Tuesday, December 11, 2007

This immersion in the Now is what makes Southland Tales such a brilliantly futuristic film

Southland Tales from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro
Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is an amazing movie, and I will try to do it justice in what follows, although all I can do for the moment is spew out a series of speculations and observations, in a random, and no doubt contradictory as well as repetitive, order. But I think that this is not only a brilliant film, but an extraordinarily important one, in that it is one of those rare works that is “as radical as reality itself,” and that reflects upon our real situation while at the same time inserting itself within that situation, rather than taking a pretended distance from it. The film is a demented fabulation, but in such a way that it can best be described as hyperreal. Its “science fiction” is scientifically and technologically unsound, and could best be described as delirious — but that is precisely why it is directly relevant to a world that has increasingly come to be “indistinguishable from science fiction.”
Southland Tales makes nearly all other contemporary movies seem inadequate, outdated, and guilty of fleeing our actual social world in search of nostalgic consolations. I cannot help suspect that the radicality of Southland Tales is the reason why the film has received such a savagely negative response from most reviewers, and has been such a disastrous flop at the box office. (Several of the film critics I most respect, including Amy Taubin, J. Hoberman, and Manohla Dargis, have praised the movie; but most have regarded it as unspeakably awful, an unmitigated disaster. As for general audiences, the film has only made something like $160,000 in box office gross, nearly a month after its initial release).
Southland Tales’s visual flow is also that of these post-cinematic media that play such a role within it. Properly cinematic images are intermixed with a barrage of home video footage, internet and cable-TV news feeds, commercials, simulated CGI environments, and especially sequences in which the film’s characters are watching all of the above on multiple computer windows or screens. The compositional logic of Southland Tales is paratactic and additive, having little to do with conventional film syntax. Indeed, Kelly’s disjunctive flow is almost the polar opposite of Eisensteinian montage. Eisenstein wanted his contradictory images to interact, dialectically or alchemically, in order to produce by their clash a higher order image/concept, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. But Kelly’s discordant images refuse thus to come together; they don’t even clash, but co-exist in their distance from one another, their “incompossibility” (to use a word that Deleuze adapts from Leibniz). In Southland Tales, chains of cause and effect both multiply and break down entirely, in defiance of linear or narrative logic; everything in the film is a matter, neither of causality, nor of action grounded in character, nor even of dialectical contrast; but rather of juxtaposition, “free” association, and the proliferation of multiple levels of self-referential feedback loops.
For instance: a pair of hip, “underground” performance artists, a black man and a white woman, who are a couple in “real life” and in their performances, disguise themselves in facial prosthetics so that they will not be recognized. In this disguise, they pretend to be an arguing married couple, in order to simulate a scenario in which they will be murdered by a racist cop. There are doing this apparently for a political cause; but it also seems that they are interested in blackmail for financial advantage (seed money to feed back into their “art”). The racist cop who is supposed to seem to murder them, after responding to a domestic violence call, is himself being impersonated by his twin brother, and accompanied by an actor trying to research his own forthcoming role as a cop by slipping into character on the (ostensibly) real cop’s rounds, as well as by hauling around a video camera with which he records everything that happens. The fake racist cop is supposed to fire blanks, and the performance artists will pretend to be hit, while a hidden accomplice presses a button in order to make fake blood spurt out.
But the whole scenario is detourned when a second cop barges in on the scene and fires real bullets, so that the performing couple (who have already, in their desparation not to be really killed, gone out of character and revealed themselves as the notorious performers they are) are actually killed — though, as they fall, the hidden accomplice still pushes the special-effects button at the sound of gunfire, in order to make the prosthetic blood spill out. In a subsequent scene, the second, killer cop is revealed also to be an impersonator rather than an actual cop, who has performed the killing, and confiscated the video camera that recorded it, in service to yet another confused agenda that also seems to involve both political activism and blackmail for cash…
I’ve described at such cumbersome length a scene that only takes up a few minutes of Southland Tales’s two-and-a-quarter-hour running time, simply to give a sense of how twisted and multi-leveled the film is. These convolutions of content go along with the sensory-overload barrage of multiple media images that fill the screen, or often multiple screens within the screen. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that everything that happens in the film is under surveillance, so that most of what we see on screen is viewed in progress, or a second time, by the evil Republican homeland-security czar (played by Miranda Richardson, channeling Angela Lansbury’s performance in The Manchurian Candidate), who monitors multiple screens from her command center at the heart of US-Ident, a “think tank” turned spy facility that (in the interest of “national security”) tracks everything that streams across the Internet.
The great theoretician of film sound Michel Chion notes that, while in cinema the sound subliminally supports the primacy of the image, in video the sound becomes up-front central, and weaves together and makes coherent what otherwise might appear to be an utterly random stream of images. In cinema the images are primary, the coherence of the film coming mostly from mise en scene and cinematography and montage, and the soundtrack really serves as a support for the images, by giving them emotional resonance and a guarantee of (seeming) naturalism.
Video, to the contrary, is more like “illustrated radio,” according to Chion: the sound is primary (whether it be the voice in a news report, or the music in a music video), and the images have no intrinsic logic of their own, but are only strung together through the guidance provided by the sound. This does not necessarily mean that images tend to disappear; it more likely means that there is a proliferation of images, due to the fact that they are no longer constrained by an imagistic logic, but instead opened up by the fact that a logic external to them, based instead in the sonic, is the only regulating principle. (Chion’s formulation should be compared with Marshall McLuhan’s claim that television and computer-based media are audio-tactile, rather than predominantly visual).
