Sunday, August 24, 2008

Movie Notes: Southland Tales (2006)


What are the values of film reviewers? What do they hope to see in movies? What aspirations do they have for cinema? How do they come to their conclusions?

I wondered all of these things after watching Southland Tales, a film that nearly every review I've read described as an unwatchable, pretentious mess. This from reviewers who have collectively popularized the idea of "harmless and enjoyable fluff" as worthwhile in films, a noble goal; but who cast a jaundiced eye at a film with perhaps a few too many ideas in it. This is what constitutes a lousy film now? The worst film of the year? From people who have fallen all over themselves trying to describe the decent film Batman: The Dark Knight as some sort of benchmark in filmmaking? Can we even call this "criticism" any more, or is it now something akin to "consumer reports"? How can you learn to appreciate art if you constantly expect it to come down to your level?

So, this makes Southland Tales the third movie, after Showgirls and Eyes Wide Shut, that I read was "a mess" everywhere only to see the film and wonder if the reviewers even understood the film they were reviewing- I'm scared to see Gigli: it'll probably turn out to be sublime!

Look, I don't think that Southland Tales is a four-star movie either. It is definitely convoluted and gets confusing in parts; it reminded me a bit of Zardoz, another ambitious movie that seems ready to go off the rails at any moment. And the film's satire of Republicans and homeland security is a bit too easy. And, yes, it's impossible to tell if director Richard Kelly is joking or serious at any moment- probably both. Lines like "Nobody rocks the cock like Krysta Now" are not exactly Shakespeare.

But, how many films today suffer from being overly ambitious? This is a film that deals with: the paranoid security state, power-hungry left-wing factions that become indistinguishable from power-hungry right-wing factions, mindless entertainment "fluff", pornography, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, musical numbers, the collapse of the military, alternative fuels, schizophrenia, drug abuse and the end of the world. Oh, and it's also explicitly structured around the Book of Revelations. Did any of the reviewers bother to read the Book of Revelations, the Wasteland, or The Road Not Taken? Or is that an "arrogant" request of people whose cultural competency is supposed to be higher than our own?

The fact that all of this does make sense- with some work- is a testament to Kelly as a writer. Some of the comedy doesn't work- it's a bit too much of a lampoon at times. And a few storylines could have been cut without problems. Overall, I'd probably give the movie a B-. But it's a testament to the middlebrow, mediocre tastes of film critics that a filmmaker coloring outside of the lines is now seen as a strike against his or her work. And if a director is "pretentious", I'd rather have this than having them assume the pretense that the audience is too stupid to pay close attention.

After all, what explanation could there be for calling it "pretentious" when an artist shoots for the moon and falls a bit short, aside from a personal aesthetic rooted in resentment?

1 comment:

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