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Southland Tales: Cannes Cut + Theatrical Cut (2-Disc Limited Edition)
Southland Tales is what happens when you give Neil Breen HGH and PCP, hand over a twenty million dollar budget and complete creative freedom, then tell him to go buck wild. As a connoisseur of "so-bad-it's-good" cinema that emerges out of narcissist nincompoops with zero self-awareness, yet an endless abundance of confidence as world-altering artistical geniuses, it's a fascinating specimen.
Such woefully misguided attempts at self-aggrandizing auteur manifestos in the form of feature narrative tortures usually comes in the form of low-budget, DIY projects that the likes of Breen and Tommy Wiseau scrap together on their own. That's because no one with half a brain would ever fund their masturbatory fantasies where they're the smartest, deepest, sexiest artiste to have ever graced our world.
Writer/director Richard Kelly's stomach-churning three-way car crash of Philip K. Dick fan-fic written on a crayon, faux-nihilist pop art, and "community college political science minor after a screening of Fahrenheit 9/11" level annoying sociopolitical prophecy stands out amongst this crowd. That's because it has a real studio, a real budget, and a bevy of stars who should have known better. Yet it's equally as befuddling as one of those vanity projects I outlined above.
It's understandable why the likes of Dwayne Johnson and Justin Timberlake signed up to this, and why Kelly was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. Southland Tales came at the heels of the cult success of Kelly's directorial debut Donnie Darko, which also gets lost up its own pseudo-science/mysticism butt, but comes across as a bastion of cohesion and self-restraint compared to Southland. Circa 2002-2004, everyone in the biz thought Kelly was some sort of cryptic genius, the heir to David Lynch. So it makes sense that everyone under the sun was eager to jump on whatever Kelly was going to do next.
What came next turned out to be a scrambled mess that came out of a scrambled brain, saying nothing as it tries to say everything, offending no one as it schemes to offend everyone, and barely conjures up a sigh of indifference as it deliberately attempts to undermine the audience's good faith every step of the way. The nauseating sense of self-importance begins the story halfway through, telling you that you need to read an entire graphic novel if you want to even begin to make any sense of the last three chapters of this epic six-part tale of drunken So-Cal frat boy lesson into left and right neo-authoritarian states (Extremism is bad in every form, get it?). From there, good luck hanging onto whatever semblance of plot, character, theme, etc… moving forward. Then this final line delivered hilariously misguided gravitas: "He's a pimp. And pimps… Don't… Commit… Suicide". What more do you need to know?
Part of the enduring fascination with Southland Tales as the king of narcissistic trash cinema is that it looks gorgeous. There's technical prowess that's backed up with a considerable budget here. So Kelly's pop-art vision colluding with the colorful and sunny Southern California locations is dazzling (As freeze frames. No amount of aesthetic beauty could save such a mess once in motion). Arrow's new 1080p transfer from their 2K render captures the popping colors of the film perfectly, giving them stunning definition and contrast.
Kelly uses Southland Tales as a receptacle of his personal playlist full of early 2000s alt-rock and whatever Moby is. Regardless of whether or not his favorite songs have any connection to the tone, themes, or the plot of any scene they're in, he hits shuffle and hopes for the best. That also goes for the infuriating sequence where whatever forward momentum of the narrative halts to a stop so Timberlake, known to primarily be a singer at the time, lip-syncs to The Killers as a "subtle" conflation of Americana toxicity is represented by bowling and Marilyn Monroe (I'm shocked Kelly didn't incorporate apple pies and white picket fences). The DTS-HD 5.1 track gives ample amplification for fans of that era of hipster tunes, while the sfx/dialogue is mixed with satisfying depth and range.
Commentary by Richard Kelly: Kelly's monotone attempt at giving more context into this mess results in more questions to be posed than answered.
It's a Madcap World: I certainly would have loved to have seen this mind-bending and wicked fun trip into the American id that the cast and crew keep describing in this hour-long retrospective documentary. For the film's genuine fans, the irony-free self-love on display here should be satisfactory.
USIdent TV: A 30-minute archival EPK where everyone tries very hard to sell what they must have known to be a lost cause.
This is the Way the World Ends: A flash animation style absurdist and existential short that's more fun and insightful than the two and a half hours of the main feature.
We also get a Trailer and Image Gallery.
The Cannes Cut: The 14-minute-longer cut, which almost caused a riot at Cannes, doubles down on Kelly's assertion that the audience had to have read his graphic novel before settling in, since it doesn't even make the attempt of bringing them up to speed through the choppy narration in the theatrical cut. From there, there are some additional scenes that can answer some baffling questions, such as "Why was Jeneane Garofalo in the background of one shot in the theatrical cut?"
A decade and a half after its disastrous Cannes screening and definitely-went-with-a-whimper-and-not-a-bang initial theatrical release, there are those who find Southland Tales to be an underappreciated masterwork that predicted the pop and extremism obsessed contemporary sociopolitical reality of America, which is fairly low hanging fruit for anyone who had a pulse in this country during the Bush the IInd years. For that crowd, whom I dread having a chance meeting within the near future, Arrow's terrific A/V presentation and bountiful extras have done them right. For those fascinated with terrible films and how they came to be, it's an academic wonderland. For everyone else: Don't make eye contact, take slow steps backward, and when Southland Tales isn't looking, run for your life in the opposite direction.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com