Sunday, October 18, 2009

Regarding "Southland Tales"

by Jason Pyles

Of the two writers actively contributing to this site, I must humbly defer to Andy for any substantial thoughts about “Southland Tales.” His apparent understanding and explanation of this film eclipse mine.

Nevertheless, I’ve endeavored to write something coherent, which is more than I can say for Richard Kelly, the writer-director of “Southland Tales.”

Begin Prelude:

Narrative cinema strikes an ever-present, ever-changing, three-way balance when it comes to a film being a so-called work of art, a business venture and escapist entertainment — all of which vary with each individual film project.

Typically a commercial film will be produced with heavy considerations toward its business investment, which is only enhanced more favorably, the more entertaining it is. (Word-of-mouth buzz works — just look at the current, blossoming success of “Paranormal Activity.”) Widespread appeal is always profitable, though the same cannot always be said of ambitious works of art.

I won’t attempt to define a “work of art” here, but for brevity’s sake, let’s just say it’s a creation valued by its creator and potentially by others. Some works of art require open-mindedness and in-depth consideration. These types are prized for their innovative, gadfly-coerced growth for the human mind.

Other works of art are simply the artist’s runaway flights of fancy, and are only considered valuable art for art’s sake. (We’ve all seen a pile of garbage glued together in a museum that someone has declared art. This reminds me of the way we must endure ignorant hate speech in order to preserve “freedom of speech.” Anyway, one man’s junk is another man’s art.)

End Prelude:

For “Southland Tales,” I believe Richard Kelly had some noteworthy ideas he wanted to convey to our post-9/11 society, but he obviously succumbed to the latter description above, thereby failing to challenge us with epiphany-yielding concepts or concise cinematic statements in order to indulge his own tangential shenanigans and definition of appealing entertainment.

In other words, a much simpler way to restate all of the above is this: Richard Kelly alienates — and therefore, loses — his audience, which cost him an intelligible, halfway decent film. I’m not saying every viewer will be completely lost — nor am I saying I was altogether at sea. To conclude this point, I must admit that I could probably be fairer by viewing the film a second time, but I just don’t know that I could make myself sit through it again. And to discredit myself further, in full disclosure, I never was a fan of political films, generally speaking — and as Andy notes below, this movie targets myriad political topics.

Yes, “Southland Tales” is colorful and visually stimulating. It even has moments of intriguing peculiarity, such as Justin Timberlake’s musical number or the talk-show hosted by porn stars (was that mocking “The View”?).

But I must disagree with Andy on one point, and that’s Dwayne Johnson’s performance. I just haven’t been convinced that he has much acting talent (though he has undeniable screen presence). Sure, I never held him too accountable for movies like “The Scorpion King” (2002), which is nearly unwatchable, but the best he’s done have been “The Rundown” (2003) and “Walking Tall” (2004).

No, I wouldn’t call “Southland Tales” a terrible film; it’s just an inaccessible one whose joys are limited.

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