October 3, 2008

Southland Tales: Bullshit I Kind of Liked

Filed under:Science Fiction — Lake Desire @ 9:00 pm

Donnie Darko is my favorite American movie, so I was excited for Richard Kelly’s next movie, Southland Tales, for years before its production. Then I forgot all about it and realized the movie was release two years ago and recently came out on DVD. I picked up a copy at my university library today and watched it in one sitting. Here’s my initial impressions, probably to be revised once I read the graphic novel. (The film is parts 4-6, the graphic novel parts 1-3.)

I’ll try to avoid major spoilers, but I do hint at what happens in this post.

The Rock, Buffy, Justin Timberlake. Cool. Republicans and Neo-Marxists fighting over the election, ubiquitous surveillance, the draft, brain-washing an actor and a cop to make black-mail footage, World War III, mad science teleporting the ocean’s energy to fuel perpetual machines. Wow, that’s a lot going on. Justin Timberlake describes his world as being on the verge of anarchy to describe an increasingly repressive government and its resistance.

I found the first chunk of the film pretty overwhelming. I was lost in an overly complex plot that failed to convince me of it’s epic importance or justify the violence. I was introduced to a radically alternate 2008, and wasn’t convinced of such cultural and technological changes in the three years since the fictional nuclear attack in Texas that split off Southland Tales’s timeline from mine.

This movie is explicitly leftist, and I love it when science fiction features politically radical characters. But the radicals in Southland Tales were superficial. As much as I like seeing women with guns yelling, “facist pigs” at the police, I found the Neo-Marxists unbelievable because both the men and women used sexist language and mostly just accused people of being facists without any analysis or clear political objectives. What was their goal? To help the democrats win the election? That doesn’t really make sense to me.

By the second half of Southland Tales–once I started to follow the plot (probably because some of the convoluting side-plots narrowed with killed-off characters) I actually was getting into the plot. It was like my old school games: you start off thinking the fate of a city or nation is at stake, which is a pretty big deal, but it’s actually literally the whole frickin’ universe.

In addition to themes of time travel and dimensional rips, Southland Tales visually cites Donnie Darko. There’s a poster of Frank’s rabbit mask on a wall. Near the end of the movie, a character is shot in the eye and channeling Gyllenhaal’s cute/whiney/mumbling/dreaming Donnie. There are probably a few other references I overlooked.

Southland Tales did turn out to be a bit like Donnie Darko in some of its themes and music sequences, but also with an explicit political theme and engagement with radical politics. I think neither goal really turned out especially well.