having about Abilene, with Boxer, Krysta, and Boxer's wife (Mandy Moore) as a representation of the Holy Trinity. (I definitely hadn't thought of that before.)
None of these accounts are "correct," per se. Trying to assemble a coherent narrative is impossible, though: there's simply not enough information. That's because Kelly had to cut a substantial amount of footage from both the Cannes and commercial cuts due to studio pressure (both ran more than two and a half hours) -- footage that contained crucial characters and plot details.
What did make it in, however, is as indelible as it is confusing. The film is a visual pastiche of guns, graffiti, muscle-beach bodies, walls of chattering TV screens, and colorful psychedelia. The tone jumps from farcical to earnest with whiplash-inducing speed. To borrow from T.S. Eliot, whom the movie repeatedly quotes, Southland Tales is a heap of broken images; an endless series of singularly strange lines and vignettes.
A sample platter:
There's the phrase, "I'm a pimp, and pimps don't commit suicide," spoken in one variation or another three times over the course of the film -- and never explained.
There's the scene where Cheri Oteri's character haggles with an arms dealer played by Christopher Lambert (you know, Raiden from Mortal Kombat), who operates out of the aforementioned ice cream truck. She tries to pay him with a personal check and he memorably snarls, "Get the fuck out of my ice cream truck, you Cro-Magnon bitch."
There's the beachside music video for Krysta Now's self-released single, "Teen Horniness is Not a Crime" ("An overcrowded nation / leads to sex frustration / all your legislation / can't stop teens' masturbation").
There's the part where Amy Poehler performs a poem while wearing a prosthetic nose and a wedding dress, and is subsequently shot by a corrupt cop named Bart Bookman (Jon Lovitz -- he's in this movie, too).
And there's the dreamlike sequence in which Justin Timberlake performs a lip-synced song-and-dance number set to The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done." (The scene has gone slightly viral: as of this writing, its various YouTube rips have a total of 927,130 views -- nearly three times the amount of dollars in the movie's total worldwide gross.)
I could go on. Glance at Southland Tales' IMDb "Quotes" page and you'll get a sense of why people get obsessed with this movie. Or, better yet, just watch it. You might find yourself becoming a superfan. And then you might find yourself having lunch with Richard Kelly in Venice Beach.
And if you do find yourself doing that, you might be surprised at how alive and excited he is. Because for a while, it seemed like he'd vanished from the face of the earth.
Richard Kelly has no regrets about the making of Southland Tales -- or at least none he would tell me about. However, there is one liability he thinks may have tripped him up: youthful hubris.
"I was barely 30. 29. And that's still too young to be directing a film," Kelly said with a laugh. "I'm not sure if anyone under the age of 30 should be allowed to direct a film. That sounds horribly hypocritical, but..."
He trailed off and gazed to his right. He was, indeed, incredibly young when he made Southland Tales. But as of its filming, Kelly was experiencing a meteoric rise to fame. He was only 26 when his feature debut, Donnie Darko, appeared at Sundance. Starring a then-unknown Jake Gyllenhaal, it was a darkly funny coming-of-age sci-fi oddity, and it wasn't an immediate hit. But once it hit DVD, it became an enormous cult classic, filling dorm-room shelves and nerds' basements across the country. In 2004, Kelly released a successful director's cut in theaters, further bolstering his mad-genius status.
By the time he and I crossed paths for lunch, he was approaching 40, but he still seemed youthful. Sunlight framed his lantern jaw and short, spiked hair. Appropriate for the locale, his biceps were toned, noticeable. My clip-on microphone dragged down his worn-out purple t-shirt. (If I haven't made it clear by now: Kelly is an almost maddeningly handsome man.)
We were noshing at the Sidewalk Cafe, the place where Krysta meets with Neo-Marxist Cyndi Pinziki (Nora Dunn) and confides, "I'm fucking a very large and important man" (she's referring to Boxer). The place where Pinziki tasers a GOP operative (John Larroquette) in the balls and declares, "Nobody rocks the cock like Cyndi Pinziki." The place where Boxer and one of the Taverner doubles discuss the eerie dreams they've been having.
