Richard Kelly is as divisive a director as they come. Stylish, moody, and dabbed with dark humor, allusions to morality, and unusually relatable situations, his three feature films to date (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales, The Box) leave viewers either eager for contemplation or ready to throw the whole oeuvre out the window. I have no problems with Richard Kelly (aside from a few questionable cinematic investments made by Darko Entertainment, but ultimately, so what?); in fact, I quite like his brand of “simple plot smothered/covered with convoluted attempts at philosophy.” He’s like Christopher Nolan, but tuned more for people who aren’t pretending to be smart.
Recently I picked up the Arrow Films release of Southland Tales that includes the infamous “Cannes cut,” aka the version of the film Kelly wanted us to see (the story is that Kelly compromised with Sony to cut the picture down for distribution in exchange for more funds to complete the visual effects). The cut extends the film to a hefty 160 minutes, rearranges some scenes, and adds more depth to several characters by extending conversations between them.
Southland Tales is a sprawling, ambitious science-fiction thriller with a cast of 1,000 familiar faces (everyone from Dwayne Johnson to Zelda Rubinstein) intertwined with pop commentary, political drama, and black comedy: Kelly himself often described the picture as a “strange hybrid of the sensibilities of Andy Warhol and Philip K. Dick.” Not only does the film tackle subjects such as American celebrity and pop idolatry, deeply-held government conspiracy, cyberpunkish anti-fascist activism, duality, identity, existential crisis, and the military-industrial complex and nuclear war, but it engages with those topics in such a way that the 160-minute runtime feels brisk and exciting.
But this is not a Southland Tales review. When I watched it last weekend, I was so caught up in the world Kelly built, I imagined myself in it. I imagined what life must be like in the dystopian Southland, the unofficial name given to Southern California, concentrated in the greater Los Angeles area. I imagined America in the Third World War, how the construction of most post-apocalyptic films seems far from realistic; that films like Mad Max: Fury Road are secured in fantasy, and Southland Tales‘ neo-Marxist underground seems accurate to how wartime anarchy and hysteria would play out on American soil. This is a world that is both familiar and alien, with many of us still too swept up in glamourous “infotainment” (Kelly, in 2006, takes our obsession with reality TV and likens it to porn addiction by supposing porn stars are now our daytime talkshow hosts) to pay close attention to the ramifications of this universe’s version of the PATRIOT Act. This is a world in which the political is religious (instead of the other way around), where our anxiety is poetic and post-modern. This is just a small sample of why I find this film so fascinating.
And so, I present this Audio Fanfiction: a trip to the sunny and chaotic Southland. P.S.–anachronism be damned.