By Bob Clark
The first time I watched Wim Wenders’ science-fiction epic Until the End of the World, it was under both the worst circumstances possible, but also some of the most interesting ones imaginable. Though the 1991 film has never been released on DVD in the United States, much less ever been given a stateside release of its full 280 minute cut that expands upon the truncated “Reader’s Digest” version that the director was forced to put together for its original run, it was long ago given a run in the now charmingly defunct medium of VHS. From there, somehow, it made the leap to digital downloads almost 20 years later when I found it while perusing through the video pages of the Playstation Network store, where I’d already picked up a digital copy of another such mind-bending sci-fi feature starring William Hurt, Altered States. As such, there was a kind of quaint thrill about the prospect of watching a movie about the one-time not-too-distant-future, now the increasingly more-distant past, through a means which would’ve been more or less inconceivable to the dated retro-futurist minds that cobbled together that film’s vision of days to come. It’s one thing to imagine the world put on the brink of annihilation by a falling nuclear satelite, the possibility of a camera that takes videos blind people can see, or a computer that can record and play back a sleeper’s dreams, but somehow it’s just a leap too far to imagine that we’ll outgrow physical digital discs or glass television and computer monitors.
That thrill was enough to make the experience of Until the End of the World just somewhat more bearable than it ought to have been, in that form. Oh, to be sure the movie was a joy to rediscover later on once I’d invested in a multi-region DVD player and picked up a German box-set of the director’s-cut “Trilogy” version of the film, which allowed the film and its early-90’s art-house idiosyncrasies to play out a little more loosely, but at the length it was originally released in it was something of a chore to sit through. There are times when, due to cramped editing and an over-reliance on the narrative crutch that is voice-over narration, a two-and-a-half hour movie can feel much, much longer than one which spans over four hours, especially when one is dealing in the heady brand of near-future science-fiction, where the blend of face-value realism and elaborate exposition can make a story that’s supposed to be set only a week or two from today feel as infuriating and impenetrable as the densest of alternate-history tomes. And there are no better examples of this kind of genre-crisis filmmaking, or no worse experiences of it, than the 2007 high-concept sophomore slump that is Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales.
To be fair, however, in following up his 2002 cult sensation Donnie Darko, one could never accuse Kelly of restraining himself or dialing down his pop-surrealist tendencies in order to reach a wider, more mainstream audience. Yes, he fills the cast of his second film with highly recognizable actors and actresses galore for every role from the various ensemble protagonists to the quickest and slimmest of on-screen cameos, but it does nothing to hold back his drive for creating a one-of-a-kind sci-fi meditation on apocalyptic and dystopian themes, aiming for nothing less than to become a kind of Orwellian and Kubrickian satire of the post-9/11 American experience, as well as an existential summation of Biblical themes that would make Phillip K. Dick ask for a brown paper bag to hyperventilate in. Set in an alternate timeline where 2005 marked a set of nuclear attacks in Texas and transformed the United States into an even more paranoid police-state than it already was after 9/11, the film takes place around a possible end-of-the-world scenario during the 2008 election, involving (among other things) an amnesiac Republican movie-star whose porn-star girlfriend has ties to a vast left-wing conspiracy of guerrilla terrorists, a brain-washed Iraq war veteran blackmailed into posing as an LAPD officer while his twin-brother is held hostage and heavily sedated (or is it the other way around?), and all manner of political and technological plots from a descendent of Karl Marx’s mistress turned rogue scientist with his finger on the pulse of an alternate-energy source that may or may not be ripping apart the time-space continuum.
There’s an absolutely admirable quality to the way that Kelly stays true to his cult-following habits and pours the kind of ambition and budget one would ordinarily imagine only gets dedicated to mainstream genre efforts or at the very least experiments from talents whose ability to marshal resources and popularity are well established– one can fathom this kind of no-holds-barred approach from a guy like Lucas or Cameron expanding upon their own well-laid pop mythologies, or luminaries like Ridley Scott channeling his world-building ethos into a fresh set of cinematic boundaries, or even a gun-for-hire like David Lynch going mad off Dino De Laurentiis’ dime to adapt the classic novel Dune, but you don’t generally see this sort of thing from second-time filmmakers still finding their footing in the world. Of course, there’s a very good reason for that– movies like that don’t tend to be very good, and Southland Tales isn’t much of an exception. Right away, it falls prey to many of the same problems that other such ambition-heavy neo-cultist works suffer from when attempting to match the scale and scope of blockbuster entertainment with their idiosyncratic tendencies, the chiefest of which may be the outright abandoning of the same kind of narrative principles that helped their earlier works succeed in finding an audience to begin with, by helping to make their surreal content a little easier for even the most unhinged prospective audience member to process.