After his comment about being too young to make a movie, Kelly scanned the area. I asked him what he was thinking about.
"Sitting here with Dwayne and Seann and just having the best time. It was so much fun," he said. "It was the most insane experience. We only had about 29 days to shoot the entire film."
I had expected him to describe a troubled production, a rushed and confused process of rewrites and improvisation that led to a mishmashed final product. But all of Kelly's memories of making the film are strangely positive. The writing and filming processes went according to plan, he said.
"I was barely 30. 29. And that's still too young to be directing a film," Kelly said with a laugh. "I'm not sure if anyone under the age of 30 should be allowed to direct a film. That sounds horribly hypocritical, but..."
The seed of the movie was planted in 2001, after Donnie Darko's release. He'd been mulling ideas for a sophomore effort, and one day, out of the blue, a single bit of plot popped into his head: a big-name actor being conned by an array of Los Angeles archetypes.
Then things went all Richard Kelly-ish in his brain.
"Just like all of my stuff, it just evolves into a place where it becomes exceedingly ambitious and layered and dense and too long for distribution," he said. "The layers of science fiction and the Orwellian political world surrounding the characters evolved in subsequent drafts. And it really became a much more grand, apocalyptic statement, instead of a bunch of morons in LA trying to extort money."
So how on earth did he get anyone -- backers, actors, and execs -- on board with something like that? What was his elevator pitch?
"I think it was just the idea of a big dystopia comedy-satire about the last three days on earth in Los Angeles," he recalled, laughing. "I just remember being in a room with so many people, their eyes glazing over. And part of me takes pride in that. But y'know, Donnie Darko was no easy sell, either. It was something people needed to just surrender themselves to."
Maybe it was the buzz of Darko that led people to trust Kelly. Or maybe it was his charm. Or maybe they recognized something prophetic in the glint of Kelly's eye: Wallace Shawn once told an interviewer he didn't want to be like one of those actors who turned down Waiting for Godot because it didn't make sense.
Or maybe it was the concept art.
"I brought my MegaZeppelin schematics to the Firehouse restaurant in Venice Beach," Kelly recalled. He was referring to Baron von Westphalen's airship, on which the film's climax takes place. "Dwayne," -- the Rock -- "rolled up in his Humvee and I was showing him MegaZeppelin schematics and he was very amused. He said yes immediately."
Concept art by Ron Cobb. See more here.
Different lures worked for different stars. For example, with Gellar, "I think the pitch was Jenna Jameson meets Arianna Huffington. And she got it. She thought that was hilarious and she went for it." He told Scott he'd be playing a very serious character, something no director had trusted him to do up to that point in his career.
Ultimately, Kelly saw himself as offering a unique opportunity to his cast: "Every one of those actors," he said, "every single one of them, is playing a subversive version of themselves and their celebrity image."
Indeed, Johnson plays a tatted-out action star, Scott plays someone who joins Johnson on an adventure (a la their previous turn as a duo, 2003's The Rundown), Amy Poehler plays a self-important improviser, indie director Kevin Smith plays a nerd with a superiority complex, and Timberlake plays a pop star who got drafted in the ultimate propaganda stunt and came out the other end completely wrecked (as I suppose JT might have been if World War III had begun before his acting career took off).
Against all odds, Kelly raised money from backers, assembled his massive cast, and began shooting. The 29 day shoot -- mostly spent in Venice Beach and Santa Monica -- was a whirlwind. They couldn't book much time on the infamously crowded Venice Beach boardwalk. Kelly only had Timberlake on set for one day, meaning he could only get four takes of the dance scene (despite the fact that he had still yet to negotiate legal rights to the Killers' song). The crew had to cope with rich, angry neighbors during scenes shot in the Nowita Place Walkway.
