Manohla Dargis comes very close to making the best possible case for Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly’s newest film, the zany techno-pocalyptic satire, Southland Tales:
American cinema is in the grip of a kind of moribund academicism, which helps explain why a fastidiously polished film like “No Country for Old Men” can receive such gushing praise from critics. “Southland Tales” isn’t as smooth and tightly tuned as “No Country,” a film I admire with few reservations. Even so, I would rather watch a young filmmaker like Mr. Kelly reach beyond the obvious, push past his and the audience’s comfort zones, than follow the example of the Coens and elegantly art-direct yet one more murder for your viewing pleasure and mine. Certainly “Southland Tales” has more ideas, visual and intellectual, in a single scene than most American independent films have in their entirety, though that perhaps goes without saying.
As I noted elsewhere, I disagree about the film’s merits, but I was almost willing to give her the benefit of the doubt — that is, until she started touting the film’s preponderance of ideas. Because ideas — clear, cogent, discernible thoughts and notions about human existence, politics, or the way the world works at all — are exactly what the film doesn’t have. An overlong, disorganized, burbling sophomore essay on the state of modern politics (you’re all aware of the sort of embarrassing, hastily written, gibberish-ridden monstrosity I’m talking about) isn’t faulted because it has too many ideas; it’s faulted because it doesn’t understand what an idea is. That’s exactly what Richard Kelly’s problem is — an inability to understand, at a fundamental level, what ideas are and how they work, how narrative and images and dialog create meaning, or even something as basic as a plot. It’s not really that he’s trying to do too much. It’s that he obviously has no clue what, exactly, he’s trying to do.
And for all three people who don’t immediately sense this from the movie, Kelly more or less admits it. Talking about his celluloid mess in an interview with CHUD, he says:
Yeah. I’m still discovering things about it that even I didn’t know was there. There’s so much going on, and it’s such an elaborate puzzle; it really floods your senses the first time. The second time, particularly in the first chapter, all the things that happen to set the story in motion… you start to realize why they’re there, and why they’re necessary. I hope it all becomes more cohesive on multiple viewings.
He hopes? Well, that’s mighty reassuring. Maybe my movie will make sense if I just really, really want it to. And maybe, while I’m wishing, Sarah Michelle Gellar will… (You see where this leads.)
Or maybe he ought to have aimed for cohesion from the beginning rather than trying to puff his film up with inaccurate metaphors (calling it a puzzle, even an elaborate one, assumes it could be put together in some coherent way; trust me — it can’t) and crossing his fingers during the film’s press day. On the other hand, I suppose his desperate cluelessness acts as a sort of a comforting equalizer. It’s nice to find a movie director who is as baffled by his loopy, pretentious creation as everyone else.