Tag Archives: Satire

SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) – THE CANNES CUT REPORT

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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 Continue reading SOUTHLAND TALES (2006) – THE CANNES CUT REPORT

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAN UNDER TABLE (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Noel David Taylor

FEATURING: Noel David Taylor, John Edmund Parcher, Ben Babbitt, Katy Fullan

PLOT: A nameless screenwriter tries to write a movie (the movie we’re watching), while his peers’ careers seem to be taking off faster than his.

Still from Man Under Table (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This microbudget meta-movie about a nameless screenwriter unabashedly gazes at its navel until that navel becomes a self-contained universe teeming with surrealism and satire.

COMMENTS: Ever since 8 1/2, directors have been making movies about the trials and tribulations of being themselves making a movie. It’s an ambitious undertaking, fraught with pretension, but the subgenre is not tapped out yet. Man Under Table relocates the conceit to a new milieu: the fringes of the indie movie scene, a world which itself exists on the fringes of Hollywood. It’s a purgatory for creatives. Everybody urgently wants rush out a movie about “identity politics” or “fracking” or, preferably, the intersection of the two—but they actually spend most of their time in bars, at parties, or in men’s rooms, talking about their hopefully soon-in-development projects. The film doesn’t really have much of an idea how to end itself, and it plays around with some intriguing possible plot angles (such as the suggestion that another character is the real author of the screenplay) only to abandon them. But that abandonment itself is both a meta-joke and an honest reflection of the script: the movie consistently, from being to end, does not know what it is, and it is all about its own lack of insight.

Such a premise would be insufferable if played straight; it can only work as a comedy. And Man Under Table has a nasty comic bite, with the movie itself, and its screenwriter, as much the target of the satire as the phonies who hang out in this plague-ridden alternate Los Angeles. Our nameless (itself a plot point) antihero is writing a movie, but he spends most of his free time bragging to all his acquaintances about how he’s writing a movie. He’s arrogant, short-tempered, neurotic, presumptuous, whiny, and obviously angry at himself but taking it out on everyone around him. His targets include screenwriting rival Ben (who looks a lot like David Foster Wallace stripped of his bandana), up-and-coming director Jill Custard, a vapid but omnipresent YouTuber, and a pair of buzzword-devouring—producers? Agents? He’s also taking advantage of Gerald, an older man with money who has an idea for a movie but needs help with the “technical part” (i.e., writing it), and who insists that there shouldn’t be any of that “modern movie gay stuff.”  You personally don’t know any characters like this, and characters like this could in fact never exist, yet you believe they are caricatures of real people—or at least, that they’re caricatures of real caricatures.

Man Under Table plays out on minimal sets—a bathroom, a barroom, an apartment, a warehouse, a blank void—and moves from scene to scene with little flow or causality. The order of incidents could be shuffled about without making much difference; it’s set in a netherworld of eternal project development. “This isn’t a movie, it’s just random scenes about some guy,” our screenwriter complains midway through. At one point, he finds himself unwittingly cast in—and cut from—someone else’s project, which breaks out around him as he’s trying to order a beer. The movie also draws attention to its own movieness by introducing deliberate continuity errors (a disappearing drink becomes a running gag).

Where Man Under Table shines, and sometimes becomes laugh-out-loud funny, is in writer/director Taylor’s charmingly obnoxious performance as his own alter-ego, and especially in his ear for cutting dialogue that exposes the shallow ambitions of his characters. His generic pitches to the movie-producing couple are brilliant (he throws the word “content” in at random and their eyes get huge). A parody of a competitor’s production shows a knack for capturing ridiculously poetic indie dialogue (“I always imagined that leaving prison was like being ripped from the womb all over again—you emerge screaming, wet, and pale.”) Other great lines include “I didn’t really want to talk about it either, I was just asking you questions I wanted you to ask me” and “I’d like to be suicidal again, but I can’t even get there with all the garbage you’re saying.” Some of the dialogue even achieves poignancy: “Sometimes I get excited about all the possibilities there are, until I realize none of them are available to me.”

As boorish and self-absorbed as our hero is, you gradually begin to feel for him. He is trapped in an absurd, dystopian world peopled entirely by poseurs, a universe that seemingly exists only to crush his dreams. Oh yeah, and then there’s all the weird stuff that happens to his character in the movie, too.

Man Under Table is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This film is definitely weird.”–Lorry Kitka, Film Threat

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: GREATLAND (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Dana Ziyasheva

FEATURING: Arman Darbo, Chloe Ray Warmoth, Jackie Loeb, Nick Moran, Eric Roberts

PLOT: On his fifteenth birthday, Ulysses must live up to his namesake when his friend Ugly Duck is exiled to Repentance island.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This is the only film I’ve seen that could hold its own on a double bill with Alien Crystal Palace. For those (many) of you who haven’t seen ACP, read on and I will attempt to explain…

COMMENTS: Early on in GREATLAND, an elite team of enforcers known as “The Optimists”—a flash-gay, scantily clad group of glamboyant men, one of whom is armed with a weapon decorated with shimmering hearts that reduces its target to sequins—vaporize an ancillary character. This man’s crime? He “invaded and contaminated the most sacred part of a woman,” and compounding that offense, he raised that crime’s result—his daughter, Ugly Duck—in an altogether “stone age” kind of way. Yessir, we’ve reached a post-post-post-modern future in GREATLAND, one in which there is no permitted gender or racial identity, and society seems to be tipping into no identifying as species, either. The citizens of Greatland are allowed to know only love, acceptance, and positivity.

