This is the way the world ends – not with a bang, but with a fascinating near three-hour disaster of a movie, as deranged as Heaven’s Gate and as distinctively mid-Noughties as a Juicy Couture tracksuit. Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, a science-fiction comedy about the aftermath of the Third World War, is set in Los Angeles circa 2008, roughly three years after a sudden nuclear attack on Texas. It was first released in 2006 to almost uniformly terrible reviews, and has since found an audience with fans who love it for its great ambition, its disdain for common sense, and its prescient use of neo-Marxism, internet censorship and celebrity sex-tapes as harbingers of the future.
I ended up watching it in lockdown because the film streaming service Mubi, which has released its library in full online, called it “breathtaking,” “exuberant,” and “Pynchon-esque”. I also watched it because at present there is something satisfying about an apocalypse story that suggests humanity may be too dumb, too self-interested and too naturally violent to survive.
The release of Kelly’s first film, Donnie Darko, more or less coincided with the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. Its depiction of an American teenager experiencing premonitions about doomsday clocks and jet crashes suddenly became more piquant in light of such astounding tragedy. His follow-up is a decidedly post-9/11 story, haunted by the Iraq War. “This is the way the world ends,” its characters intone, in an admittedly inane twist on TS Eliot, “not with a whimper, but with a bang.”
On this occasion the beginning of the end is predicted not by a high-schooler but by an adult performer: Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a former porn star, has shrugged off the bangs and whimpers of her previous employment with a new career as a Kardashian-style mogul, and a seer. Her new screenplay, co-written with an amnesiac movie star with the extremely macho name Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), outlines the apocalypse as she is certain it will happen. Boxer, although he does not remember it, is married to the daughter of a Republican senator – who is in turn the brains behind an agency called US-IDent, which controls what citizens can and cannot see on the internet. If that wasn’t enough, a German company whose CEO is played by Wallace Shawn has invented an infinite energy source called “fluid karma”. “Scientists are saying the future’s going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted,” Krysta suggests, as if this helped to explain anything.
Certainly, the future as depicted here is deeply complex. Southland Tales is dizzyingly maximalist, never happy with one set-piece if it can introduce five. It is unhinged, and occasionally exhilarating, and quite often funny. (Krysta’s pop album is called Teen Horniness is Not a Crime.) Like its contemporary David Lynch’s Inland Empire (which used the then modern aesthetic of digital video to emphasise the way technology allowed the user to be present in two places, and therefore exist in two different states) it exaggerates the ugliness of 2006 – the tribal tattoos and the awful CGI, the typefaces that look like something from a bitchin’ Geocities website – until what was merely bad taste looks absurd, a dark dream that takes place in a strip mall food court.
Likewise, Kelly’s casting is not simply of the period, but inspired by its teenybopper culture: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, fresh from working as a wrestler; the singer and sometime actress Mandy Moore; Seann William Scott, an American Pie alumnus; Sarah Michelle Gellar, star of Cruel Intentions and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and the pop star Justin Timberlake.
The critic Laura Mulvey once suggested Blue Velvet, having been released in 1986, was the ideal film for the mood of the Reagan era. “[It] restores an uncanny to American culture,” she wrote in Fetishism and Curiosity, “that the uncanny president disavows.” In Southland Tales we have a movie whose frenetic, all-American surrealism – its blend of censorship and sexuality, commerce and violence – spookily pre-empted the prevailing culture under Donald Trump a decade before he was elected president.
It’s a film that is also smart enough to know that if a member of any profession were to guide us through the end of days, it might as well be a sex worker: practical, skilled in persuasion, as adept at reading minds as any psychic. Krysta Now is as contemporary a creation as if she had been born yesterday – a sharp alembic of Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Riley Reid, she is the best thing about Kelly’s jaded, freaky vision of future Los Angeles by a Miracle Mile. She would, I think, make a good president.
“Southland Tales” is streaming now on Mubi
This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe