Once more into the breach: For those who missed its mayfly run, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is newly available on DVD in appropriately letter-boxed format. Reviled by many, championed by a few—mainly past and present Voice critics, including Manohla Dargis, Amy Taubin, and Nathan Lee, who named it his best movie of the year—Kelly’s follow-up to his 2001 Donnie Darko is more film maudit than the basis for a midnight cult. The Darko DVD restored all manner of explanatory and elaborating material to the film; Southland‘s seems nearly identical to the release version. There’s a George W. Bush cameo I don’t recall seeing before, but nothing restored from the longer cut that had its disastrous world premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Perfunctory extras include an on-set infomercial and an animated cartoon explicating the end of the world with faux-childlike graphics.
As you may have heard, Southland Tales is a busily convoluted satire of American rhetoric—visual and otherwise—that often takes the form of a perpetual newscast in which everybody is watching everyone else, usually on computers. The movie is specifically set in an alternative universe in which 9/11 has been superseded by a nuclear event in Texas, but the various bromides, slogans, and clichés are all too familiar; so is the culture war between infantile-anarcho-“Neo-Marxist”-porn-star- performance-artist-documentary- filmmakers and a globalizing Republican Party devoted to maximizing corporate profits and applying the Patriot Act to cyberspace.
There’s a presidential election to which California holds the key; issues include energy dependence, unending war in the Middle East, and a sex scandal involving an amnesiac action hero (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson), married to the daughter of the Republican VP candidate, and a militantly humorless porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who calls herself “Krysta Now.” “Now” is the operative concept. As the tone oscillates between banality and grandeur, amid jokes variously deadpan and obvious, the Rock ricochets through the image flow with totally convincing incomprehension.
Southland Tales was conceived as widescreen spectacle, but Kelly’s deliberately cheesy CNN graphics and interpolated music videos—not to mention his large cast of TV personalities—are naturally suited to the home screen; it’s possible the movie will find its audience on Netflix.