Monday, August 25, 2008

Southland Tales: A Second Opinion

There was a small part of me that was nervous about seeing Southland Tales again. After I ended up loving it far (FAR) beyond most people's appreciation of Richard Kelly's maligned and messy sophomore effort. Was that first screening a fluke? Was I so bamboozled by lowered expectations that my enjoyment of Kelly's inspired lunacy was overblown? What if I ended up thinking the movie was really a mess, just like everyone else did? Then I wouldn't be a special, unique maverick going against the grain! I love being a special, unique maverick going against the grain!

What I found, in my second go-round, was that the problems with the movie seemed more pronounced -- the pacing suffers from the too-numerous diversions (much as I love Amy Poehler's hilarious performance, it probably should have been cut way down); certain characters needed to be more fleshed out (Lou Taylor Pucci's wayward soldier), others dialed back (Cheri Oteri); The Rock's performance is too inconsistent; and the plot really is too convoluted once you've sussed out the emotional payoffs.

That being said, what I liked the first time around I really liked upon re-watching. Those emotional payoffs I mentioned in the last paragraph really came through here. The Seann William Scott (as Roland and Ronald Taverner)/Justin Timberlake (as Pilot Abeline) arc is something I caught onto the first time around, and it remains the key to unlocking the picture. This is Abeline's story, in Abeline's words, through Abeline's eyes. He shows us a world rapidly coming to an end, with politicians and activists and cops and Hollywood stars and scientists engaging in a series of ludicrous double-crosses until you don't know who's on what side and chaos reigns. Most importantly, he shows us officer Roland Taverner, a former soldier now literally split in two, unable to deal with his experiences and actions in battle. [One thing that became crystal clear the second time around is how fantastic Seann William Scott is in this movie. He managed to totally turn me around on how I felt about him. He's so open and vulnerable in this role -- everything Kelly needs him to be.] We know Taverner is responsible for the friendly-fire maiming of Abeline's face. We also know that he's increasingly desperate to find his "brother" and make things right with him. Then the brothers clasp hands, forgive each other...and the world ends. On the surface it makes no sense, but read the context clues, note the repetition of the dialogue, know that this is Abeline telling his story, recognize who Taverner's looking at when he's talking, then listen to Abeline's final voice-over:

"His name was officer Roland Taverner of Hermosa Beach, California. My best friend. He is a pimp. And pimps don't commit suicide."

There's your entire movie, right there, if you care to unlock it. Pimps don't commit suicide. Pimps turn the tables on the people pulling their strings. Pimps get forgiven. Pimps clasp hands with their brothers and tear the whole corrupt universe apart. Pimps certainly don't let their guilt and sorrow and despair drive them to take their own life out in the desert. Pimps don't do that.

Forgiveness also plays a part in the second big emotional payoff -- the one I didn't really grasp until this second go-round. I knew that scene towards the end where Sarah Michelle Gellar, The Rock, and Mandy Moore all tango under a hazy blue light was a beautiful grace note for three characters who spent the whole movie being pretty ridiculous. I still think that's the point, but you have to sort of graft this story arc onto the Taverner/Abeline arc to really get to the heart of it. Taverner and Boxer Santeros are parallel characters -- both went into the desert and came back split in two. Both returned with priviliged information as to How Shit Is. Both are prevented from returning to their old lives. But Santeros is the wish fulfillment version of Taverner, so he gets to have sex with the porn star, retain the affections of the Senator's daughter, figure out the secret plot, and (once again) grasp hands with the ones he loves while the world explodes around him. It's that grasping of the hands that gets me. Every time.

I'm still in love with the surface pleasures of Southland Tales, of course. Any movie that gives me Justin singing The Killers...

...one SUV mounting another...

...this glorious porn title...

...Janneane Garofalo's sad little cameo...

...Bai Ling doing this...
...and this...

...how can I not love it? I'm just happy to see it holds up to some scrutiny.

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