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This essay discusses the recently-released “Cannes Cut” of Richard Kelly‘s cult satire, Southland Tales. You may want to refresh yourself by reading Alice Stoehr’s original review of the theatrical cut.
Fifteen years have passed since Southland Tales‘ premiere, and more than a decade since our first review of the theatrical cut. At that time, the verdict was “Borderline Weird.” Is Southland Tales an indulgent mess? Yes it is. There’s no way around that, and that’s probably a deal-breaker for most. But the film has a solid structure that holds seemingly disparate elements together into a cohesive whole, rather than a mish-mash. The Cannes Cut supports that view (though there will be those who will disagree, of course).
Most of Southland Tales problems come from it’s ambition: it was a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the iPod Generation. Kelly has stated that his original conception was to make something like one of those madcap romp/chase movies that were staples of 60’s cinema (so maybe more of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the iPod Generation?) The script acquired more of political angle after 9/11, however.
Southland Tales is a 10 -13 episode Netflix show, conceived before Netflix was even a player, stuffed into a 2 1/2 hour running time. There’s so much information to absorb, and Kelly didn’t help himself by filming this as the last three parts of a six-part tale! You don’t need a lot of backstory to enjoy Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back/Return of the Jedi (the prequel trilogy is therefore pretty useless, to be honest). But for Southland Tales, that background is necessary to fully understand the plot. Ths backstory is present, but in the Cannes Cut it plays out mainly in dialog and mise en scène; the viewer is thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to sink or swim. The theatrical cut, by contrast, attempted to provide some context and clarification, with the “Doomsday Scenario Interface” montage sequences incorporating panels from the graphic novel prequel. Still, I would also argue that the information overload in the Cannes Cut is intentional, and part of the humor. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension attempts the same trick, though its overload is fairly straightforward in comparison to Southland Tales.
The Cannes cut is 13 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, 158 min versus 145 min, and I think that it plays slightly better; but I also don’t mind getting thrown into the deep end. Some of the CGI-fx work was not yet complete when the film debuted at Cannes (mainly some sweetening for the zeppelin, and extra damage in L.A. from the insurrection). Some scenes were later shifted around in the theatrical cut. The movie’s over-the-top element is more pronounced in the Cannes Cut, however; Baron Westphalen’s contract negotiation with the Japanese Minister takes place before the opening title, setting the tone for what’s to follow. Most of the restored material is relatively minor; the most notable addition is the restoration of Janeane Garafolo’s role as General Teena MacArthur (she’s only glimpsed briefly at the end of the theatrical cut) and more of Kevin Smith’s Simon Theory. It’s easy to see why Garafolo was eliminated, since her character is superfluous to the goings on (although she has the line near the end of the film which pretty much explains everything, depending on your mindset). Losing those 13 minutes tones things down slightly—but that’s like setting your speakers at 11, when they go up to 15.
Taking the past 25 years into account, and all the ridiculous things that have occurred—Kim and Kanye, Kanye’s “Presidential Run,” and the seemingly tasty, but deadly Trumpism that we’re still dealing with—Southland Tales satirical nonsnese, oddly enough, no longer seems all that “weird.” Certainly, it’s still a mess: but Kelly’s very American rendering of “The Book of Revelation” has turned out to be frighteningly prescient, with its chaotic merging of Politics/Porn Culture/Entertainment Industry Ethics/Conspiracy Theory/Alternative Energy. It definitely belongs in this site’s “Apocryphally Weird” category.
Arrow Video just released a 2-disc Blu-ray containing both the theatrical cut and the Cannes cut. Extras include director’s commentary on the theatrical cut; a new three part documentary, It’s a Madcap Film: The Making of an Unfinished Film, which runs about an hour. There’s also a photo gallery, trailer, and a couple of other featurettes ported over from Sony’s 2008 Blu-ray: USIDent TV: Surveilling the Southland and This Is the Way the World Ends. But if you have the Sony release, you might want to hold on to it, since it has a gallery feature including the prequel graphic novel and its backstory, which wasn’t ported over to the Arrow edition. And for the technical trainspotters, the Sony release retains some extra lines looped in post-production for the climax by Lakers’ announcer Lawrence Tanter that are missing from Arrow’s version (though these can be heard on Kelly’s commentary track).
Glitter, Doom and Elephants Fucking: An Oral History of Southland Tales – A/V Club article
Southland Tales at 15 – IndieWire oral history of the film with Kelly and a couple of the producers.
For Richard Kelly, Southland Tales Never Ends – Vanity Fair article
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“For good and ill,The Cannes Cut is still Southland Tales. It’s one of the great whatsit movies of the early 21st century, an artifact of the mid-to-late Dubya years that captures the specific tenor of the United States’ anxieties and fears from that time in amber. It’s a kinky, surreal Armageddon wounded by its early-aughts-sour-bro treatment of its ensemble’s leading women. It is, in other words, an extremely 2006 movie.”–Justin Harrison, The Spool (Blu-ray)