"'Get the hell outta here, you crackhead!" Kelly recalled one furious old lady screaming at Johnson. "You crackhead scumbag! Go do your crack somewhere else!"
But in less than a month, Kelly had wrapped filming and headed into post-production. Up until this point, the story Kelly told was joyful, buoyant, warm.
Then, as epic tales tend to do, it grew dark.
The graphic novels probably should have been Kelly's first clue that things were going to get tricky.
Before he had even finished filming, Kelly started writing three graphic novels to act as prequels for Southland Tales. They weren't superfluous -- all of them contained vital details explaining what the hell happens in the movie. Without them, a viewer could be completely lost.
"I needed the first three chapters to complete the whole story," he told me. But even the graphic novels weren't enough. They were, he says, "always intended to be blueprints for an animated prequel that would lead to a final extended cut of the whole film."
The production hadn't spiraled out of control. But Kelly's imagination had.
By the time the film went to Cannes in May 2006 for its high-profile debut, his ambition had gotten the best of him. He couldn't get the movie edited into a form that satisfied him. Many of the visual effects were unfinished. When he arrived in France, the film's run-time was nearly three hours.
"I wanted to be able to announce, 'This is a work in progress!'" Kelly recalled. "But then everyone around me was like, 'No. Do not say that!' And I was like, 'But I wanna say that. That's the truth.' And they were like, 'No. It'll backfire.'"
In retrospect, that kind of backfire might have been preferable. After the initial 9 a.m. press screening, Kelly started getting calls from members of his PR team. His heart dropped.
"There was a lot of shell-shocked, 'Oh, Richard. Man. People were...'" He trailed off in the retelling, shaking his head. Lightning-round critical snippets were extremely negative. The film had been loudly booed.
Kelly still had to go through with the black-tie screening that night. "I barely remember it," he said. "It was surreal. I think we all had dinner the next night and said, 'Okay, we have to cut it down.'"
Luckily, Sony picked up Southland Tales at the festival, but the path to a mainstream opening was going to be a long one -- more than a year long -- muddied by the behemoth challenge of turning a movie that was already "unfinished" at 160 minutes into something marketable to popcorn-munching audiences. He would have to cut out Janeane Garofalo's character, as well as a number of scenes that explained various characters' entire motivations. For example, the theatrical cut doesn't explain the presence of Chinese magician Serpentine (played by actress Bai Ling), even though she is, in fact, the secret puppetmaster behind the spacetime apocalypse.
"Everyone's your best friend when you get into competition at Cannes, but then, the movie is widely ridiculed, and all of a sudden, your phone stops ringing."
It took more than a year, and the finished product -- still unusually long, at 144 minutes -- was only picked up at 63 theaters. Critics derided it, leaving it with a 36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (though a lonely few championed it, such as The Village Voice's J. Hoberman and The New York Times' Manohla Dargis). In just a few weeks, it was out of theaters.
"Everyone's your best friend when you get into competition at Cannes, but then, the movie is widely ridiculed, and all of a sudden, your phone stops ringing," Kelly said. Nowadays, its stars rarely talk about it, and when they do, they might quickly toss it under the bus ("I still don't know what that movie is about," Timberlake said in an interview in 2011).
Kelly's career hasn't been ruined, but it's definitely slowed down significantly. He's only made one movie since Southland Tales: 2009's sci-fi thriller The Box, which received warm reviews and turned a profit. He told me he's been writing screenplays nearly non-stop since then, though none have made it to the screen yet (one's called Corpus Christi and might get made by Eli Roth; another's called Amicus, it's about a First Amendment trial, and he's optimistic that it'll get the green light soon).
Ultimately, the Southland Tales graphic novels -- and the expansive, trippy vision they represented -- became potent symbols of Kelly's lowered expectations for his magnum opus.
"I just wanted them there for the long-term," he said. "You know, if this film is going to be discovered over a long period of time, to have those graphic novels there for people who want to seek them out and want to discover them and to have the narrative in place."
