Reviews

Southland Tales

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Dwayne Johnson

The very incoherence of Southland Tales is something like an argument, its many pieces and pronouncements a deconstructive challenge to world order.


Southland Tales

Director: Richard Kelly
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nora Dunn, Beth Grant, Wood Harris, John Larroquette, Bai Ling, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Lambert, Mandy Moore, Holmes Osborne, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Miranda Richardson, Wallace Shawn, Kevin Smith, Justin Timberlake
Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films
First date: 2006
UK Release Date: 2007-12-07 (Limited release)
US Release Date: 2007-11-14 (Limited release)
Website
You know, you know, no you don't, you don't.

I wanna shine on in the hearts of men.

I want a meaning from the back of my broken hand.

-- The Killers, "All These Things That I've Done"

It will never be night again and they will not need lamplight or sunlight, because the Lord God will be shining on them.

-- Revelations 22

The start of Southland Tales bodes ill. Caught up in the cliché of home-movie-video, kids cavort on the Fourth of July. They scamper and smile in a yard adorned with redwhiteandblue bunting and "Support Our Troops" banners, their parents beaming and their hot dogs sizzling. And then, just as such overwhelming Americana forewarns, the camera jiggles and the children look away, aghast, toward the sign of their world ending: a nuclear explosion in Texas.

Almost three years after this "American Hiroshima," the movie begins again, with a pile-on of internet images and TV reports, advertisements and threats. Looking forward to the 2008 elections -- that is, an alternative reality -- the screen is lit up with headlines and factoids: the Patriot Act is expanded, "alternative fuel sources" are in demand, and "dissenting liberal extremist cells" are making performative trouble. Still, the fundamental changes that seemed inevitable on the day of the attacks have not emerged; instead, corporate and administration forces have teamed up to make money off the abjectly permanent terror crisis. And oh yes, the gigantically charismatic movie star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) has vanished in the desert.

Good to know the popular media obsession with all things trivial and distracting has not abated.

All this hubbub is narrated by one Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timblerlake), Iraq war veteran and music video star (hip-shaking and lip-syncing to "All These Things That I've Done"). Peering through his gun sight or into his laptop monitor, he keeps watch on the Texas coastline while offering resonant bits from "Revelations" (for instance, 6:8: "Behold, a pale horse: and he that sat upon him, his name was Death") and other distractions. He declares his intention to tell the story of Boxer Santaros' journey along the "road not taken" (repeatedly, the film cites literary sources, from the Bible and Robert Frost to T.S. Eliot and Philip K. Dick, as when a murderous policeman declares, "Flow my tears"). The journey, briefly through a space-and-time disruption, results in Boxer's special insights into life and death, marking his similarity to Donnie Darko, much adored hero of this movie the first time Richard Kelly made it, back in 2001.

This version is more ungainly and more populated: characters drop in and out, their connections tenuous or overplotted, their self-performances grating and/or mystifying. The new iteration replaces conniving Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) with a conniving Senator's wife (Miranda Richardson), Sparkle Motion with a supremely strange world-ending dance by former porn star/current "topical discussion chat reality show" host Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), three of her fellow former porn stars/chatters, and the Rock-as-Boxer, and the brilliant Cherita Chen (Jolene Purdy) with the utterly dull Dream (Amy Poehler), an activist/performance artist whose final act is bloodily pointless. Spotting such correspondences -- and there are many, both obvious and vague -- grants brief diversions while watching Southland Tales, but doesn't illuminate the essentially perfect first film or help to make sense of the second.

Boxer's journey into absence and back results in his own special insights into time and space, articulated in a script he writes with his new girlfriend Krysta. Though she's been paid to make him appear compromised in making-out tapes, threatening his marriage to Senator Frost's daughter Madeline (Mandy Moore) and so, maybe, exposing a grim scheme by the Senator (Donnie's father Holmes Osborne) to expand darkly secret and hugely profitable surveillance of the planet -- or at least Texas -- she is sincerely in love with Boxer, who sometimes confuses himself with the action hero he plays in their script, Jericho Kane. "Do you ever feel," asks Boxer, so earnestly, "that there's a thousand people locked inside you?"

If Boxer has trouble sorting out his multitudes, the film redoubles the identity stakes with a parallel story concerning twin brothers Roland and Ronald Taverner (Seann William Scott), one a cop, the other undercover as his brother for the "Neo-Marxists." When the fake cop takes Boxer on a ride-along (research for Jericho), he reveals his method for scoping outlaws: "To be honest, he speaks into Boxer's video camera, "We're just looking out for the niggers." Boxer's stunned to the point that he takes off his sunglasses, repeating the term and looking hard at his instructor. "They're everywhere," says the poster boy for fascist policing. "I'm just fucking with you."

The moment, deemed a "funny joke" but not really, is forgotten as soon as it's over. But it's also one of many frames for the film's persistent, disjointed action, a marker of official insincerity and ugliness, fakery and brutality. As Roland/Ronald is instructed to screw up Boxer in order to gain control of the election, the film proposes the simultaneous tabloidism and utter meanness of such gaming. No one's plot works out as planned, with interracial couple and performance artists/activists Dream (Amy Poehler) and Dion (Wood Harris) suffering the most extreme glitch, and magical mystery ice cream truck driver Walter Mung (Christopher Lambert) providing the movie's most direct reference to Repo Man by way of Kiss Me Deadly (all the confusions might be worth this film's revisiting of Cloris Leachman standing stark and dazzling in front of Mike Hammer's headlights).

In this future as in our present, the primary stake for the dystopic election and its multifarious corporate influences is energy. As the post-nuclear-attack U.S. is heavily invested in its World War III and attendant wartime technologies, the profiteers include the Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), deviser of an alternative energy called Liquid Karma. Along with his ur-slinky moll Serpentine (Bai Ling), von Westphalen demands complete commitment to any contract, demonstrated by the willingness of one signer, Hideo Takehashi (Sab Shimon), to give up a finger to Serpentine's yakuza-style ceremonial knife. That the Baron doesn't exactly keep his own word indicates that he's invested in ego even more than money. But his selfishness is countered by Boxer's selflessness; determined to save the world, he threatens suicide (awkwardly emulating a fan who has done the same in pursuit of her lifelong dream of giving him a blowjob). But Boxer's threat is both real and fake, a performance that sums up and controverts the movie's many other performances. Boxer is the hero he imagines Jericho Kane to be, only less violent, less clichéd, less tediously legible.

The very incoherence of Southland Tales is something like an argument, its many pieces and pronouncements a deconstructive challenge to world order. But as it undermines faith in corrupt systems, it does, in its romantic miasma, offer a kind of hope. If Boxer's big heart, Krysta's expert love, and Pilate's sexyback moves aren't quite integrated, they do all point toward post-apocalyptic possibilities, toward reconciliation.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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