In 1970, at the height of his power as the guitarist and primary songwriter for the Who, Pete Townshend began developing a project he called Lifehouse. The idea—as best it can be verbalized—was a blend of concept album, concert experience, and feature film, telling a story of consciousness expansion in a near-future, near-apocalyptic Earth. Townshend meant for the project to transcend the typical bounds between art, artist, and audience, allowing anyone who experienced it to access something like a higher plane of existence.
Needless to say, the project soon proved impossible to execute as Townshend conceived it, and Lifehouse collapsed under the weight of its own nobly amorphous ambitions. Some of the songs intended for the project were used on the band’s 1971 masterpiece, Who’s Next, but the project in its truest, purest form was destined to exist only as a theoretical object too artistically utopian to be compatible with life.
Strictly speaking, this story has nothing to do with Southland Tales. But at the same time, there are days when it feels to me like just about everything has something to do with Southland Tales.
This, at least, has something to do with Southland Tales.
On his 2007 sophomore album, Werewolves and Lollipops, stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt described a feeling he’d experienced four years earlier:
In 2003, I got honest to God panic attacks because I felt like we had all fallen into this really creepy alternate Earth, like the Bad Earth where Bush won and the towers fell and we were going to Iraq…like everything was just wrong, everything was God damn evil. I felt like there was an Earth next to ours where Gore won and the towers still stood and we weren’t in Iraq…and everything was just wonderful, it was all good. And now it’s 2006 and I feel like we’re still in that same parallel universe but now it’s become a wacky universe where it’s kind of fun. It’s like, “On our planet, Arnold Schwarzenegger runs California, torture is legal, and spinach is poison!”1
Richard Kelly’s sophomore feature, Southland Tales, was released theatrically in November 2007, four months after Oswalt’s album, and in a striking case of parallel thought, Kelly takes the idea of an alternate, wacky-bad Earth and runs with it all the way to the apocalypse.
Southland Tales begins on Independence Day 2005 in an eminently recognizable Bush-era Texas. Everything and everyone is bedazzled in red, white, and blue; burgers and Buds are happily consumed on the lawn of every McMansion. Then, a mushroom cloud appears on the horizon, and history jumps the tracks.
We cut to 2008, the twilight of George W. Bush’s presidency, two years after what we learn were in fact twin nuclear attacks on Texas. In response, America has plunged into a feverish, heavily militarized, giddily sexualized, abruptly science-fictionalized near-future that is, to quote Kelly’s screenplay, “far more futuristic than [scientists] originally predicted.”
This line—spoken by the aggressively upwardly mobile porn star/reality TV star/lifestyle brand entrepreneur/prospective screenwriter Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar)—comes early in the film, and might well cause the first shockwave of awareness that this movie intends to dabble in the gleefully moronic. But, as Richard Kelly has said since, the message of both that line and the film that contains it is relatively straightforward:
“Where we think we’re headed is never exactly where we end up.”
Summarizing the 2 ½-hour plot of Southland Tales is a notoriously difficult task. I’m going to give it my best shot, mainly to see if I can, but really, don’t worry too much about it:
Krysta Now is having an affair with action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) with whom she’s developing an epic LA crime film, entitled The Power. As research, Boxer has decided to undertake a ride-along with an officer of the LAPD’s Urban Pacification Units (UPU), during which (unbeknownst to him) a group of neo-Marxist revolutionaries plan to stage an UPU shooting of two unarmed civilians (Amy Poehler and Wood Harris), intending to use the incriminating footage on Boxer’s camcorder to incite insurrection against the fascist government. To aid in this mission, the revolutionaries have enlisted amnesiac Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott) to pose as his identical twin brother, UPU officer Roland Taverner, but the staged shooting becomes a genuine double homicide with the arrival of an UPU officer (Jon Lovitz) in league with a turncoat neo-Marxist (Cheri Oteri). While the footage is disseminated, triggering mass riots throughout LA, Boxer attends the lavish launch of a new mega-zeppelin. Onboard, he learns that both he and Roland were part of an experimental time-travel procedure by mad scientist Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), whose harvesting of a groundbreaking alternative fuel source is causing a slowdown in planetary rotation, prompting mass mental instability. The time-travel procedure created doubles of both Boxer and Roland; while Boxer’s committed suicide, Roland’s is still at large and under the impression that he is an amnesiac named Ronald, a paradox that will trigger an apocalyptic event should the two Taverners meet. Unbeknownst to anyone, that meeting is currently taking place below the mega-zeppelin, and while Roland and “Ronald” take one another’s hands, Martin Kefauver (Lou Taylor Pucci), a young man plunged into despair by the news that he’s been drafted for service in Iraq, fires a rocket launcher at the mega-zeppelin. Roll credits.
Honestly, that went surprisingly well, and I only had to leave out a dozen or so principal characters and story threads.