In the years since, Kelly has looked for those people. He found them. But by and large, they didn't know they'd been found.
BenDavid Grabinski was confused.
When I tweeted at Grabinski, a 30-year-old Angeleno and aspiring filmmaker, to talk about Southland Tales, I mentioned I'd heard he was a big fan. "How did you hear that?" he asked me.
"Believe it or not, Richard Kelly himself told me in an email," I replied. "He keeps tabs on his Twitter fans."
This was news to Grabinski.
While writing back and forth with Kelly, I'd asked if he could recommend any particularly eloquent Southland Tales devotees. He fired me missives with an array of fans' Twitter handles. I assumed these were all people he'd conversed with.
But when I tweeted interview requests to these people, nearly every single one was shocked to find out that Kelly had identified them. They'd had no direct interactions with him. He had, it turned out, just found them by monitoring the Twittersphere for discussion of his much-beloved, much-maligned movie.
Indeed, Twitter is Kelly's primary medium for showing his ongoing obsession with the movie -- fitting, given that the film is filled with rapid-fire one-liners and streams of unrelated information. Take a look at his Twitter account: the wallpaper and cover image are both lifted from the movie. He hardly ever tweets about any other movie of his. If he sees a movie he likes, he'll often tweet a comparison to Southland Tales. If a major news event occurs, he's likely to mention a parallel there, too.
One step closer to USIDENT: http://t.co/coU7a4DA— Richard Kelly (@JRichardKelly) April 27, 2012
SPRING BREAKERS: 4 of Britney's early schizoid personalities rescued by Federline. Bi-polar rebirth in Krysta Now Lamborghini. #LovedIt— Richard Kelly (@JRichardKelly) March 15, 2013
Even the "website" section of his Twitter profile doesn't even go to the URL of his production company, Darko Entertainment -- it goes to "Fuck Yeah, Southland Tales," the Internet's most trafficked Southland Tales fan site. Kelly, of course, gave me the Twitter handle of the blog's proprietor, Nova Bennett. She was just as surprised as everyone else to have been noticed by one of her favorite directors.
Still, she and every other fan I contacted wrote back with effusive and detailed praise of the movie in question. They weren't stereotypical cult-movie fans, either: not a single person thought of it as "so bad it's good," nor was anyone under the illusion that it's a perfect movie. They simply revel in it, flaws and all.
"Everything there has a point, has a reason," he told me at the cafe. "Even the orbs, the glowing orbs."
"I first saw the film during its theatrical release in 2007 at a very empty weeknight show at the Village East in New York and loved it instantly," C. Mason Wells, a 29-year-old fanboy, wrote to me. (He recently coordinated a midnight Southland Tales screening at the IFC Center.) "In its narrative complexity and breadth and depth of references (high and low, from T.S. Eliot to porn), Southland feels more of its time (and ahead of its time) than any other 21st century American movie; it's pure sensory overload."
Another fan, Peter Labuza, wrote back with similar points of adulation: "In terms of post-9/11, Bush-era, post-MTV cinema, few films dare to extrapolate it all into its own insane generational statement as audaciously as Kelly does. It acts as an instant time capsule (even if it's set in the future)."
Grabinski put it more bluntly: "After my first viewing(s) of the movie I assumed the narrative would eventually come together like a magic eye picture after multiple viewings. But that wasn't the case," he wrote. "I understand most of what's going on but I don't really give a shit. I appreciate the movie as an experience like Lost Highway or something by Jodorowsky. I really could care less about clarity/narrative."
I'm on the same page with these people. That's why I'm here, now. But I one-upped all of them. I got to climb the mountaintop, visit the holy sites, and speak to the oracle himself. Mystery's great and all, but I got the opportunity to ask all the questions I wanted.
But here's the scary, depressing truth about asking questions: all too often, they have answers.
Richard Kelly is the opposite of Bob Dylan.
When interviewers ask Dylan what a given lyric means, he infamously tends to shrug and say he doesn't know. The words rhymed, he'll say, or it made sense at the time, or it just is what it is. It drives fans nuts.
