Sometimes, Cannes Film Festival shows some interesting and yet surprising curiosity for movies usually snubbed by them. This year, everybody was wondering how Takashi Miike and his Hara-Kiri in 3D landed in the official competition. Five years ago, Richard Kelly was presenting his second movie, where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sean William Scott, Justin Timberlake, Nora Dun, Christophe Lambert, Miranda Richardson and Mandy Moore were fighting against a presumed and wacky end of the world in a satirical and totalitarian Los Angeles. This was called Southland Tales, and this was a disaster. The screening’s audience was quite enthusiastic – even if rumor says it was already horrible – but most critics really destroyed the movie. Famous Roger Ebert described it as “The most disastrous screening since The brown bunny” – which is a yet fascinating movie as well - while a British critic thought “Southland Tales is so bad it made me wonder if the director has ever met a human being. This may be one of the worst films ever presented in Cannes competition”. At the end, Southland Tales has been recut, lost twenty minutes forever, and has been quickly released in USA before the world – or at least, some poor souls – waits for a DVD for few years. But we all know it really doesn’t mean anything: that’s exactly what this rubric is about.
Since Donnie Darko - his first movie about a schizophrenic teenager haunted by a rabbit – has been a phenomenal success, Richard Kelly was expected. This kind of young achievement is often hard to endure – we could easily think of Steven Soderbergh and his Palme d’Or with Sex, lies and videotape, who disappeared during ten years into dark and confidential movies before Out of sight. Southland Tales was originally thought as a 1000 pages titanic screenplay about an amnesic man who wake up in the Nevada desert and found out he’s being used into a major election in a totalitarian California, while some dark society experiments a dangerous new energy. Beside this main line, it’s about a pushy and prolific porn star, a neo-Marxist movement, a helpless soldier, a German dwarf, an overweight employee, a seller weapon and again, time travel and faith. In other words, Southland Tales was written as a mysterious and epic movie about a lot of things. If Kelly was miraculously allowed to make his feature, he had to cut half of his screenplay in order to avoid some a five hours movie. Right here arises the main gap about Southland Tales: these 500 pages turned into three comic books – the film opens with the fourth chapter - are not that dispensable. These unlucky unaware of the beginning will spend about an hour to get what is going on, and will easily become angry with such a convoluted story that shows no respect for audiences. Because Southland Tales is a lot of things but a reachable piece, it may requires more than the usual stuff. This is precisely why it’s also a brilliant and clumsy experiment, in which Richard Kelly shows his abilities in a very chaotic way.
When asked about his Palme’ d’Or choice of The tree of life, French director Olivier Assayas – who was member of Robert De Niro’s jury – talked about their willingness to reward an ambitious, unique and gigantic movie, where Terrence Malick is trying to find, to answer, to seize. It was never about perfection and achievement, as he clearly told The tree of life was sometimes missing its point. Soutland Tales and The tree of life may not share a lot of things with each other, they both testify of limitless visions in which faith and death meet between science and fiction. Kelly is much younger, but it’s funny to admit they almost made as many movies, and their big victory/public failure looks like their obsessions’ amalgam. Between Donnie Darko’s disturbing, spellbinding shock and The Box’s chilling paranoia, Southland Tales could be seen as an attempt to jump several steps to achieve what seems to be a lifetime project.
But Southland Tales could not be such an unforgettable movie if it was just for its hallucinatory nature. In a much more violent way than Donnie Darko, Kelly interweaves a destructive background which sets the announced end and a series of sensitive and lost portraits. Just like the young Asiatic girl mocked by her classmates and the modern teacher played by Drew Barrymore in Donnie Darko – who shared one of the most beautiful moment of the movie behind the school – Southland Tales abounds in these kind freaks wandering between tragedy and grotesque. Deeply rooted in his time and obviously subjugated by image’s power, Richard Kelly is using his pop culture casting – Sarah Michelle “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Gellar, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Sean William “American Pie” Scott, Justin “Sexy back” Timberlake, Mandy “almost Britney” Moore – but derails their sense to draw some kind of insane and absurd world where anything can be. Borders between reality, artificial, intelligence and idiocy are abruptly abolished while a strange screenplay written by two characters sounds like the movie itself. Our world is directed by symbols, and by multiplying them in a satirical way, Kelly is telling a fantastic joke in which politics, religions and arts finally self-destruct in a baffling bang. There’s a lot of these crazy moments in Southland Tales, where the young American director shows how gifted he is when he links music and cinema. Nobody had ever convinced Moby into working on a movie soundtrack before, and surely, his music had never been used that well, just like Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sean William Scott and Dwayne Johnson had never been showed like this. Southland Tales surely calls everyone’s sensitivity, and its misfires can easily become frustrating. But I am convinced it should also be seen as a fabulous object of contemporary art, an attempt to touch something different. And if it means it’s harder for us to receive it, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.
Southland Tales by Richard Kelly, with Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sean William Scott, Justin Timberlake, Miranda Richardson, Mandy Moore, Nora Dunn, Lou Taylor Pucci. Available on DVD.