Moviews: Southland Tales (2006)

Time for another Moviews, where I talk about underrated or underappreciated movies and why I like them. Maybe it’s a certain aspect, a plot, theme, or set of characters, but overall it’s always something that takes a different view to see. Inspired by the recent sci-fi insanity known as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I’ve decided to go with an old favorite of mine. The movie that pretty much destroyed Richard Kelly’s career.

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Moviews #2: Southland Tales (2006)

Southland Tales, unlike Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, is not a movie that I will try to defend as being secretly good. In fact, it’s hard to defend it as being an altogether watchable movie for most. It’s a mishmash of aesthetics from noir, sci-fi, fantasy, religion, and crime drama – none of which make any sense together or really combine into a cohesive whole. Each set of genre conventions elbow against each other while the plot flings them back and forth for its own ends. Yet, after describing it all in such a way, you would be completely correct in questioning my earlier statement of this being a “favorite”. The answer is pretty simple – it’s a very fun Philip K. Dick fan-film.

In saying that it was a fan-film, what I mean is that it takes so much from Philip K. Dick to round itself out that it becomes a copy of sorts. Southland Tales, as it stands, is not so much a real movie of its own. From what I have gathered the story began as a noir period piece but rapidly grew into what was eventually filmed. It never really was able to develop a distinctive voice in the transition and so ended up taking wholesale someone else’s. It’s not even something the movie makes any effort to hide – patching in names and conceits from several novels into the script and dialogue that it almost seems like it could be an adaptation. Richard Kelly’s love for those novels ends up overriding common sense, but also helps save it from completely falling into the ocean in a way.

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Philip K. Dick’s more outrageous sci-fi works are marked by a few key elements such as marked drug use, said drugs influencing reality beyond the individual, mistaken identities, conspiracies, rampant policing, paranoia, a surprising revelation concerning an unexpected layer of religion, and a nice healthy dose of pop culture. Southland Tales is a movie that tries to incorporate all of these – from the drug “Fluid Karma” being able to shape reality in a way that is almost as destructive as the experimental drug in “Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said”. It is also said novel’s overbearing police presence duplicated in the strict, topical, police state that the movie envisions as the United States under Neo-Republican rule. (It was the early 2000’s, everyone was doing it.) Where Southland Tales goes wrong is that, again, it overdoes and it over stuffs.

The movie may have shades of “VALIS”, with the psychedelic atmosphere of religion and the perception of the world being held by a select few without the ability to voice it, but things are ordered in a different manner. The Taverners (Sean William Scott) and Boxer Santaros (The Rock) find themselves in a comparable position – like Horselover Fat they are at the precipice of a untold area of world-shaking knowledge…but everything they are told is completely insane. “VALIS”, for all the incomprehensibility people like to attribute to it, knows that such exposition is fairly dumb sounding and so places the brunt of exposition on the tragic comedic relief characters. Doing so defuses the detachment of the reader so well, and Southland Tales tries, but falters, at something similar. Since we never have a grounding agent, like Horselover Fat is written, there’s no real separation to safely view all of this from.

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The plot, like “Valis”, is also disarmingly simple when you get rid of the frills – being basically about competing factions trying to be the first to create the new Messiah through time-space-bending drugs. The more they take the more they are closer to the mark. Everything else is just side-entertainment, and leads to the aforementioned crowded atmosphere. Whether that works for you depends on your individual liking of any, or more, of those aspects. Like I said, this movie is hard to defend because there’s so much you could like in it – that the flipside is that it also brings a lot you could dislike to the table as well. The hypercharged commentary on the United States and current popular culture is the one thing that still rings true however. It doesn’t even go further than Dick did, contextually, as “VALIS” also makes use of an exaggerated Republican administration.

For my own part, I liked those aspects – the parts where it was wry, wacky, sarcastic, soapy…each in their own vacuum is something well done. The incredibly dumb pop song that pervades the movie is actually catchy, and funny, and the prophetic script called “The Power” that every character references is outlandishly amazing. It’s a trip with some soul to it – even if that soul is copied pretty much wholesale. Where else can I watch Justin Timberlake take on the role of John of the Revelation while also discussing quantum physics? Or Sean William Scott realize that PTSD is keeping him from being Jesus. It’s a twisty, bendy, outrageous movie…the ideas just give it more substance under the surface.

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