In any case, this is yet another sense in which Southland Tales is resolutely post-cinematic. Its use of sound is much closer to that of television and music video than it is to that of anything recognizable in the history of cinema. We are guided through the labyrinth of the movie’s proliferating images almost exclusively by Justin Timberlake’s voiceover narration (together with other forms of narration, like those from various CNN-style news reports) and Moby’s musical score. While the electronic music modulates our mood, the voiceover makes connections between layers and levels of imagery that otherwise could not emerge. Stylistically, Kelly’s images tend toward televisual flatness, and conventional character positioning (either two-shots or shot/reverse-shot setups). He does, however, throw in more heavily stylized cinematography every once in a while (I recall an extraordinary long take, towards the end of the film, in the mega-zeppelin, as the camera weaves through the partying crowds, following first one character, then another, without a cut). But the emphasis is never on strictly optical tableaux: there is always too much of a welter of too-flat images, which need the soundtrack to be unscrambled.
This is not a matter of “telling instead of showing” (the accusation that is usually made against the use of voiceover in more traditional Hollywood films, e.g. in the films of Billy Wilder), but rather of voice enunciating what literally cannot be shown, because it exceeds the limits of the visual. I am thinking here of Jameson’s dictum that postmodern capitalist society cannot be imaged or represented; this does not mean that it cannot be known, or “mapped,” but that such a mapping itself exceeds what can be imaged or represented or “visualized.” And I am also thinking of Deleuze’s notion is to make us sense and feel that which literally cannot be sensed or felt, but which remains implicit in whatever it is that we do sense or feel, and which therefore cannot be registered in any other way, but can only be sensed or felt. For both Jameson and Deleuze, and despite their radically different orientations (since Jameson is focused on cognition, and Deleuze on affect), what’s needed is a certain rupture or disparity: in the case of any medium involving images in motion, this means both disjunction among the images, and discordance between the images and the sounds (words and speech, music, noise) that underly them.
In Southland Tales, as in the network society we live in, the world is entirely composed of images: bodies are not only registered on video as images, but are themselves images; and images are themselves entirely real, because they are what,to a large extent, compose the material substance of the real. But this means that everything is flat or two-dimensional, everything is laid out in a configuration that is essentially spatial and simultaneous, even if not conforming to any literal geography. Sound is what energizes this configuration; it provides the temporality (both the existential duration, and the principle of ordering) for this labyrinthine array of images; it thereby realizes the actual connections between images that, on the image track itself, are merely latent or virtual.
This means that Kelly is one of the very few contemporary directors — alongside David Lynch, David Fincher, and really I am not sure who else — who is actually rethinking what film might mean, and what sense it might make, in our post-cinematic, videocentric and thoroughly digitized age. We can profitably contrast Southland Tales with Lynch’s Inland Empire: these films are complementary to one another. Lynch’s film is shot on digital video, and constructed in such a way that it is no longer a movie any longer, but some newer media form. It is intimate and interior in a way that traditional movies (because they are public and collective and operate on a grand scale) are incapable of, and that therefore can only be attained by fracturing and fragmenting cinematic codes, and by rejecting 35mm film for digital video. But the deep logic of Inland Empire is still a cinematic one, precisely because it refers back to the cinematic codes that it deconstructs. Inland Empire is based on the enigma of images, all the more so in that Lynch’s digital camera flattens out and makes more glaring the images whose subtleties he used to capture on film. Lynch’s sound design provides an exquisite support for these deconstructed images, but the images still come first. Southland Tales, to the contrary, no longer recognizes cinematic logic at all, not even in order to deconstruct it. This is because it is no longer based on cinema’s image-centric logic at all — despite the fact that, as a media object, it is still (in contrast to Inland Empire) a movie. The two works thus explore the same contested territory, but from opposite perspectives, moving in opposite directions. I am not saying that Southland Tales is as great an accomplishment as Inland Empire, but nothing I have seen recently, aside from Lynch’s work, comes close to matching it. [..]
I’ll stop here, though I feel that I could go on indefinitely, because Southland Tales is so rich and convoluted, at the same time that (and precisely because) it pursues its vision of chaos and dread and media flow with such a monomaniacal intensity. Booed at Cannes in 2006, and both a critical and box-office disaster in 2007, the film obviously has not found its niche, nor found its cult, nor even made the sort of negative impact that would qualify it as a Cultural Event on the order of all the things that it narrates. I’m inclined to think that this is simply because the film is too prophetic: which is also to say, too real, too close to the actuality of which it is a part and which it anatomizes and mirrors, to be receivable at this point in time. The most alien messages are the ones that point out clearly what is staring us in the face. All the more so, in that such messages can have no sense of detachment, no critical perspective, to provide a justification for what they say.
Southland Tales declines to exempt itself in the slightest from the overall situation that it describes; it declines even to overtly criticize that situation, as this would mean having to step outside it, as well as because simply presenting it, in its own compulsive mirroring and feeding back of itself, is already more than enough. Kelly’s film is too weird to be taken up by a mainstream audience; but also too mainstream, too much a part of the so-called mainstream, to please viewers and critics who are looking for either visionary, experimental formalism, or an informed oppositional politics. It also explodes the very being of cinema (including experimental cinema) so slyly and casually that it unavoidably offends most cinephiles. It immerses us in the present, in the Now, relentlessly and without release. (It even makes a joke of this valuation of the Now, in the person of Gellar’s character, Krysta, who takes on the last name “Now” because she is so doggedly interested in freedom and sexual gratification Now: not in the future, or tomorrow, or in ten minutes, but right Now).
This immersion in the Now is what makes Southland Tales such a brilliantly futuristic film. (Krysta even remarks, at one point, something to the effect that futurists now think the future will be much more futuristic than they had previously believed). It is because it speaks in and to the Now that Southland Tales cannot be received now, but must look to the future for its reception. Combining irony and prophecy, it is at once too ironic for its meanings to be acceptable, and yet too earnest and visionary for the kind of ironic acceptance that we otherwise revel in.

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