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Trascending the Now in Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" Cock Chuggers and Cheese Curls
Cock Chuggers and Cheese Curls
by KIM NICOLINI

Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales was one of the most under-appreciated and underscreened movies of the past year. For the most part, critics found it confusing and didn’t understand that it is not just a movie but a critique of media in general that uses the mechanisms of mass media against itself to deliver a scathing portrait of a dumbed-down media saturated wartime apocalyptic landscape, otherwise known as the United States. I am not an adoring Richard Kelly fan, nor do I read comics, but I was inspired to see Southland Tales because I love an apocalyptic narrative and because when I read all the reasons people hated the movie, I knew they were all reasons why I would love it. I was right. Southland Tales not only met my expectations, but it exceeded them by a thousand fold.

While the film stands on its own a mind-blowingly complex piece of 21st century cinema, I must say that reading the prequel comic first definitely made the film more intelligible but also made the experience of the film more complete, because Southland Tales is more than just a movie. It’s a media event. It is a happening, a multi-media extravaganza that exploits the very nature of media to transcend the confines of media. Not unlike Brian De Palma’s Redacted, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales uses an almost guerilla style of visual assault and employs the aesthetics of mass media to expose the humanity trapped inside the artificial construction of media. It asks us to question the very nature of ourselves, our constructed identities and how our lives are narrated by outside forces. Using pop icons for actors and incorporating an assault of MTV meets CNN meets Sci-Fi Soap Opera cinematic styles, the movie plays like some kind of insane infomercial reality show gone awry. Media is layered within media as sidebars frame the screen and we watch the movie like we’re watching a CNN report on the disintegration of humankind.

Disintegration is the critical word here because no one in this story is allowed to be a singular identity. Everyone is botched together, living lives of dualities and projections. One thing the comic emphasizes and that is not so clear in the movie is that there are two conjoining narratives. The characters operate on two planes –one in which they are characters in a screenplay and one in which they are “real” people who converge with and become the characters in the screenplay. No one can be trusted with who they are, and everyone is a projection and construction of a scripted plot. Are we watching Roland or Ronald Taverner? Is he a veteran of the Iraq War or a racist cop? Is Dwayne Johnson Boxer Santeros or Jericho Kane? Is he a movie star or a cop? Is this couple a pair of Marxist revolutionaries or a bourgeois bride and groom? Everything is doubled and muddled, even the politicians and revolutionaries. The Marxists are in with the Republicans. The corporation is assisting the leftists. The feminist is colluding with the corporation.

It’s all duplicitous. There are no clear cut good guys and bad guys, just guys who have all melded together in a tangle of artifice that needs to be exploded. (And it eventually does explode quite beautifully.) Kelly brilliantly uses media against itself to extend this distrust and confusion about who and what we are watching and move it beyond the screen. We think Krysta Now is a fictional creation, yet you can visit Krysta-Now.com and browse her line of products. We think we’re watching the actor Dwayne Johnson play a fictional character Boxer Santeros, yet we can visit Boxer on his Myspace page . We think that Treer-Products are a creation of Richard Kelly, yet they too have a website. This is what I mean when I say that Southland Tales is a multi-media event/construction. According to Southland Tales, life and the people who live it have become a multi-media construction.

One of the biggest criticisms of the movie is the flat affect of pop icons Dwayne Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Let me just say that there is no way on earth that this movie could be as effective as it is or be what it is if it did not use pop icons who appear on screen like cardboard cut-outs with moving mouths. The flatness of the performances makes the film infinitely more effective because we feel the constraints under which these characters are operating. We feel the duality of their existence and see the humanity locked inside their outer construction. This duality is particularly effective in Boxer Santeros/Jericho Kane (Dwayne Johnson). His eyes are constantly staring out of his head like a deer caught in the headlights, and he is perpetually wringing his hands in exaggerated anxiety over the script that he is caught inside. His exaggerated, almost slapstick physical mannerisms border on camp, yet what we feel is the tension between himself as an actor (the actor Dwayne Johnson and the actor Boxer Santeros) and the person he thinks is a real person but who is also only a character in a script (Jericho Kane). Ultimately by using these pop icons, we witness the artificial construction of identity (a construction which is largely influenced by media) and a desperate need to transcend that construction. The flatness of the characters lends a kind of campy MTV production value to the film that exposes the artifice of media. Still, at its heart, the film is completely sincere and oozing with humanity, and we feel this humanity more because of the flat artificial performances. For example, we laugh heartily as Starla stuffs her garish face with cheese curls, but when she gets gunned down on the beach, we feel the horror of her death and the tragedy of her desperate identity. But our horror is amplified by her camp performance.