Richard Kelly was happy to tell me the meaning of everything. My friend who thought Southland Tales was all Buñuelian surrealism couldn't have been more wrong.
"Everything there has a point, has a reason," he told me at the cafe. "Even the orbs, the glowing orbs."
He was referring to a series of objects that some of the film's more mysterious characters hold at various points in the movie. I'd always wondered what they were.
"Those are remote antennas for the Fluid Karma energy field," Kelly said. "You got one of those orbs around, the energy field is more highly concentrated, and that's sort of explained briefly in the graphic novels."
Our conversation was filled with moments like this. I'd ask about a prop or plot point, and I would get a swift, straightforward answer.
Why does World War III start with nuclear attacks in Texas? Was there hidden symbolism there? Nope. "It's based on a theory [that was] floating around the Internet, of al-Qaeda smuggling nukes over the border," he said.
Why does reality collapse because of a handshake? Is that a metaphor for duality or friendship or something? Nah. "It's just sort of like the great conundrum when you think of time travel," he said. "There have been movies that explored the idea of two versions of the same person confronting each other from different timelines being inconceivable, and it was something that just sorta made sense as a sci-fi trope that could trigger the end."
As we walked from Venice Beach to the Santa Monica Pier after our meal, dripping with sweat under a cloudless sky, I grew frustrated. The artist was being too literal for my tastes.
We visited various filming locations -- the Neo-Marxist compound, Cyndi Pinziki's apartment, a dumpster that Taverner jumps into -- and he kept saying the story was cut-and-dried. No ambiguity whatsoever. Everything was either a joke about the Bush Administration, a reference to the Bible, a shout-out to a historical fact, or just the simple result of a character's motivation.
"It's definitely one of those repeat-viewing films," he said, matter-of-factly. "Some audience members get very angry if they can't process and understand the story in one viewing, and they see that as a design flaw in the film itself. Other people are more open to obscurity and complexity and the idea of needing to revisit something."
But we're not just talking about complexity, I thought. We're talking about straight-up inscrutability. He didn't want to acknowledge that a viewer could never understand everything in the movie, given the cuts he'd made. Was there anything he was willing to say was mysterious and one hundred percent open to interpretation? Couldn't he just try to be a little more... prophet-like?
After visiting the pier arcade where Timberlake's song-and-dance scene happened (a visit which, I'll confess, gave me chills), we took a cab back to Venice, shook hands, and said our goodbyes. He couldn't have been a nicer guy, I thought. And he'd been incredibly generous with his time.
But I felt empty.
In the ensuing weeks, Kelly and I have developed a robust email correspondence, and he's always ready to answer any additional questions about the film. But I've also become afraid of asking more questions, because I know he'll have answers.
To wit: I wondered what was up with the whole, "I'm a pimp, and pimps don't commit suicide" thing. His swift written response:
The line first originated from Boxer's denial of his doppelganger's suicide out in the desert. He knows that it is fundamentally against his nature, and then he figures out the truth. Serpentine blew up the SUV after it went through the time rift. [...] The line also became a metaphor for America. We were the pimp nation committing moral and financial suicide by invading Iraq.
It was that simple, I guess.
Part of me feels like I've been robbed of something very precious. I've come to realize Southland Tales was so meaningful to me because I thought of it as something otherworldly. An uncanny collection of images and words, powerfully circulating without a single purpose. A movie that deliberately eschews narrative, that is primarily designed to lead the viewer into introspection or spectacle in a way that Hollywood movies are never designed to do.
But according to the man who created it, that is not what he meant at all. That is not it at all.
This story has a happy ending. And it's thanks to the recent revelations about the NSA's surveillance programs.
The day PRISM was revealed in the press, Richard Kelly's name popped up in my Gmail.
"Can you guys believe this NSA PRISM power point presentation thing?" Kelly wrote to me and a few of his collaborators, who were providing me with concept art. "USIDENT would have been the better way to go..."
