Latent Images
‘Southland Tales:’ I Got Soul, But I’m Not a Soldier
by Justin Landsman

A true prophecy only brings madness. A perfect example of such prophecy is writer-director Richard Kelly’s 2006 sophomore feature, Southland Tales. The film — driven by a keen satirization of the Bush Era — tells the story of several people’s lives converging on July 4, 2008, in a dystopian Los Angeles as the United States is under the threat of nuclear attack. After screening an unfinished version at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, where moviegoers found themselves utterly dumbfounded by the omnibus of ideas on display, Kelly cut twenty minutes from the film; that cut stumbled into — and subsequently bombed in — theaters later that year. A new Blu-Ray release from Arrow Video has restored the then-lost 160-minute “Cannes Cut” for the public, sparking much revisionism and divisive discussion amongst many online Zillenial and Gen-Z film circles regarding the film’s place within the canon of Dystopian media. Watching this newly restored cut as an “online” member of Gen-Z, I realized that one thing’s for sure: it is the single greatest Philip K. Dick story that Philip K. Dick never wrote. It’s a movie within a movie within a movie to the point where we as an audience are in the movie simultaneously as the characters.

Roger Ebert succinctly sums up the overall rancorous mood pervading the Cannes screening (and, subsequently, the public’s perception of Southland Tales), writing of how “dazed, confused, bewildered, bored, affronted, and deafened” he was — in that order — by the piercing boos around him. Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine wrote, “If Donnie Darko was Kelly’s Eraserhead, then maybe Southland Tales is his Dune.” Subsequently, Jonathan Rosenbaum of Chicago Reader exclaimed, “You can’t be both political and incoherent.” As Kelly recounts in a recent interview with Variety, “[the] feedback from the publicists was… somewhere along the lines of getting news that your child had been drowned in a swimming pool. People were looking at me like there was a major death in the family. It wasn’t as much as the feedback we were getting on the film as the expressions on people’s faces all around me. It was quite traumatizing.”

Off-putting and hilarious, Kelly’s tales are that of a madman predicting the Trump era to a T: the merging of celebrity, pornography, and politics and their toxic affect on the culture; an omnipresent overthrowing force of surveillance comprised of a shady government and 24/7 streaming as the looming hierarchy of antagonists; acts of police brutality being caught on video and going viral; the resurgance of the fight for Marxism amidst the destruction of the left by fascism; well meaning but thoroughly performative acts of “activism” that undermine the real activsts; global war in the Middle East that continues to promote imperialism. These are just a few examples of our current reality that this film prophesied in a stunning act of rage and anguish. 

Released at the same time as the film, Kelly also unveiled Southland Tales: The Prequel Saga, a comic book telling the first half of the film’s story — Kelly’s side, that is. Seeing the film on its own can be valuable as an experience of sensory overload and peak formalist filmmaking, but the comic further enriches Kelly’s prophetic and dense vision into the future. The world building of the entire experience is vast and cultured, with Kelly emphasizing the sheer grandness of his scope through performances imbued with stunning urgency and panic, as well as production design and art direction that gets his point across through visual schematics. The film’s magnificently fine attention to detail is simply fascinating to experience in all of its intricacies — Kelly packs an astounding amount of information into each frame, with some essential and other as an act of vibrant formalism. As Kelly recalls, in the previously referenced Variety interview, “there is both a prequel and a sequel wrapped into the Russian-nesting-doll narrative of [Southland Tales]. It’s… from a very special time in my life. I will always be working on it. Even if I’m an old man acting out a Southland Tales expanded version with sock puppets in a mental hospital one day, I will still be working on it.” This makes for a captivating saga bursting with imagination and creativity from start to finish.

If there’s anything that sparked the film’s cult following, it’s our own country’s government and how well it mirrors the zany nightmare-world of Southland Tales. Maybe this resurgence owes some debt to the historical complexities that both Southland Tales and Kelly’s other films have accidentally tapped into. But nonetheless, the film manages to seriously examine surveillance culture, political conspiracies, and the corporate control of America, all of which continue to remain prevalent today. A blind first watch of Southland Tales in its initial theatrical cut could leave one confounded, but in the best way possible, one that prompts further and further viewings. The same can be said for the Cannes Cut, which is even more mesmerizing in its rewatch prompting intricacies. That’s what the film does to you: it makes you want to dive into its world head first, scouring and researching information in search of an enlightenment of sorts in the fictional world’s complexities.

On February 8, 2021 amidst the new Arrow Video release discussion, Jay Bauman, film critic and member of YouTube channel RedLetterMedia, tweeted, “Rewatching Southland Tales for the first time in 15 years, there’s so much to admire about its scope, ambition, unconventional storytelling, social satire, and eccentric casting. But it’s also a gigantic mess and it sucks.” Many like Bauman initially criticized — and continue to, today — Southland Tales as being ambitious to a fault, making for a “messy” film. However, that’s exactly the point: all of it is the artifice of the film’s oppressive forces, scattered with powerful moments of people setting that artifice aside and breaking through it. The thesis of Southland Tales is that the world will end not with a whim, but with a bang. That bang is the refusal of that artifice, the abandonment of fighting against the truth, proving that Southland Tales isn’t messy, but rather cognitively disorganized to shout out a larger point muddled by plain comments of “messiness.”

There is truly nothing else like Southland Tales, and it is a miracle that it even got made in the first place. It is a forward-thinking experiment in filmmaking where an artist not limited by overseeing powers was able to tap into the post-ironic millennial/Gen-Z environment before it even became predominant in the early 2010s. Its prevalent and prophetic themes, growing vocal and radical fan base throughout online film discussion circles, and re-release of the director’s full and complete nightmarish vision of the future establish it as a classic that deserves its vulgar canonization. To quote the film, “Have a nice apocalypse!”