One of the reasons Donnie Darko succeeded in winning over a whole generation of teenage indie neophytes was how simple its basic story was, no matter how convoluted the various mechanics of its sci-fi plot became– at its heart, it had the kernel of a boy-meets-girl story and the same basic themes as a superhero’s origin, allowing all of its headscratching time-travel nonsense to recede into the background as support for characters who were already strong enough to sustain our interest from the start. At their hearts, all great cult films have that same kind of simple hook for viewers to latch onto, especially if their subjects and styles become increasingly more radical or avant-garde– Eraserhead offers a story of the perils of fatherhood that’s easy to digest from the first go, even if everything else aims to make you sick to your stomach; THX 1138 provides a variation on the same basic forbidden-love dystopian narratives that Orwell and Huxley mapped out in the past, with a fair amount of action-movie set-pieces thrown in to speed things along; even El Topo tells a mythic parable so concise and exacting in its logic that you could imagine it being translated into a video-game without much streamlining necessary (and indeed, in something like Suda-51’s No More Heroes games, we may have just that sort of thing).
Though a later director’s-cut of Donnie Darko would seek to explain a bit more of the temporal mechanics at play in his suburban wastelands, so much of what made that film a fascinating experience was how little of it needed to be explained, in the first place, and how little even those follow-up elaborations added and detracted from the initial mysterious experience. Kelly showed himself an adept hand at inviting us to latch our emotional attention onto characters just normal enough to avoid arousing our suspicions and just unusual enough to get under our skins and make the experience feel familiar. Like Max Cannon’s absurdist comic-strip gem Red Meat, Kelly’s style both invests itself in the safety of the suburban norm and seeks to subvert it in ways that make its peculiar kinds of deviation seem all the more conforming to some grander pattern of nationalistic individuality– he makes being a freak, or at least feeling like one, feel just as American and patriotic as hot dogs and apple-pie. By avoiding exposition, he asked viewers to meet him half way and bring the baggage of their own emotional and psychological experiences to bear, helping them identify with his various loners and burn-outs in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if he had telegraphed their motivations to us.
The fundamental flaw that cripples Southland Tales is exactly an adherence to that kind of exposition, both through the wallpaper voice-over narration from a character who barely functions in the overall story of the film (Justin Timberlake riding a sniper’s-nest Hummer in a bloody shirt and a glued-on goatee) and through a series of info-dump sequences where a group of conspirators takes a very long time to explain a very small amount of information to a character they’re trying to keep as much in the dark as possible, as well as the audience themselves, by extension. It certainly doesn’t help that most of the information we’re given is useless backstory for some of the various factions and technological aspects of his sci-fi scenarios that would’ve gone better unexplained or at the very least kept receded into the background of the narrative, while the rest of it are either redundancies we could figure out for ourselves (if you feel the need to explain which German philosophers a group called the “Neo Marxists” follow the teachings of, that’s a bad sign) or feels like outright gibberish.
If that weren’t enough, it’s also necessary to mention that in the film of Southland Tales we’re only getting one half of the overall experience, the other being the “Prequel Saga” of three graphic novels written by Kelly and illustrated by Brett Weldele, which seeks to fill out the backstories of the various players in the increasingly convoluted series of events taking place in the film. This helps place Kelly’s seemingly stand-alone independent film into the same category of increasingly bloated and confusing cross-media experiences from throughout the 00’s, particularly through a brand of mainstream blockbuster spectacles whose aesthetic and thematic ambitions were sometimes matched only by the headache-inducing demands they placed upon wide swathes of audiences. Movies like The Matrix sequels, the Star Wars prequels and even television series like Lost were able to win fans with their stunning visions, but oftentimes alienate just as many viewers with the chore it became to slog through all varieties of cinematic content and other media experiences in order to make sense of everything. Without reading the various Matrix comics or watching the Animatrix shorts, audiences would have no real hint of the epic backstory between the human and machine factions, and therefore have no appreciation of the motivation fueling both sides of the conflict. Without watching the Clone Wars shorts or reading various Extended Universe novels published between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, many of the implied backstories of Lucas’ films were likely to pass viewers by without any notice. And without trolling website after website in the months between one season of Lost to the next even the most dedicated member of their audience would be at a loss to understand any of the various strands involving the Dharma Initiative, the Black Smoke Monster, or any other confusing narrative branches, even if they only wound up becoming dead-ends.