More significant than the hopelessly byzantine plot is the uncanny culture of the film’s then-speculative future/now-alternate past: emboldened by heightened American terror, the Republican party has moved so far right that the Democrats have chased them to the middle only to be rendered politically impotent, leaving guerrilla leftists as the only line of defense against a militarized police force. As an over-sexed, under-fulfilled, media-supersaturated populace hurtles towards a presidential election (the Democrats have nominated Hillary Clinton, but she’ll presumably be trounced by the Republican ticket of Eliot and Frost) destined to be canceled by that climactic apocalypse, a repeated refrain emerges:
This is how the world ends; not with a whimper, but a bang.
This, of course, is an inversion of the closing words of T.S. Eliot’s 1925 poem, “The Hollow Men,” a revision seemingly willed into existence when America took (to quote Kelly’s other recurring poetic citation) Robert Frost’s road that diverged, making all the difference. There’s something loudly and proudly dumb about taking Eliot’s chillingly anticlimactic words and flipping them back towards the bombast that he provocatively subverted. But, like so much of the loud, proud dumbness of Kelly’s maligned second film, there’s an underlying method obscured by Southland Tales’ formal madness.
In the preface to Two Roads Diverge, the first volume in the graphic-novella prequel trilogy published in the leadup to the film’s theatrical release, Kelly made an important clarification: he does, in fact, believe that the world is ending. It just strikes him as far more likely, at least from the vantage point of 2005, that this end will be the result of climate change. “Our destiny is to slowly drown ourselves into oblivion,” Kelly wrote amidst the fallout of Hurricane Katrina, the latest of the Bush-era calamities that coincided with the development of Southland Tales, “the ‘whimper’ that T.S. Eliot foretold.”
Thus, the thought experiment behind Southland Tales becomes: what would it take for America to commit a more active form of suicide before the consequences of 20th century rot lead to passive annihilation? What does the fuel (alternative fuel, that is) for the fire look like?
The three graphic novellas united under the title Southland Tales: The Prequel Saga represent the most striking example of a tendency Kelly describes as “scope creep.” That term, which he picked up from the vernacular of his NASA-engineer father, refers to the tendency for a project to expand during development until it reaches a tipping point of infeasibility. “On every movie I’ve done,” Kelly says in a behind-the-scenes featurette included on the 2021 Blu-Ray reissue of Southland Tales, “everyone’s like, Richard, I don’t know if you can do this. This is too much. You’re trying to do too much…and I always push back and say, Let’s try. Let’s do our best. Let me prove you wrong.”
Southland Tales is scope creep made manifest. Kelly began the script in a burst of frenzied distress following the chilly Sundance response to his debut feature, soon-to-be cult sensation Donnie Darko. The first widely circulated draft of Southland Tales, dated June 12, 2001, traces a skeletal version of Boxer’s saga, a present-day, essentially realistic (if violently farcical) look at turn-of-the-millenium LA culture. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, Kelly began the years-long process of retooling his script, replacing glancing references to the cases of Rodney King and O.J. Simpson with a new focus on the civil-liberty restrictions instituted in the so-called War on Terror. Now modeling the story on the futurist worldview of Philip K. Dick (particularly Dick’s own story of identity loss in a celebrity-addled, militarized LA, 1974’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said), Kelly’s brainstorming process continued deep into pre-production—arguably the single narrative lynchpin, the revelation that the Taverner twins are in fact one individual doubled through time travel and thus capable of triggering the apocalypse, was a brainstorm that Kelly spitballed to an incredulous Seann William Scott after the actor had been cast.
By the time Southland Tales hit theaters in 2007, it bore interstitial title cards labeling the three acts as Chapters IV, V, and VI. The natural presumption was that Kelly intended a narrative gambit similar to that of the original Star Wars trilogy, priming the viewer to see this story as just one slice of a larger continuity that might one day be explored. Any prospective viewer who happened to be aware of an existing “prequel saga”—a factor absent from the film’s trailer and poster—could be excused for presuming the graphic novellas must be thin ancillary products meant to stoke the enthusiasm of a hoped-for fanbase. But after critics labeled Southland Tales a “dizzyingly incoherent,” “impossible to navigate” “reduction of story to a series of post-modern gestures” that “might emerge with a more coherent product if [Kelly] fed the footage through a revolving fan and spliced it together at random,” the film raked in a stomach-turning $374,743 at the worldwide box office2 (a loss of a little over $16,500,000 for co-distributors Universal and Sony), leaving the prequel saga relegated to the status of footnote in a conversation that never quite began.
Yet anyone curious enough about Kelly’s grand design to eventually pick up that prequel saga is treated to an alarming truth: the movie released under the title Southland Tales is, in fact, precisely half the story. Chapters I-III are not a cheap revenue driver; they are 50% of what is ultimately a complete, and even coherent, narrative that just happens to have been released across two forms of media.