The scene featuring the film’s narrator Private Pilot Abilene (played by pop icon Justin Timberlake) lip-syncing to the Killers “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” beautifully illustrates the film’s ability to deliver camp and a kind of MTV artificial aesthetic that at the heart contains a tragic human realness. In this one scene, we witness what this movie does so well. Justin Timberlake enters the scene covered with blood and scars from the war. At first we’re disoriented as he stumbles inside the screen. Then we laugh at the campy horror of his look (it’s too staged to take seriously) and his ironic slacker MTV affect. Yet we are also uncomfortable because (ironically) the hallucinatory aura of the scene relates it to the reality of the “real war.” The scene builds into an explosion of musical camp complete with Rockettes. As the scene whirls, we lose bearings and wonder what exactly it is we are watching. The music and the dancing are exploding with self-conscious pop/camp, yet Timberlake’s affect is laden with human resignation, malaise and damage. At the end, he stares out at us as if he is saying, “Look at what this world has done to me.” It’s a gorgeous human moment in which media and humanity converge to powerful effect. But the reason it is so powerful is because it comes “through” to us from all these trappings of pop music and reeling hallucinatory dance numbers. As an aside, this scene is very interesting to compare to the Happiness is a Warm Gun scene in Across the Universe. Both scenes use Rockettes and surreal dance numbers to show the imbalanced mental state and damage of the returning war veteran. (And yes, Southland Tales is yet another war movie.) This scene with Timberlake is also a good example of how effectively music is integrated throughout the film. The soundtrack interjects itself perfectly and manages to move the superficial/exterior into the interior. The interior sound of the music within the film gorgeously mirrors the interior of the characters.

This is not to say that the movie isn’t funny. It has riotously hilarious moments. I mean, Cock Chuggers and Cheese Curls are funny. I laughed as hard during this movie as I did during Reno 911. The difference is that underneath the laughter, I was asked to think and to feel. Much of the humor of the film is delivered via the character Krysta Now and jokes about pornography. (Let’s not forget that NOW also stands for National Organization of Women which is a clever joke about the “radical feminists” in the movie.) From Krysta’s pop tune hit Teen Horniess Is Not A Crime (c’mon that’s funny) to her television show that discusses “penetrating issues facing society today” (e.g. why Krysta doesn’t do anal), there are no shortage of porn jokes delivered through Krysta’s character. But truth is that in a media saturated world, everything is porn. No surprise the movie’s trailer shows a tank with a Hustler sponsor logo on the side. War is porn. Media is porn. People are porn. In the end, rather than being the butt of her own jokes, Krysta is a visionary and a pragmatist. Krysta Now is the voice of reason who dares to speak the truth. She understands the ideology behind American imperialism: “Deep down inside everyone wishes they were a porn star. We’re a bisexual nation living in denial all because of a bunch of nerds who got off a boat in the 15th century and decided that sex was something we should be ashamed of. All the pilgrims did was ruin the American Indian orgy of freedom.” And Boxer Santeros isn’t too far behind Krysta when it comes to revelations. While Krysta understands that everything is porn, Boxer is fully aware that he is a pimp: “I’m a pimp. Pimps don’t commit suicide.” Porn stars. Pimps. We’re all whoring something, selling something and pimping something. We’re all being whored, sold, and pimped.

Cock chuggers and cheese curls aside, when it all comes down (and it does all come down), Southland Tales exploits media to transcend the trap of media. Underneath the MTV and CNN production values, what we feel is real humanity caught inside the trap of a media-saturated culture. We learn that not only are all the characters operating in the duality of their own existence, but that time itself has become split. The now (as in the present) is a place that cannot be trusted. The only place to find ourselves and free ourselves from the artifice we’ve become is to look back into what we were in the past and project what we will be in the future. Joining these two forces, who we were yesterday and what we will be tomorrow (Roland and Ronald), is the only way to reinvent today. Hence, today needs to be destroyed and you get the apocalypse!

Speaking of revelations, what we learn from the prequel comic is that the “screenplay” within the narrative was inspired by the book of revelations. In the end, our experience of this film is a revelation within itself as we watch the sacrificial destruction of humanity. People fall from rooftops, are gunned down on beaches, slain in their wedding dresses, and tumble from blimps, all in a sacrificial explosion of martyrdom. And there is liberation and redemption in this death. Through their destruction, the characters can transcend their artifice. When everyone gathers in the blimp at the end –the politicians, Marxists, scientists, corporations, and movie stars –it is a conglomeration of ideology that needs to explode to transcend the now. And what a sublime transcendence it is when it all blows the fuck up. Absolutely gorgeous. It left me in goose bumps.

To me, Southland Tales is a movie about transcending the tragedy that is the now. It uses media to try to transcend media and the media composites and artificial identities that have taken over human life. I found the ending dance scene in the blimp remarkably moving because I was so acutely aware of the artifice of the characters and the narrative that they were inhabiting, but also keenly sensitive to the idea that they really were reaching beyond their roles. When Krysta and Boxer dance and Boxer’s wife joins them, we feel a sense of reconciliation and hope, yet we also know that everything must end for hope to exist. The now must be destroyed. It’s all quite beautiful and moving, and it is one of the most accurate representations of America in the 21st century. I’m sure all of this sounds profoundly insane to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, but we live in a profoundly insane time.

Southland Tales was screened at very few theaters nationwide, but it is now available on DVD.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.