With a fat beat, when her daddy with-a me
We’ll have everybody, but we’ll do as we please
When the weather’s fine
We go fishing or swimming in the sea
We’re always happy with this sound philosophy
In the Summertime. Mungo Jerry (1970)
Have you seen Southland Tales, that movie by that Donnie Darko director-guy? Seriously: everyone is in that movie. So, it’s a great movie for the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Seriously — everyone is in that movie: The Rock, the Vampire Slayer, the guy that played Booger in Revenge of the Nerds, Kevin “I made Jason Lee’s career and all I got out of it was this cheap flight on Southwest” Smith, that Sicilian guy from A Princess Bride…it’s nuts. Seemingly everyone in that movie except for the extras are icons in their own right. It’s got Justin Timberlake in it (at the bottom of this I’ve got video). The man that single-handedly brought sexy back is in this movie that we are told (ad nauseum) is a comedy about the end of the world.
The critical reception of Southland Tales at the 2006 Cannes Festival was pretty bad. The overarching sentiment was that Richard Kelly, darling of Donnie Darko fame, had been undone by ambition and sophmoritis (by the way, James Rocchi, Mallrats was one of Kevin Smith’s best movies, nooge). But let’s take the critics’ argument, then; let’s say that this is a case of failed cinema (and not simply the failure of the critics to get it, as The regular Guardian‘s Danny Leigh put it). In accepting that something failed in this film, we’d need to consider what would mark the success of a film be?
What follows, then, is a continued consideration of Giorgio Agamben’s essay Difference and Repetition: On Guy Debord’s Films and in doing so I think we will find something intriguing (perhaps unintentional but that’s unimportant) in Kelly’s Southland Tales.
Agamben begins the essay asking an important question: why are human beings only interested in images once they are aware that what they are viewing is an image? Other animals will engage an image only until they establish that the image is not real and then they carry on. Humans do the opposite: we are image makers and image lovers. Just look at reality television for proof.
All images are implicated and in some ways inseparable from their history. But what is the nature of history in movies? It’s not the arrow of time that we are accustomed to: the most recent Star Wars movies illustrate this principle very well since most of the filming of the movie was done years before the movie was finished being produced. Rather than the chronological time we are accustomed to Richard Kelly’s films always wrestle with a repetition of time, going backwards in time and being always already in the future.
This is a messianic history.
This mode of history, according to Agamben, is defined by two things: it is a story of salvation, that something must be saved; but also messianic history is the story of the end of history and the judging of what has come to pass. Southland Tales begins with the phrase, from T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men, “this is how the world ends.” While at once a reflection on the direction of the U.S. political landscape in 2005 and also a director trying to establish his gravitas, the massive accretion of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot references, Justin Timberlake quoting (at length) the Book of Revelation, the ubiquitous Budweiser commercials, Karl Marx, and Shepard Fairey…. This mountain of information becomes unintelligible. All meaning is lost in trying to trace a metaphysics or discern a pomo-inspired detached sense of irony.
And while having a detached sense of irony is crucial for most critics and those that would be thought to be present at the crucial happenings and understood as having crucial understandings of these happening because they are detached and flippant in their criticisms – the real irony of the moment is lost on these cognitariats. The Jewish tradition, as Agamben points out, has a tremendous irony surrounding the calculations of the Messiah’s arrival because the tradition also never ceases to repeat that calculating the arrival of the Messiah is forbidden. The arrival must happen here, but it must leave behind the arrow of time kind of chronological history; without leaving this world. So, each moment, then, is always already the moment when the Messiah will arrive. He is always already here. Thus, “each image is charged with history because it is the door through which the Messiah enters.”
Those of you that have seen Southland Tales will recall an aping of messianism: the too-obvious twins Ronald and Roland Taverner that must embrace and forgive each other for the PTSD they picked-up in Fallujah, the Christ on the Cross poses left and right, all the talk of Revelation and apocalypse. But the metaphysics is all goopy with talk about Karma and the Rock’s, I mean Dwayne Johnson’s, polytheistic tattoos on beefcake parade all over Venice Beach. And if we went back and the film again we’d still be left with unclosed plot holes. And so, some would say that this film fails to deliver a coherent story.
But this failure is a saving feature of the film, as it requires the viewer to reconsider their own relation to repetition. Some folks still say at birthdays, “many happy returns,” not because they are wishing a Groundhog Day-type hell on someone; rather, they are pointing out that the force and grace of repetition is the return of the possibility of what was. As Agamben states it, “Repetition restores the possibility of what was, renders it anew; it’s almost a paradox. To repeat something is to make it possible anew.” This is not the same thing as memory, and we will discuss that momentarily.
Memory is key in Southland Tales: amnesia is a major plot device in the film. Again this device is driven to extreme such that there are several straight-up day-time soap opera type moments. While perhaps the producers of this film had to be assured that this was a black comedy, there is little to no slapstick or ironic type humor in these kitschy tropes played at eleven in the film. This playing with memory highlights an important distinction between repetition and memory. Agamben states, “Memory is, so to speak, the organ of reality’s modalization; it is that which can transform the real into the possible and the possible into the real.” Memory restores possibility to the past.
Southland Tales is so over the top that it destroys the meaning of what we’ve watched. As Deleuze required in cinema: every moment of creation must not only create but resist and de-create reality. The cinematic image must be more real than reality and in so doing the cinematic image is like an act of thought, defined by their ability to de-create reality so as to create another reality. The film is not only about how the world stops, but how meaning ceases to be, by pulling the flux of meaning from out of the projected image. This is the definition of stoppage in cinema. Stoppage and repetition make montage possible. Montage is the device that makes cinema different from prose or painting, but also more like poetry. “Together, stoppage and repetition carry out the messianic task of cinema,” states Agamben.
We must accept that Boxer Santaros/Jericho Cain/the Rock/Dwayne Johnson was the Messiah when the film concludes. But so was seemingly everyone in the damn movie. Everyone was in on it. Everyone already knew, in advance, that they were in an apocalyptic production speeding toward an end. The audience was told to stop disbelieving it. The film fails to allow the audience to believe the logic of the story, it forces the audience to create their own logic for what they saw.
Southland Tales forces each viewer to judge the film.
It is the film that most emphatically addresses spectacular agency that I have seen. This is, to my mind, perhaps the perfection of creating a “political film.” If Richard Kelly wants the audience to reconsider their politics, really reconsider their ethical relations as mediated by the state and the ideological apparatuses, then this film does that. We aren’t given some non-choice between accepting the bad guys were right or the good guys were right. There is no choice in the content in the film. It’s absurd to think that any of the plot points or characters or scenarios spectaculated across the screen were ever to be believed in. Rather, we have to come from within ourselves and approach the film and each other in dialogue. We must think about the film, and as I’ve previously discussed, thinking is never a solitary activity.