Much of the prequel saga functions as table setting for the plot details I’ve already recounted (a task that would be significantly more difficult without having read it). The page count is largely devoted to simply moving Boxer and “Ronald” from the site of von Westphalen’s experiment back to LA, Boxer having been discovered by Krysta and Fortunio Balducci (Will Sasso), and “Ronald” in the custody of the neo-Marxists, of whom his parents are apparently sympathizers. Over the course of the saga, we learn the significance of The Power (a latent psychic, Krysta was drugged by von Westphalen’s entourage and tasked with predicting the end of the world, which took the form of a screenplay that functions as an even more melodramatic echo of Southland Tales). We learn the origin of Boxer’s pan-religious tapestry of tattoos (they were applied by von Westphalen’s lover, Serpentine [Bai Ling], in order to test which of humanity’s religions is the true faith; the fact that Christ’s face begins to bleed during the climax signals Christianity’s winning hand). We learn the tragic tale of Roland’s friendship with Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) during active duty in Iraq, and the experimental drug trial that allowed both to muster out despite significant trauma.
Primarily, though, the novellas retroactively disentangle story threads that are hopelessly knotted by the time of the film’s first scene. Any viewer who’s ever wondered why the story begins with Boxer waking up on Hermosa Beach may be interested to learn that the story very explicitly does not start there. As with so many of the film’s seemingly inexplicable choices, it’s fully explicable when reconfigured as part of the second half of Southland Tales.
And so the question becomes: what the hell was Richard Kelly thinking? Why design one narrative to be cleaved into a bi-media experience? Why assign homework for your movie, let alone trust your audience to complete it without explicitly instructing them to do so?
The answer, it would seem, lies in two screenplay drafts: the one dated June 2001, and another dated June 2005. The first has the reasonable scope and shape of an ensemble satire of LA culture, while the second is a kaleidoscopic sci-fi epic that would likely have required resources typically afforded only to mega-blockbusters. Thus, the development of Southland Tales is a story of expansion and contraction, as Kelly seemingly dreamed his wildest version of the story, and was then forced by industry pragmatism to tighten his belt, fitting as much of the untamed vision as possible back into the rough shape of the earliest draft. To catch the narrative spillover, the prequel saga was born.
Kelly’s cross-platform gambit coincided with a unique moment in 21st-century media, one that saw Hollywood exploring the parameters of the relationship between cinematic storytelling and the culture beyond the screen. Executives set their sights on alternate reality gaming (puzzle hunts played half online and half in the physical world), reconfiguring elements of these cult phenomena to astroturf buzz for upcoming film and TV projects. At least one pseudo-ARG, engineered to promote The Dark Knight, has been remembered as successful. Far more often, though, these story-expansions were hollow efforts hitched to projects like NBC’s Heroes and CBS’s Numb3rs, dispiriting attempts to commandeer attention for projects that couldn’t be relied on to engage organically. Without widespread outreach explaining the actual function of Southland Tales’ prequel saga, it was easy enough for anyone who heard of the misbegotten project to assume it was just one more half-baked effort.
From this perspective, Kelly’s career to date might be seen as tracing a three-act story of the relationship between movies and the internet. Donnie Darko benefited enormously from fansites devoted to disentangling the narrative; for those in the know, a large part of the thrill in finishing a viewing lay in rushing to some text-dense, graphics-light Web-1.0 manifesto that unpacked every obtuse implication, and these full-throated explanations only made the work seem more expansive. The same treatment would elevate works like Primer and Memento to cult status, as a symbiotic relationship between text and analysis allowed filmmakers to be more deliberately opaque than ever.
By the time of 2009’s The Box, Kelly’s third—and, as of this writing, last—feature, internet explainers were becoming a niche industry, but these “explanations” read less like deconstruction than recap, making works like Inception and Shutter Island seem smaller by virtue of being so easily explicable. It’s a trend that’s only escalated over the ensuing decade, representing an impatience to “solve” the troublesome act of watching a movie and solidify a social-media-ready opinion.
For a brief window around 2007, though, as Web 1.0 gave way to Web 2.0, the boundary between stories and the world beyond seemed subject to experimentation. Maybe these proliferating platforms could serve as a door, directing audiences towards further experiences that might bond them more thoroughly to the art they consumed and the artists that created it. The idea sounds utopian on an almost Lifehouse-esque scale, suggesting a level of engagement with narrative that transcended anything previously attempted, a world where ancillary media—say, a trilogy of graphic novellas comprising the missing half of a movie—wasn’t extra credit but a joyously consumed key element of the experience.