In much the same way, Southland Tales the movie is borderline incomprehensible without first coming to it through the “Prequel Saga” graphic novels, and even then those comics only offer a smidgeon of extra narrative definition to the overall story. One gets a better understanding of the rift in time and space caused by the Nikola Tesla-inspired wireless energy source of “liquid karma”, as well as a more intimate knowledge of the various personal and political struggles the various characters experience throughout the course of the movie. But by and large, much of the graphic novels’ page counts betray exactly the same problems as does the feature, ignoring the shared strengths of visual communication inherent in both mediums in favor of an endless parade of exposition from narrative boxes and characters assembling to give speeches to one pawn or another. In both the forms of comics and cinema, Southland Tales commits the cardinal narrative sin of telling instead of showing, and thus weakens itself in a way that even critics of the Matrix sequels, Star Wars prequels or any make-it-up-as-you-go-along season of Lost would be hard pressed to find in those works. At the very least, the Wachowskis, Lucas and the combined force of Darlton managed to conjure up stirring sights and set-pieces throughout their sometimes self-indulgent mythic exercises, something that Kelly was able to do in Donnie Darko and to a certain extent later on in The Box, but more or less escaped him here. There’s plenty of exposition, but not much worth being exposed to.
It’s the sort of all-or-nothing exposition overload that usually happens in the case of an adaptation of an overly dense literary work, especially one of an already demanding genre like science-fiction, where you can sense the filmmaker’s fear and anxiety over whether or not the viewer is going to be able to make sense of the out-of-this-world circumstances they’ve been dropped into. David Lynch provides the classic example with Dune, where voice-overs of narration and inner-thoughts from high and low characters alike attempt to approximate how Frank Herbert would routinely dip in and out of peoples’ minds in his books– a habit that works for literature but gets in the way on-screen. In Lynch’s case, however, there’s also the factor of a studio cutting the film down to a mere two-hour running time, in some ways forcing his hand as far as exposition goes just to get everything across. Wim Wenders’ initial cut of Until the End of the World suffers from the same problems in the original version, but in its longer cut becomes a much stronger, more confident work even with the copious voice-over narration (it helps that in that case, the narrator is also a chief member of the film’s cast and has an active role in the story, even in the shortest cut).
Current high-concept movies are routinely allowed to run at an epic length and thus are spared these kinds of problems– one imagines if it was cut down as much as Lynch or Wenders’ films were that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies would’ve been greeted with derision and headaches instead of acclaim and applause. As such, Southland Tales winds up standing out for all kinds of structural reasons even before you try wrapping your head around its stylistic conventions or narrative twists– for all the way it spoon-feeds the viewer information, it begins to feel like an act of force-feeding, almost akin to expository water-boarding as it goes on. Perhaps at its original length (a mere 20 or 30 minutes longer, but still) things might’ve played out at a smoother and more leisurely pace, and allowed so much of these frustrations to play out as an ironic dissection of high-concept narrative tactics in the particular surrealist dystopia it takes place in. Indeed, it’s tempting to try and accept the way Kelly broadcasts his exposition almost along the lines of the eye-strain inducing propaganda his characters live with daily, but history for the most part teaches us that even when it is at its most despotic, tyranny tends to have a smidgeon more aesthetic aplomb than we get here.
At the same time, all this scramble and confusion throughout the work only makes it that much more frustrating to consider the parts of it that work, in both the cinematic and comics parts of the whole, as well as make one question whether one medium or the other would’ve been the better route to tell the entirety of the Southland Tales experience. Though, again, it suffers from many of the same faults of the film, the graphic novels offer a form that allows both these faults and many of the strengths inherent to Kelly’s storytelling an ideal experience, and one that softens the hard edges from his undisciplined approaches. Yes, the “tell vs. show” quotient is still rather annoying, but when those info-dumps sit static upon the page they have a kind of weight and permanence that the transitory nature of cinema elludes them– it’s a lot harder for the ideas and narration to go in one ear and out the other when you’re forced to read them on the page, and look at them in printed form. It helps give much of the exposition here feel as though it’s being offered with more substance than what we have in the film– maybe there really is more legitimate, concrete explanation offered on the nature of the various prophecies characters offer up in these pages than there is in the movie, or maybe the particular episodes and stories being told here are simply more interesting than the sometimes vacant chapters we have up on the screen.
It strengthens the validity of Southland Tales as an epic-length cross-media experience, as well as providing even more frustration that the bulk of the cinematic experience couldn’t have been handled in quite the same streamlined way. From that perspective, one wonders if the whole of the narrative wouldn’t have been better off told entirely in graphic novel form, an option that has certainly become more and more viable for filmmakers whose ambitions exceed the limit provided by one creative medium. Darren Aronofsky famously took his original screenplay for The Fountain and turned it into an epic graphic novel with the help of illustrator Kent Williams before turning in another, more budget-friendly draft in 2006, and Alejandro Jodorowsky has long exercised his writing in both cinema and comics over the decades, particularly with his long-form collaboration with the late Jean “Moebius” Giraud in the form of The Incal, a project originally stemming from their time spent working on an abortive adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s tempting to imagine that Kelly might’ve been able to better express the full volume of his problematic epic in the pages of comics and eventually whittle the story down to its essentials for a feature film, as Aronofsky did, or that he could’ve ditched the idea of turning his story into a cinematic work at all and instead concentrated on teaming up with the right kind of visionary artist to deliver a groundbreaking long-form graphic novel, as Jodorowsky did. In either case, it’s possible to envision a stronger work than we have right now, on the page or on the screen.
