On watching Southland Tales:
The more I think about it, the more I like it. I know that this director knows what he's doing, and what he's making.
It views like a movie version of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, in that it shares the same qualities: sprawling, sci-fi, immersive, detail-oriented, thematic, deliberately fragmented, and especially American. Are David Foster Wallace and Richard Kelly friends? If not, they should be, but they probably are already. There are these issues that they both talk about: popular Entertainment, media, drugs, politics and revolutionaries: The Infinite Jest/samizdat -- the videotape that makes its viewer a mindless drooling addict to itself, versus Liquid Karma -- ocean distilled power, that also is a drug. The Quebec wheelchair revolutionaries and the Neo-Marxists, and Krysta Now versus James Incandenza. These are not parallels, but counterpoints, alternate interpretations of the same topics.
Scattered around the movie are a lot of direct visual references to Barbara Kruger and Shepard Fairey, both artists in between graphic design and 'high' art, aesthetics and art. I can't help but see this as stating Kelly's direct intention in creating the movie as a piece of entertainment that ultimately functions as art. He attempts (and succeeds) to do this in three main ways: first, through a myriad of references that are less part of an interesting plot and more a device to pry the film 'upwards' towards high art, just by creating a reference. The blimp is called Jenny von Westphalen (the name of Marx's wife); a policeman utters "Flow, my tears" as a Philip K. Dick reference, et cetera. Secondly, he teeters on the line between satire and non-satire throughout the entire film. Like Infinite Jest, however, you get the sense that Kelly's satirical portrayal is with soul and care; it's an America he loves, not detests, and therefore the America that he wants to send a message to.
Thirdly, and really, Kelly really likes this pairing of 'high' and 'low', aesthetics and concept, and entertainment and art. Again, like James Incandenza, who creates the ultimate art film (the Entertainment), and like David Foster Wallace, he seems to genuinely believe in a possible intersection between the two. Case in point: the cast is comprised of a television sci-fi show star, former pro wrestler, semiporn-teen-movie star, and pop singer. They play the respective characters of an entrepreneurial porn star, a movie star, a cop, and a drug-dealing soldier, and the soldier even breaks out into song, more in character as Justin Timberlake than Timberlake's character. No doubt Kelly thought about this when casting; the Rock is billed as Dwayne Johnson, but his character's name is Boxer Santaros -- certainly more than a coincidental reference. These actors are real-life entertainers who work in the context of popular entertainment, yet they play characters in a film that works as an art film. (I even thought that the dance-and-song sequence almost felt like a Matthew Barney piece, for a split second.)
As a LA Times reviewer points out, Kelly seems to have the Marx quote in mind: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." Indeed, we have the movie's plotline eclipsing a screenplay written by Boxer Santaros in the movie; there are two histories, nested within each other (one a smaller version than the other), both rapidly running their course, converging at an intersecting point, like some sort of Zeno's paradox. Does Santaros's script also contain a character that writes a screenplay that seems to predict the end of the world, and does recursion happen inwards? Or is it that it's the other way around -- the recursion extends outwards, and Richard Kelly is telling us that his script for Southland Tales is predicting the world's end?
Either way, like Kruger, Kelly uses his cast of popular entertainers, and his storyline set in Los Angeles, to create something more than an entertaining visual image. The ending scene features a denouement in front of a giant American flag, with the incarnations of politics, sexuality/romance, and entertainment reconciling their differences, accepting what is to come. The major plot point in the storyline serves as a symbolic statement: Richard Kelly tells us, clearly and literally, to confront ourselves. There are symbols and hidden meanings in this movie (indeed, Kelly called Southland Tales a "puzzle" in an interview), and they are sometimes stupendously direct, but this all is countered by the free-wheeling, satiric/sensitively genuine, half-comedy mood of the movie. While the entire movie wavers between satire and sincerity, its greatest delight is that Kelly's message and statement (whatever it may actually be) is lost in the over-the-top CGI eye-candy and comedic performances by comedic actors. It's fitting and almost even necessary that a movie with such statements would bury them under entertainment; this is certainly Kelly's point. After all, Southland Tales is a piece of entertainment; I walked through a sea of neon advertisements in Times Square to see this movie; I paid $11, so that my friends and I could be entertained.
Southland Tales is entertainment and depicts entertainment, but it also tries to be like "real life" (and knows this). The start of the movie features a mock-up of a computer-istic program (called the Doomsday Scenario Interface), informing us about the history of this fictional world in a mock-documentary fashion. (The movie is even divided into sections, and titled ambiguously like DVD chapters.) Nana Mae Frost, the director of the US-IDENT surveillance agency, does her job by watching a handful of news screens and video feeds at the same time. As viewers, we gain important plot information in parts of the movie by doing the same, as the camera shows us four or six television screens at a time. And of course, this is how we gain our information in real life, by drawing from several simultaneous sources: conversations with different people, television news shows, trashy talk shows, a multitude of websites on the internet. Boxer Santaros's screenplay emphasizes the credibility of Richard Kelly's screenplay in predicting our future; similarly, Nana Mae Frost's surveillance screens takes our method of imbibing information, and gently fictionalizes it, imposes a gentle order onto it, just enough to facilitate our enjoyment as viewers. Frost watches and understands her world the same way that we watch and understand the movie, and the movie is watched and understood the same way that we watch and understand our world. This is Kelly winking at us again, whispering: this movie is our world.