But Richard Kelly’s ambitions were unattainable. For so many reasons, precious few viewers found their way to the prequel saga, and so Southland Tales was doomed to languish as a head-scratching film maudit, an era-defining sophomore slump that staunched the growth of a promising career.3 And that could well have been the whimpering end of this tale.
Then, in 2016, came the big bang.
Somewhere during Donald Trump’s presidency, a refrain emerged: Southland Tales came true.
It’s hard to quite pin down the inciting observation, though the film’s 10-year anniversary in 2017 provided an opportune moment to take stock of parallels. In April of that year, Kurt Halfyard of ScreenAnarchy declared that Kelly’s vision “resonates more in the era of Donald Trump’s 140 character authoritarian-incompetence than it ever could in 2007,” while in October, Jeff Ihaza of The Outline described his ritualistic Trump-era rewatches—“a dream-like exercise that is as frightening as it is illuminating.”
But scattered comparisons coalesced into a persistent drumbeat early in 2020. It may be that the trend began in April, when boutique art-house streaming service Mubi selected Southland Tales as their daily offering, declaring, “the prescience of Kelly’s madcap vision is breathtaking.” Not long after, the New Statesman suggested the film was perfect for a pandemic-gripped America, as “at present there is something satisfying about an apocalypse story that suggests humanity may be too dumb, too self-interested and too naturally violent to survive.” As the summer progressed and the pandemic took a backseat in the news to stories of militarized police forces violently quelling nonviolent protests, now-annual record-annihilating climate disasters, and speculation over how far a would-be fascist administration might go to hold onto power, BoingBoing called Southland Tales “the perfect hot mess of a movie” for an ignoble Independence Day, “an utter disaster full of never-ending wonder set on the brink of a collapsing reality…kind of how it feels to exist in the world right now.”
It’s by no means challenging to connect Richard Kelly’s acidic exaggeration of the leadup to the 2008 election and the garish shamelessness of Trumpian authoritarianism. If anything, Kelly’s keen eye zeroed in on one emerging trend among a dissonant cultural morass: the potentially disastrous conflation of reality-TV culture and national politics. In a 2010 talkback moderated by Southland Tales costar Kevin Smith, Kelly sardonically noted how apt the film already felt given the ability of then-zeitgeisty figure Sarah Palin to keep one foot in Republican politics and the other in the celebrity media circus, a level of prescience that would quickly seem quaint.
It wouldn’t be quite appropriate, though, to say Richard Kelly intended to “predict” anything at all. For all its futurist trappings, Southland Tales was designed to become dated almost immediately, envisioning a future so near that it was virtually the present. Kelly very intentionally hoped to inflate and examine the Bush era—particularly its second term, when reelection pushed the opposing party towards nihilism while emboldening the administration’s giddy supporters to achieve newfound heights of aggressive jingoism—rather than directly anticipate a chain reaction of future American politics.
Thus, Southland Tales now feels (at least to this viewer) like one of the more essential Bush-era documents. It’s as though a realistic expression of mid-2000s American angst—all Old Glory and Old Milwaukee, chest-thumping populist patriotism obscuring outrageous governmental overreach—has seen the vibrance and saturation cranked up so high it approaches a sort of ecstatic truth. Kelly’s vision appears more real in retrospect than any genuine article by virtue of embracing the cognitive dissonance of a time when a celebrity heiress’ sex tape could be distributed with a title card dedicating the work to the victims of 9/11. The vast majority of films concerned with those years have elided that sort of detail, so dense with the cocktail of solemnity and crassness that seemed to define the era, and those projects have seemed bland and hollow for the omission. Richard Kelly built his house of cards entirely out of this sort of detail, leaving restraint and good taste at the door. As a result, he reconfigured a nation’s waking fever dream into a whimsical nightmare. When you look at it that way, even a sub-half-million box office take might sound high.
Cinematic depictions of the Bush presidency, and the escalation in Middle East conflicts that are part-and-parcel with his legacy, have long been a tricky prospect, anathema to audiences more often than not. Efforts to approach the Iraq War with strict naturalism have tended to be treated like moviegoing vegetables—Redacted may be Brian De Palma’s most obscure feature among a filmography containing more than a few of them, while The Hurt Locker held the title for lowest-grossing Best Picture winner until the extraordinary circumstances of Nomadland scooped that honor. Other projects that hesitantly explored the spectrum between drama and farce—Sam Mendes’ blend of the juvenile and the brutal, Jarhead, a Desert Storm story that drew analogies to the current conflict; Paul Weitz’s sugar-coated satire, American Dreamz; Oliver Stone’s perversely gentle W.—landed with some form of a thud.
