Southland Tales, Miami Vice, and Inland Empire are all 10 years old now, and they still all feel New. Nobody’s really taken on the digital expressionism of Miami Vice other than Mikey Mann in Blackhat, nobody’s done for bit-rot-as-abject-terror what Lynch did in Inland Empire, and Southland Tales with all of its screens and graphix and UI, and shots of military personnel pacing on the beach next to laptops (mosaiced with graphix and UI) framing the content we see as well, has had more of an effect on video art than entertainment cinema. Which is not to say that Southland Tales is a good film just because it looks like art post-2010, but that it is as bold as those other two and prescient within a related but not directly linked field. There is something in it which speaks to high/low distinctions, which wants to define the future and also embody the time, and which hazards imagining the apocalypse as it might actually occur within our world- screens and military on a beach framed by scrolling headlines. Nobody would notice that the world had ended, and maybe it did and we didn’t.
Southland Tales treats Important and Unimportant details in the same way, distracting us with screens within screens within 2×2 grids of screens, which would all be very 2010s fear and apathy, but Kelly cannot resist trying to tell stories within this format as well. This is the central conflict of the film- the director wants to make a film which means nothing, because he thinks that it will mean everything. The structure of the film seems nonexistent until its final act, with plot details given and then twisted and sometimes deserted in tongue-in-cheek ways, e.g. when ends are tied in a mansion-based domestic dispute. Moments like this scold audiences who like Logic and Reason, and threaten to feel smug (like Kelly is punishing his audience rather than laughing with them), but one gets the impression that this is all more of a rubber band ball than an outright tangle, as the director pulls out threads and shows infinite care and consideration in bringing them about. The world of Southland Tales feels alive, even as Kelly is adamant that the apocalypse occurred 8 years ago and all meaning has been lost.
Of the three 2006 films mentioned at the start of this, Southland Tales is the least sure of itself in everything other than its aesthetic, and Kelly calls on the other two to make his film emote when it has to. This is most obvious with the appearance of Rebekah Del Rio whose ‘Llorando’ in Mulholland Dr no doubt affected Kelly the same way it did us, and Moby’s score which sits between the slow-motion synth washes of Angelo Badalamenti, and the album pieces used in Miami Vice the same year (to sincere, rather than unnerving ends). When Moby’s score drops out, the tonal and spatial shifts of the film jar in a way that feels genuinely confrontational. We’re waiting for ‘Audrey’s Dance’ or ‘Freshly Squeezed’ to drop in and nod to us that we’re watching kitsch noir, but no such cues ever take place. Lynch and Badalamenti took the time to tell the audience that they were watching vignettes, but Kelly and Moby refuse to signpost anything. Moby’s score is too direct for cleverness or pastiche, but it manages to tap into nonconscious emotions the same way as Badalamenti’s best- when the sounds overwhelm the images there’s a dissonance in the viewer where the head can’t tell why the body is trembling. This is best exemplified in The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Mandy Moore’s dance, which is tbh a “you feel it or you don’t” situation, but will leave the right audience confused and emotionally floored. It is also put to the test in the film’s finale which is the main source of ridicule for the film’s detractors, but destroys me every time I see it.
It is not just the dated CGI thunderstorms that remind of Attack of the Clones- Southland Tales neither begins nor ends in any satisfying way. It anxiously establishes itself, forces events to unfold, and only confidently comes into being in its final act. It feels like a trilogy rushed out or cut down to a single film, but this does not come at the expense of its believability as a film-world, and in fact the singularity of each mini-film allows us to appreciate their individual qualities. The first film, as mentioned, predicted trends in the arts and indulges the eyes while Justin Timberlake’s narrator tells and tells and tells. The second gets rid of Hollywood satire and goes for political satire instead, in a mess of deceit and subterfuge that would either leave Raymond Chandler cheering or bleeding from his nose, and political cynics squirming. The third is a dream-like whimper and bang concerned with life, death, and forgiveness as the world collapses. It is hard to describe why, but the last film is impossibly beautiful. Southland Tales is just as broken and weird and horrible as everyone says, and it is probably not the masterpiece that its revisionists say that it is, but neither of these things matter to Southland Tales which is a very special broken weird horrible mess that means everything and nothing absolutely.