Supposing that he had decided to concentrate on the comics-bound iteration of his story, the question becomes whether or not it wouldn’t have been better to see the Southland Tales graphic novel project continue in the manner of his collaboration with Brett Weldele, or perhaps if there might’ve been an artist better suited to the director’s exacting vision. To be fair, there are easily illustrators one could imagine providing more indelible work than the sometimes rushed-looking artwork we have in the “Prequel Saga” comics. When sitting through Kelly’s film and often finding one’s self daunted by the sheer density of visual information in every wide-angle shot, every corner of the frame overflowing with American flags, Neo Marxist graffiti, Big Brother style surveilance screens and the occasional zeppelin thrown in for good measure (zeppelins and air-ships in general being almost obligatory in telling any kind of alternate-timeline dependent narrative in Western science fiction) it’s easy to picture Geoff Darrow embellishing every inch of a comics-page in just the same manner as he did for Frank Miller’s Hard Boiled. In fact, it’s just as tempting to speculate on a teaming between Kelly and Miller’s collaborator on the related Martha Washington stories, the celebrated David Gibbons, whose work with Alan Moore in the seminal Watchmen sometimes feels another strong influence on the densely detailed frames Kelly directs in this film (indeed, it even raises the specter of the old dream team of possible Watchmen directors back from before Zack Snyder succeeded where greater talents like Terry Gilliam failed).
Still, it isn’t quite fair to Weldele’s work as it stands in the Southland Tales comics to wonder for too long if there may have been a better fantasy team-up between writer and artist in those kinds of hypothetical circumstances– Weldele may not provide as pitch-perfect a pairing of talent as did the definitive collision between Moebius and Jodorowsky, but few could even dream of providing that kind of artistic synchronicity, and the work he provides in the extant “Prequel Saga” graphic novel provides occasionally stunning work, besides. Most of the time, his ink-sketch and digital-washes of color have a rushed look to them, as though he was illustrating less from a copy of the script himself and more perhaps jotting down his sequences as quickly as he could while Kelly walked back and forth in a room narrating the whole story to him vocally– it has the spontaneous, livid feeling of cartooning by dictation. At times, his work recalls the illustration style done by Ashley Wood for the adaptations of the Metal Gear Solid video-games, as well as the animations he provided for several of the PSP installments. There’s not quite the same feverish sense of detail and exacting detail that one can find in other comics or in Kelly’s film itself, but at the best moments it actually captures the hypnotic spirit of the director’s best work, and pairs it with a grimy, underground quality that’s a close to perfect match with the political sensibilities of the narrative at play.
At key scenes, like the Neo Marxist rally where American rebels lift fluorescent staffs lit by Tesla-derived wireless electricity en masse like an army of radicalized Jedi, or in the various hallucinatory dream sequences stitched throughout the narrative where amnesiac doppelgangers meet one another in gigantic mazes shaped like the state of Texas, we see both the strengths of Weldele’s subversive artistry and the full sense of Kelly’s visual imagination rendered at a scale that would’ve been close to impossible for him to register on the big-screen without sacrificing the non-linear storytelling principles that make Southland Tales such a singular, if infuriating experience. As such, it’s easy to say that the cross-disciplinary nature of the graphic novels work at communicating the full range of moods and ideas better than the more conservatively paced film does– Kelly and Weldele are afforded many more chances to experiment with form through pieces of graffiti-styled collage throughout the pages, and even long stretches of a screenplay within the comics pages that almost seem to be an earlier (and possibly better) draft of the film itself. But then comics are a far looser medium, and more conducive to experimentation simply through the subjective way that sequential-art can be defined and experienced. Film, with its harder-bound experience of moving images through time, fixing it to an explicit beginning, middle and end even if arranged out of narrative order, provides much stricter conventions to follow, which may explain why Kelly likes toying with time and space as much as he does onscreen, to begin with.
And from that perspective, maybe it makes sense that he needs to practically bring the world and the medium itself to the bring of incomprehensible annihilation just to tell the story of how a nation reels from the divided soul of terrorist aftermath. It may not make very much sense, but at least it can come close to the same kind of lucid gibberish that James Joyce did in Finnegan’s Wake or the more patience-testing chapters of Ulysses. To paraphrase one of the oft-quoted mantras throughout his own film– Nobody rocks the cock like Krysta Now, but nobody fucks the mind like Richard Kelly.