With Kelly choosing to grapple so directly with reality that he went through the lens of satire into hallucinatory frenzy, his punishment (at least in the present tense) was more severe than even the most loathed of those efforts. Southland Tales was an affront audiences simply couldn’t abide; not only did he ask us to deal with the bleakest aspects of our current reality, he asked that we think critically about the method of his presentation. It’s one thing to present a dark vision, but to present it with quite this level of tonal ambiguity—on top of a hyper-taxing fractured narrative—was a bridge too far, and its commentary (be it satiric or prophetic, depending on your perspective) went largely ignored.
Yet while Southland Tales may not be an intentionally predictive object, Kelly did manage to look far enough down the road to identify at least one urgent oncoming reality: cultural disintegration under the pressure of converging cataclysms. The film’s tapestry of catastrophe calls to mind that dire prophecy from Paul Schrader’s First Reformed—“The bad times, they will begin, and from that point, everything moves very quickly. This social structure can’t bear the stress of multiple crises.”
This may as well be the pitch for Southland Tales; Richard Kelly’s version just happens to operate under the influence of one (or all) among the galaxy of psychoactive substances his ensemble relies on to survive the endgame of existence.
It wasn’t just George W. Bush’s critics who saw his administration as a potentially apocalyptic event—key to the legacy of the born-again president would be his efforts to draw evangelical Christianity ever closer to the heart of Republican policy, up to and including the ecstatic belief, among some elements of that faith, in an oncoming rapture predicted by the Book of Revelation. And it was Revelation that Richard Kelly selected as a lens onto the chaotic vision of Southland Tales, even going so far as to describe his film as an adaptation of the final book of the New Testament. Much like his inversion of T.S. Eliot, the claim may sound like pseudo-intellectual posturing. And yet at the core of that credulity-straining assertion is a deceptive depth of intertextual—and even inter-intertextual—entanglement.
Kelly has a self-deprecating habit of claiming he makes movies to impress his high school English teachers. That tongue-in-cheek excuse for the density of literary references in his work certainly resonates with Donnie Darko, which features a saintly English teacher who imparts frequent thematically resonant literary analysis. But his self-mockery does a disservice to Southland Tales, in which the references aren’t just window-dressing, but rather the ultimate densification of a story already knotted with ideas and allusions.
The most self-evident—and most seemingly facile—of these citations must be T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” which provides the whimper that Kelly flips into a bang. Yet the context surrounding the poem isn’t so different from Kelly’s own. With World War I receding into memory, Eliot took stock of the culture around him and saw mass disintegration. In his eyes, things once held solemn were devolving to a point of childish incoherence, and all that was once sacred was being lost in a numbing void. By flipping those two crucial words, Kelly turned Eliot’s content inside out, using his own cultural anxiety to conjure a world not of devolution but of hyper-evolution. In Kelly’s vision, things once held solemn become indistinguishable from the pornographic, and all that was once sacred is hurled into a howling inferno. Eliot’s poetry of austerity positions despair as the logical alternative to life as an automaton; Kelly’s film of excess positions hallucinatory ecstasy as the even more logical alternative to the same.
Only slightly less attention-grabbing are Kelly’s references to Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noir classic that can be seen playing on TV in Krysta’s condo, with Boxer later driving a car identical to that of Aldrich’s protagonist. Elsewhere, Kelly absorbs Aldrich’s cabal of nuclear scientists whose power struggle culminates in a conflagration, one that functions as something like Southland Tales’ apocalypse in microcosm. Cementing the overt blurring of Aldrich’s pitch-dark noir and his own day-glo riff on atomic paranoia, Kelly borrowed several names from the text and metatext of Aldrich’s film: Dr. G. E. Soberin of 1955 becomes Dr. Soberin Exx of 2007, while 1955 actor Fortunio Bonanova becomes 2007 character Fortunio Balducci. They’re joined by characters whose names are lifted from Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, with Philip K. Dick’s protagonist, celebrity-turned-fugitive Jason Taverner, lending his surname to the Taverner “twins,” and Dick’s antagonist, ruthless police officer Felix Buckman, lending his own to Kelly’s corrupt UPU officer, Bart Bookman (who portentously intones, “Flow my tears,” after killing the two unarmed neo-Marxists). Even Kelly’s rocket-launcher-toting wayward youth, Martin Kefauver, shares his name with Senator Estes Kefauver, who hijacked a 1955 hearing on juvenile delinquency to rant at an MPAA executive over the immorality of advertising Aldrich’s film with promises of “white-hot thrills [and] blood-red kisses.”
In adapting Kiss Me Deadly from Mickey Spillane’s original dime-store novel, screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides substantially altered Spillane’s own plotting and context; the choice to replace the novel’s corps of gangsters with those devious scientists, Bezzerides later claimed, was the result of a frenzied adaptive process, as he worked so quickly that he approached a state of automatic writing, unconsciously absorbing “things [that] were in the air at the time.” The result was a film of frequently baffling tonal shifts—nihilism gives way to slapstick, which turns to paranoia, before looping back around again. As if this political and tonal oddness wasn’t enough, Aldrich and Bezzerides rolled in a patchwork of influences and citations, from Greek antiquity to 19th century poetry. It’s a trick that mirrors Eliot’s own collage-like experimental form, which intermingles his distinct poetic voice with lines from nursery rhymes and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Dick’s pop-culture-obsessed futurescape, too, finds room for references to 16th century composer John Dowland and Finnegan’s Wake, among others.
