Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Textbook Definition Of A Cult Movie: Southland Tales

Let’s say you’re a young writer/director and a cold war kid that’s just fed up with the corrupt Bush Administration and their cronies, the rise of rampant commercialization/corporate sponsorship, terrorism induced paranoia, the Patriot Act/Homeland Security, Google trying to acquire the entire universe, junk food media that focuses more on celebrities than actual journalism and whatever else is pissing you off about post 9/11 life in America. How do you address all of these issues and exorcise your own growing stress that the Apocalypse is possibly nigh? Easy! Make an ambitious movie about it that spans multiple film genres!

The subject I’d like to discuss today is the curious case that is Richard Kelly’s Metro Goldwyn Mayer/Sony Pictures film “Southland Tales” . This film’s back story has become the stuff of legend and HBO is partly to thank for it. As any of us that have worked in any capacity near Hollywood or trying to break into it know, the show “Entourage” is loosely based on the experiences of Mark Wahlberg and his friends when they first moved to California. It also uses some Hollywood legends/tales that have circulated around for extra storylines/fodder for episodes.

The big storyline of the past season of the HBO series “Entourage” had to do with an ambitious film made by a visionary writer/director who made a previous cult hit. The movie generates quite a big buzz and everyone can’t wait to see it premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Once the film actually airs, people walk out of the theater, sit there bored or just booed and exited as quickly as possible once the film ended. This is what happened in the case of the fictional film “Medellin” in which Vincent Chase starred as Pablo Escobar and it was directed and written by “Queens Boulevard” director Billy Walsh.

That storyline was partly inspired by the true story of “Southland Tales” which premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and was written and directed by Richard Kelly who created the modern cult classic film “Donnie Darko”. The film was highly anticipated by film fanatics in the know but when it was finally screened for an audience, the 160 minute film ended up becoming one of the worst rated films in the history of Cannes by receiving an average of 1.1 out of 5 possible stars in all of the dailies that ran a review of it. Roger Ebert also went on record panning the film, even going as far to say that at the end of the film there were deafening boos, very little applause and almost everyone walked out. It turns out that the only available footage taken of the 2006 Cannes premiere is on Youtube and Ebert’s account seems to be off a little:

The festival ended and it seemed that Southland Tales would never see the light of day. When the stars of the film were asked about it in interviews they wouldn’t speculate on the possibilities of it ever being picked up. According to most people that say the original version of the film, it was deemed “completely unmarketable”. Oddly enough, Sony Pictures picked up the film and sent Richard Kelly into the editing room with some people and waited on a new cut of the film that they could actually release in theaters.

In the end, the film was re-edited, a whole new narration was done by Justin Timberlake (above as Pilot Abilene), several scenes totaling 16 total minutes were cut from the film and $1 million dollars was spent on post production special effects to produce an 144 minute version that was accepted by the studio, pushing the film’s final budget to $17 million dollars (most of the cast worked for scale). The film was hyped up at Comic Con, started a buzz on the internet, released the different volumes of the graphic novel that serves as the film’s back story. Samuel Goldwyn/Sony execs settled on the unique marketing campaign and a proper trailer that was aimed at the cult film audience:

The release of the film was preceded by the release of three graphic novels that told the compelling back story of the film (they have now all been compiled into a 300 page graphic novel called The Prequel Saga). The events of Southland Tales are set in an alternate reality with a timeline that diverges from our own on July 4th, 2005. On that date, nuclear attacks hit both Abilene and El Paso, TX causing the attacks to be referred to as America’s version of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What follows is a stricter Patriot Act, which comes with a Big Brother like company that does 24 hour surveillance on every American citizen called USIDENT. Furthermore, the government takes full control over the internet to better monitor hackers, bloggers and malcontents. Each state of the Union erects border guards and every US citizen needs to obtain travel visas just to cross state lines...Damn!

Following the attacks on Abilene and El Paso, TX, the Bush Administration decide not only have troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they decide to wage war against Syria, Iran, and North Korea as well. The war also receives corporate sponsorship from Budweiser, Hustler Magazine and several other companies. Since soldiers aren’t rejoining the military after their first tours and enrollment into the military is at an all time low the Bush Administration reinstates the draft and launches campaigns all over the map.

The Republican Party makes a desperate push to take California in the upcoming 2008 Presidential election for the first time since 1988 because CA's 55 electoral votes will sway the whole election. However, California has become a hotbed of anti government activity led by several anti establishment cadres, most notably the Neo-Marxist Movement that has the most members and financial support.

Shortly thereafter, Americans realize that they can no longer rely on oil so they develop several different methods to power things that don’t use oil. Ultimately, a German scientist/billionaire develops an energy source that powers things completely without power from the power of the ocean...little do we know that this method is also slowly destroying the Earth.

The story centers around the character Boxer Santaros and his role in the impending Apocalypse. This film addressed so many topics in it and played on your personal belief system so much that it takes multiple viewings to fully digest. It really plays with our ability to fixate on celebrities, this movie stars a number of actors that have achieved cult status for one reason or another and the audience tends to focus on them, waiting for them to do something. If for any reason they’re out of the story or didn't do something they expected during the film, the audience member feels cheated that their favorite actor is out of the movie. Also, no one really has a character that you can totally identify with or does anything that you can truly view as heroic. In essence, everyone you see on the screen is merely a pawn that helps to bring about the inevitable end of the world. There are no heroes, just people that are players in the grand scheme.

One of the biggest problems with this film is that you can't easily explain what it's about or pigeonhole it into being one thing. If you don't have to proper background (Phillip K. Dick short stories, Chuck Palaniuk novels, a bunch of movies dealing with dystopian futures/apocalyptic themes, etc.) to be able to watch this film without having a seizure in your seat then you will watch this flick and not now what the fuck is going on and have no point of reference and nothing to compare it to.

Southland Tales premiered on November 14th and was put into limited release in 64 theaters on November 16th. The next week it was only playing in in 29 theaters across the country. By the third week it was only in 9 theaters and it opens up in the UK on December 7th. The closest theater to see this film in for me is 212 miles away in New York City, the second closest is almost 450 miles away in Arlington, VA. To see the last 9 theaters in the US that are still showing this film check out the map here

The odd thing about this film is that it is one of the most discussed films on the entire internet...but almost no one has seen it (at least not in theaters). As of this date (December 4th), the closest estimate I can make on this films take is less than $250, 000. As I stated above the film’s final budget was $17 million not including the money that Sony Pictures put into promotion (which I imagine wasn’t a lot since it was only in 64 theaters to start). This film is going to have to make it’s money overseas or through DVD sales (it’s estimated to be ready for North American DVD release around March/April 2008).

Don’t feel bad, Richard...I liked it. Hell, even “Blade Runner” tanked at the box office when it was released more than 25 years ago and people are STILL going to the theater to see it today. It may take years before people fully understand and appreciate this film...or maybe never.



Anonymous said...

Sounds dope.

I've been wanting to see this since I read the review over at Cowboyz n Poodles.

Max said...

'Donnie Darko' never made its way around my neck of the woods either, but everyone I know has seen it at least once on DVD. I have a feeling this one will be a LOT more polarizing, but I'll give it a shot, since I've been looking forward to it for what seems like ages. However, I hated Mike Judge's 'Idiocracy', another cult film that had eight hundred false starts at distribution's level before they dropped it in four theaters and vanished; however, unlike some of my friends who hated it because it made the future seem like everyone was an idiot of Hispanic nature, I was simply offended because IT'S NOT FUNNY, and it's billed as a fucking COMEDY.