Saturday, May 31, 2008

on richard kelly.

So, as I was saying, last week, I finally got a chance to watch Southland Tales, which was the (relatively) new movie from Richard Kelly. I really, really, really wanted to like it. I think Kelly's a talented director, I don't think there's any question about that, really. I'll readily admit that I haven't seen any of his other movies, but everyone knows that Donnie Darko was (and is) a classic. (And I'll get more into that in a bit...) But, as for his new effort...not good.

Southland Tales was not only ambitious, it was grand in scope. These are all good things. However, sometimes these kinds of things can get in the way of a good thing. And that's really what I think was the ultimate failing of this movie: it was a great idea that got lost in translation. I don't know whose fault that is/was, the big-budget studio that (inevitably) meddles with a director's vision or the director for getting a little over-ambitious. Regardless, though, the thing's a mess.

The best thing about Southland Tales was an amazing musical number with Justin Timberlake singing to the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done" and while it was a great scene, I'm not sure what it says about a movie when that's the best thing about it. There was certainly a theme: the movie was clearly about the apocalypse and there was a lot of the same tropes that we saw in Donnie Darko (the search for God, the question whether God's there at all, time-travel, parallel dimensions, etc.), but the message was muddled in every way. There was no clarity. And while I've never been one to need things to be clear (hello, Lost!) I'd appreciate some commitment to the ideas that you're trying to advance; enough commitment at least to try to let some people in on the secret, instead of simply obfuscating it. The dialogue was corny from the first moment of the film, and while I appreciate Kelly trying to break down stereotypes (if that's even really what it was), I did feel that the ex-porn actress angle just led to parody instead of anything serious.

In contrast, as I said above, I was inspired by the movie to look at Donnie Darko again, and it happened quicker than I anticipated, so I'm watching it as I type. There's no corny dialogue. There's a fluid plot, with some interesting deviations from the overall message, but every time it gets too crazy, there's some super-specific incident that gets back to the main theme. The movie tells one story. Everything in the movie relates to that story. That's a good work. That, to me, is the proof of a good work. I tell my students something that my best teacher ever told me: if you're trying to answer a question, re-read that question consistently throughout your answer. It will help you re-focus, it'll make your answer better, and it'll prove that you know how to talk about what you want to talk about. That's what Donnie Darko was. Proof that Richard Kelly knew what he was talking about. He had some interesting things to say about the above-mentioned themes and he did so wonderfully. (Did he answer those questions? I don't think so. But I think they're probably questions that aren't answerable.) Southland Tales, on the other hand, is a wandering answer. It's more like something that one of my 8th graders would write, meandering around the general ideas, with some shimmers of brilliance, but ultimately falls short.


Mindy said...

I'll have to agree with you on a good majority of those points.

I came away from watching this film completely befuddled about what the fuck I had just seen.

My head was spinning so much so - that I had to turn to my trusted friend, the help explain just what the intention of the film had been.

It turns out - and I'm not saying this because I'm a graphic novel dork...but there was a prequel graphic novel that covers much of the plot holes I found in my initial screening.

And oddly enough - I picked up the novel from the library a few weeks ago. It's sitting on my "to read" stack.

I'm going to tackle this in the next week or so, and then give the film a second, fairer shake.

Though - a film should be able to stand alone on it's own merit (as movies based on comic books are so often asked to do).

So - we'll see...

Much Love, Mindy C

Brandon said...

Wow, I haven't seen you lay down that much sophistihate (sophisticate + hate = smart hating, I just made it up) in a long long time.

I will not see this movie, we should review things like this for a living but for fancy restaurants and traveling...

Michael said...


Thanks for the comment. I'd read about the graphic novels, but wasn't really sure if I wanted to commit myself to so much more if it wasn't going to be worth it. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Michael said...


You have, in fact, seen me lay down this much sophistihate (BTW, love it) recently, it was just directed at you, defending religion, so you didn't like it. ;)

But I'm glad to see that you like it here. And yes, stay's bad.

Mindy said...

Hey There,

So - I read the graphic novel (in pretty much one sitting) and almost immediately rented the film and watched it.

BTW - the Graphic Novel is attractive and engaging.

My attitude toward the film hasn't changed much - in that I think the scope was WAY TOO WIDE, and could have been narrowed down.

But I do understand the plot, the characters, and the main themes a bit better.

After reading the graphic novel, I honestly wish there were MORE graphic novel to consume.

But - I can't say I didn't like Southland Tales. I was just extraordinarily mystified by it. What struck me the first time I watched it (and again the second time) was how BELIEVABLE the ideas were - and how MUCH MORE relevant they are even 9 months from the time I watched this film initially.

It's as if Kelly took stock of our current situation, and just notched it up a little. Turned up the volume. It's not a totally impossible future.

I dunno - I'm not going to say I hate it, and that it's awful. Because much of it is's the whole of it that didn't/doesn't mesh well.

Alrighty, enough rambling...

Much Love, Mindy C