Attempting to salvage the reputation of Kiss Me Deadly—a film whose release was nearly as cursed as Southland Tales’, with the New York Times refusing to review it and Britain refusing to release it at all—in a 1955 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Claude Chabrol lauded Aldrich and Bezzerides for taking pulp material and “splendidly [reweaving] it into rich patterns of the most enigmatic arabesques.” It’s a term that could apply just as easily to any of Kelly’s influences, as well as his own heavily-influenced work.
For as much as he may nod to Eliot and Aldrich, it’s Dick’s novel that Kelly most assertively reappropriates. Southland Tales openly and frequently references Dick’s storytelling and milieu,4 but so, too, does the film mirror the psycho-philosophical ruminations that provide his framework. Around the time of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, the esteemed author was becoming consumed by questions of what, exactly, constitutes reality. In a world of overwhelming media, he wrote in a 1978 speech, “spurious realities are manufactured” all the time. With “fiction mimicking truth, and truth mimicking fiction,” human perception could be overtaken by “a dangerous blur,” which he felt was best mirrored by near-futures that dabble in nonsense and ultimately fall apart. “I have a secret love of chaos,” Dick wrote. “There should be more of it.”
Dick’s musings may sound like standard dark prophecy from an oracle of speculative fiction, but his 1978 reflections go on to encompass mind-bending personal reflection: after writing Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, he found scenarios from the novel playing themselves out in his real life with staggering specificity, while theologian friends informed him that his manuscript inadvertently recreated key events from the Book of Acts. Reflecting on these seemingly inexplicable coincidences, Dick declared, “My theory is this: in some certain important sense, time is not real. Or perhaps it is real, but not as we experience it or imagine it to be. I [have] the acute, overwhelming certitude…that despite all the change we see, a specific permanent landscape underlies the world of change: and that this invisible underlying landscape is that of the Bible.”
The Bible, of course, very directly underlies Southland Tales. Much of the grounding for Kelly’s claim to have directly adapted Revelation can be found in the prequel saga, which more vividly recreates imagery from that apocalyptic gospel. The relative obscurity of those nods in the second half of the narrative might invite the viewer to see Kelly’s assertion as pseudo-intellectual posturing, but Revelation comes freighted with its own web of historical meaning and reinterpretation. “I don’t think we understand this book until we understand that it’s wartime literature,” Revelation scholar Elaine Pagels told Terry Gross in 2012. This vision of hallucinatory brutality was written (at least so theologians believe) late in the first century AD by a prophet attempting to make sense of a culture wracked by the violent Roman response to Jewish rebellion. “Much of what we find in the Book of Revelation couched in the fantastic imagery,” as Pagels said, “are descriptions of events that…were very close.”
Over the centuries, Revelation has been derided by some scholars as a morass of hyperbolic imagery without any governing order. But despite having been so often interpreted as a chaotic mass of impenetrable visions, the book has an uncanny ability to re-emerge at times of widespread crisis and upheaval. “Anyone who reads the book…has the sense that we’re just about there,” Pagels told Gross. “This is almost the end time. We’re right on the cusp.”
To put it another way: this is one revelation that’s proved far more revelatory than originally predicted.
Richard Kelly has described Southland Tales as a film infused by tremendous anger. Having been written (or, at least, rewritten for the first time) during the earliest atrocities of the Iraq war and filmed during the catastrophic mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, its development was buffeted on both sides by rage and despair over governmental cruelty, incompetence, and neglect. Yet he’s also described his misbegotten sophomore film as comfort food—“something you could disappear into and get lost inside of,” as he told Abraham Riesman in 2013.
On some level, the suggestion sounds perverse; why would anyone want to get lost inside a story this bleak, this overwhelming, and this irreconcilable? Yet it’s the irreconcilability that accounts for a large part of the comfort the film provides an ever-expanding cult of viewers. Riding a wave of public goodwill after producing that rarest of works, a genuine, grassroots cult classic, in Donnie Darko, Kelly chose to produce a fractured fairy tale that all but dared audiences to absorb it in full. Constructing an extravagant work while being constantly compromised by the exasperating realities of commercial filmmaking, his story ended up threaded with rabbit holes for intrepid explorers to tumble down. While the textual density can easily serve as a wall for first-time (not to mention second-, third-, and beyond) viewers to bounce off, at its best, the rough, slouching beast that is Southland Tales harnesses a sensory ecstasy that approaches the sublime.