My heart swelled.
"The whole film was my long-simmering response to 9/11 and response to the anxiety of terror and the terrorist threat and trying to make a big piece of satire that would be comfort food in light of the terrorist threat. That's what the film is intended to be for people."
It wasn't the first time Southland Tales had helped me get through a particularly dystopian news story. When NRA chief Wayne LaPierre earnestly proposed fighting guns violence by placing armed guards in every school, it was just absurd and violent enough to make me think I was living in Kelly's alternate universe. When the White House recently alluded to the possibility of U.S. intervention in Syria, my head spun back to the movie (Syria is one of the U.S.'s WW3 battlefields in Southland Tales).
And then, as I discovered later while transcribing my interview, Kelly and I had had a revealing exchange -- one I'd missed when we'd first spoken it:
KELLY: The whole film was my long-simmering response to 9/11 and response to the anxiety of terror and the terrorist threat and trying to make a big piece of satire that would be comfort food in light of the terrorist threat. That's what the film is intended to be for people.
ME: Comfort food?
KELLY: Yeah, in a way. I tried to make something you could disappear into and get lost inside of it. And in the transmedia angle with the graphic novels, try to expand it into an expanded world that you could disappear into. I might be the only person who would see it as comfort food, but yeah.
You aren't the only one, I should have said. Southland Tales is a movie to get lost in. Often, that's the best thing fiction can give us when the world becomes terrifying. Not mere escapism, but total envelopment in another reality. A journey that gives you the distance to see your own world with fresh eyes, and hopefully emerge with some valuable, maybe profound ideas.
So, while I respect Kelly's interpretations of his work, I don't have to agree with them. I don't.
For me, Southland Tales is a story without specific meanings. It's a Rosetta Stone to help me learn the tongue of our age, the language of flipping between dozens of Internet browser tabs and holding five conversations at once, while the earth decays and the government scrambles to scotch-tape a fractured country together. For reasons I can't -- and don't want to -- understand, it helps me cope with the logorrhea of a given day, the unceasing garbled stream of messages from the near-future.
It helps me live a little better -- with a little bit more of an appreciation for the absurd -- in a place that, it turns out, is even stranger than Kelly's Southland.
Anyway, postmodernism preaches the death of the author. Kelly is just another viewer. He just so happens to be one that sees patterns and explanations that I don't -- ones that I don't even think are necessary.
But Kelly wants to share those explanations with a wide audience. He's written a screenplay for his long-planned animated prequel, and he gave it to Motherboard to share with the world. He expects it'll eventually get made, with the help of some visionary producer, along with a "finished" cut of the original film.
A few weeks ago, he emailed me to say he'd become friends with Marilyn Manson ("It turns out he is the biggest ST fan on the planet!"), and that Manson will be voicing "the shadow overlord of the Neo-Marxist underground" in the prequel, if and when it happens. Apparently, this shadow overlord is the one who orders the hit on Amy Poehler's character and her lover.
"Wait, doesn't that retroactively change the continuity of the story?" I fired back. There had never been any mention of someone like that ordering Bart Bookman around.
"The question is... did someone higher up pay Bookman in advance?" Kelly wrote back. "His cryptic comments after killing them insinuate that he has deeper knowledge of the metaphysics of the Taverner twins. The question remains... is there a shadow leader of the Neo-Marxist movement who is Serpentine's secret lover?"
Fans aren't the only ones who get lost in the Southland.
Critics said the movie's insane, seemingly random complexity was suicidal for ticket sales. That it never gave itself a chance. But that complexity is also what gave Southland Tales such a cult fanbase. That complexity is why I wrote this article, and what made you read it, and maybe what might prompt you to tell people about what you read. And it's what might make you see it -- or see it again.
In other words, this movie is a pimp.
And pimps don't commit suicide.
More Southland Tales:
More from Abraham:
Crossdressing, Compression, and a Collider: The Untold Story of the First Photo on the Web