Which brings us, finally, to the “All These Things That I’ve Done” sequence.
Tucked inauspiciously into the middle of Southland Tales, this brief scene embodies all of Richard Kelly’s delirious goals while transcending their thwarted execution. If, somehow, you’ve read this far without ever having experienced it—whether in the proper context or on YouTube, where it was swiftly uploaded in 2007 and where it’s taken on a viral second life since—I’ll refresh you: shortly before the end of the world, Pilot Abilene, scarred and traumatized veteran of the Iraq War, is lurking around the boardwalk arcade that serves as a clubhouse for servicemen. After selling Martin Kefauver a batch of Fluid Karma (the recreational drug synthesized from the alternative fuel source mined from the Earth’s core that allows users to slip the flow of time and access—wait, sorry, I stepped in one of those rabbit holes), Pilot injects himself with a syringeful and falls into a reverie.
The frame bubbling and blurring—a trademark visual effect of Kelly’s three films to date—Pilot enters a fantastical musical number evoking the candy-and-cyanide aesthetic of Ken Russell’s adaptation of the Who’s Tommy. His shirt now bloodied, Pilot prowls the arcade, flanked by eroticized nurses, as he chugs Budweiser and lip-syncs the refrain of then-ubiquitous Killers single “All These Things That I’ve Done”—I got soul but I’m not a soldier/I got soul but I’m not a soldier. Brandon Flowers’ vocals loop and weave as Pilot shifts from inebriated contempt to erotic rapture and finally back around to shell-shocked despair before the psychotropic fugue wears off.
It’s not hard to account for this clip’s appeal, given that Pilot’s fantasy doubles as a ersatz music video for international megastar Justin Timberlake. The sequence handsomely pays off on Kelly’s gambit in populating the film with actors carrying baggage, the more low-status the better. Conceiving this strategy as an “aggressively unpretentious” pop-art flourish (as he described it in 2010), he provided early opportunities for wrestler Johnson and teen culture icons Gellar and Scott to expand the limits of their star personas, offered the rare role for Kevin Smith outside of a Kevin Smith film, and filled out the ensemble with a panoply of Saturday Night Live stars, a wink at the late-night comedy institution’s outsized impact on public perception of presidential elections. At times, this level of cerebral experimentation works at cross-purposes to both narrative and metanarrative (Smith is not a gifted actor, and his portrayal of an elderly, double-amputee Army general would seem to offer little ironic commentary on either his persona or the role5), but in Timberlake’s case, the choice to cash in on star persona hits the target with a vengeance.
Though his backstory has been shaved down to a tossed-off reference in the film, Pilot is a pop-singer-turned-movie-star whose celebrity couldn’t save him from the draft, leaving him unable to resume his livelihood and so retreating into a drug-induced simulacrum thereof. That significance is primarily accessible to those versed in the prequel saga, who will also be granted an appreciation of the song’s significance to Pilot: “All These Things That I’ve Done” was his go-to comfort song during active duty, and it was playing on the iPod he lent to his best friend, Roland Taverner, before both were dropped into Fallujah, where, suffering the ill effects of their experimental drug trial, Roland accidentally shot Pilot, causing the scar that would prevent the resumption of his life as he knew it. This awareness, like so many unifying elements found in the first three chapters of Southland Tales, deepens the emotional impact of the hallucinatory dance number tremendously.
And yet that deepening is a purely intellectual effect. I had been watching the sequence compulsively for years before finally tracking down the prequel saga, and every time I did, I found myself close to tears, a sensation no less powerful for lack of narrative context. It could be that Kelly and his collaborators (or, more realistically, Kelly alone) imbued the sequence with enough awareness of that backstory for its emotional power to emerge naturally. But it strikes me as more likely that the sequence embodies some unique pop magic that Richard Kelly is capable of, one that his absence has robbed screens of for over a decade: those moments in which music serves story, cinematography serves music, performance serves cinematography, and every element of the filmmaking apparatus works in transcendent tandem to touch that ineffably intoxicating pleasure center that so many cinephiles spend their lives chasing.
Donnie Darko may be remembered for its demonic rabbit and undulating liquid tendrils, but I would venture to guess its cult wouldn’t be nearly as strong without the inspired infusion of pop music—Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” underscoring Donnie’s addled trip home after a night of sleepwalking; Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” accompanying the slow-motion montage that introduces each member of the ensemble in a precision-cut cross-section of characterization. If anything has prevented The Box from achieving the same renown as his first two features, it may well be the relative lack of these aesthetic Hail Marys, the ones that risk disaster—the “All These Things That I’ve Done” sequence was shot on a whim against the better judgment of his collaborators, as Kelly sank hours of Timberlake’s limited availability into an in-the-moment inspiration without any indication the Killers would license their song—but skirt the precipice and achieve the exquisite.
Richard Kelly’s delusionally grand ideas may flirt with self-destruction, but (much like pimps, as Southland Tales would have you know) they don’t commit suicide.
Among the phenomena presaged by Southland Tales is the abiding belief in alternate timelines where life might be less ridiculous than our own. As the term “multiverse” has burrowed deeper into the American vernacular, yet another refrain has become ubiquitous: we live in the worst of all possible timelines, and likely the dumbest.
A quick Twitter search turns up 14 usages of the words “dumbest timeline” within 24 hours of this writing, referencing topics as diverse as COVID vaccine conspiracy theorists, the persistent belief among some fringe commentators that the 2020 presidential election might be overturned five months after Joe Biden’s inauguration, and the recent announcement of a senate run by Mark McCloskey, a man most notable for waving a semi-automatic rifle at Black Lives Matter protesters from the steps of his St. Louis mansion. For whatever reason, there must be some value to this belief in adjacent worlds where other versions of ourselves might be living through less wacky-bad times, worlds we might be able to reach with the aid of a proper revelation.
Through it all, the scope of Southland Tales has continued to creep. Richard Kelly still talks about producing a Lucas-esque special edition with improved CGI, as the film’s effects budget was slashed following the notoriously disastrous Cannes premiere6 of a work-in-progress cut. In 2010, he wrote a feature screenplay adaptation of the prequel saga, one he now hopes to integrate into the existing movie-that’s-half-a-movie using apparently revolutionary animation techniques. But, naturally, that script does feature some key revisions that mark it as a slightly different object from the novellas. When you’re trying to create a story that draws its fuel (alternative fuel, that is) from the full scope of a national mood—even the mood of nearly a decade and a half ago—it’s hard to imagine ever calling it entirely finished. Every year seems to bring increasing clarity on what, exactly, it meant to live through the Bush era, and how cultural ripples that seemed minor proved to be preshocks of oncoming disaster. To declare Southland Tales finished would mean declaring full comprehension of an incomprehensible time in world history. I wouldn’t call it outright impossible, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
Pete Townshend, for the record, hasn’t finished with Lifehouse either. The dream has lived on with a six-disc boxed set of demos and alternate arrangements that might give some sense of the project’s full scope, as well as a radio drama (subsequently published as a script) intended to finally give a concrete sense of the story arc, and a now-defunct website that purported to demonstrate the fusion of listener and music that Townshend so struggled to verbalize half a century ago. As of last year, he’s announced a graphic novel that he hopes will paint the fullest picture yet of his near-future fantasia. Maybe this time will be the charm.
Yet it’s hard for me to quite see the point. Though Who’s Next may only represent the most depleted and constrained version of Townshend’s quixotic vision, it’s supercharged with the ecstatic ambition of that impulse, and the same is true of the ramshackle half-movie we call Southland Tales. The misshapen object carries boundless potential for exploration primarily because the daydream version can only be faintly perceived on the far side of the barrier between timelines. We might breach that wall someday, but in the meantime, we have “Baba O’Riley,” and we have the “All These Things That I’ve Done” sequence. It may not be everything, but in a world that’s ever more hostile to visions of impossible purity, I’d say it’s enough.
Southland Tales may not soldier on in the form Richard Kelly intended. But by God, it’s got soul.
- I hope Mr. Oswalt will forgive me for eliding some tasteless digs at then-buzzworthy figure Paris Hilton, which, while relevant to the milieu of Southland Tales, aren’t worth restating even in the interest of fully-accurate quotation.
- Members of the production team partially blame this rock-bottom figure on the four-month WGA strike that froze the entertainment industry from late 2007 to early 2008, preventing Kelly and his cast from raising awareness for the film on late-night shows.
- Kelly has since offered an exceptionally vivid description of how it feels to have a film bomb quite this hard: everyone looks at you like your kid just drowned in the pool, and like they suspect you might be responsible.
- Reference even pretzels into meta-reference in Kelly’s prequel, wherein Pilot Abilene is found reading Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, prompting an inadvertently awkward Roland to ask, “You a big fan of Dick?”, exactly the sort of conventionally sophomoric note that led Kelly to enlist the talents of American Pie stalwart Seann William Scott.
- At least in the theatrical cut—the grand unified narrative of Southland Tales characterizes Smith’s General Simon Theory as a stoner Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast, which is at least glancingly resonant with Kevin Smith as he’s known and (by some) loved.
- While Southland Tales has never quite shaken the stink of that screening, Kelly reminded attendees at Kevin Smith’s talkback that Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette received a similarly hostile reception—”It was the year all the Americans got their asses kicked.” Smith hastened to clarify that this was not universally true, as his own Clerks II received an 8-minute standing ovation, a trivia item on which I will refrain from comment.