The film’s first act seems to be an anti-progressivist screed, a reducto ad absurdum commentary on the destruction of traditional norms (gender and otherwise). An all powerful “Mother” program monitors the childlike populace with the firm-but-benevolent hand found in many dystopian visions. This film doesn’t seem like it could have been authored by your stereotypical reactionary, however. The satire is too spot-on, from the gloriously flaming gayness of the forces employed to maintain order, to the hyperkinetic “political” broadcasts featuring a wheelchair-bound, pansexual emcee who oversees the current contest for the official “Sweetheart of Greatland” (the contestants are a Dobermann Pischer and a Persian Cat).

Above and beyond the madness of its setting, this is a story about Ulysses (an altogether impressive Arman Darbo) and his pursuit of the invisible man’s daughter. GREATLAND works, mostly, as a quest narrative. Mostly. Just as it works, mostly, as a satire. Mostly. Around the halfway mark, we see a bit of the “outside world,” which starts to make some sense. “Greatland” is some kind of social-experiment-by-way-of-enslavement for the financial benefit of the inventors and propagators of the city in question. However, a minor application of logic makes this element crumble to pieces, as well. Dipping her fingers into so many subversive pies, Dana Ziyasheva ultimately upends the massive dessert tray she’s put together.

Does this make GREATLAND weaker than it could have been? Possibly—but it’s much better than my strained metaphor. The lumps of damaged pie filling and cracked crust still manage to sate both the eye (dystopia is rarely this colorful) and the psyche. The final note I made while watching this movie is an entire page covered with a question mark. A logical mind cannot hope to wrap this all together. But after finishing GREATLAND, bewildered though my reason was, I couldn’t deny the unpleasant lump in my stomach. Something dark and strange is happening in this movie, and its structural chaos and contradictions are perhaps part of the overall message. Ziyasheva seems to be saying we are doomed to terrible absurdity. Or perhaps she’s just having us on.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…(too) ambitiously weird… If GREATLAND is an allegory (and I have no doubt it is), I couldn’t tell you what it is trying to say or represent… As a simple fantasy romance, the film is perfectly engaging, but the society is way too bizarre (yes, even for me) and once the politics is introduced it becomes truly nonsensical.” -Alix Turner, ReadySteadyCut.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “WORLD OF TOMORROW, EPISODE 3: THE ABSENT DESTINATIONS OF DAVID PRIME” (2020)

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PLOT: A time-traveling clone appears to David Prime to warn him of future danger.

Still from "World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime"

COMMENTS: There’s probably no one coming into “The Absent Destinations of David Prime” without having seen “World of Tomorrow” or its sequel first—but just in case, know that this short does stand alone, and knowledge of previous episodes isn’t absolutely necessary, though such knowledge will obviously inform and expand your enjoyment.

The rest of us will find the new World of Tomorrow familiar, yet different. The thing that’s most obviously missing is Winona Mae, the child star of the first two episodes. Her imaginative chattering  provided both a ground for Hertzefeldt to bounce his speculative ideas off of, and a comic foil for Julia Potts (who voices Winona’s adult clones). The emotional and thematic core of the first two episodes was the tension between adult realities (represented by Potts’ hilariously flawed and damaged clones) and the innocent potentialities of Winona Mae’s candidly captured childhood. Now, at about age 9, the child has aged out of the role, and with her exit, Hertzfeldt has been forced to adapt the series. Potts still voices an Emily clone (Emily 9, to be precise), but the protagonist is now David, Emily’s love interest, introduced in the original through his brain-dead clone on display at a museum. David doesn’t speak (although his infant self babbles, courtesy of newborn voiceover from one Jack Parrett). The wistful melancholy for childhood lost no longer forms the emotional backbone of tomorrow’s world; instead, it’s the wistful melancholy of lost love—a romance that is complicated by the fact that it happens between various permutations of clones, each of whom share incomplete and faulty memories with their originals. This patchwork reflects the uncertainty (and fatalism) of romantic love. The theoretical construct of “shared memories” both drives the plot and serves as the chief metaphor.

“Episode 3” is less specifically philosophical and melancholy than previous installments, driven instead by its intricate time-travel narrative. What remains the same across all the entries is Hertzfeld’s incisive satire, Emily’s quotable non-sequitur dialogue (“I feel like I should like avocados more”), and the animation, which, although continuing to advance into ever more elaborate organic alien landscapes, remains stick-figure-based. The satire, in particular, hits a high note in this episode: the World of Tomorrow is a cybernetic nightmare of data overload chillingly reminiscent of our own fast-moving times. Tomorrow, humans will have neural chips—the equivalent of iPhones implanted directly inside our brains—that allow us to install and delete various functions as needed. Apps like Chinese fluency or basic ambulation can be removed at will to free up space for new content, such as Emily’s old bundled memories. Advertising is omnipresent; Emily’s memory cache is partly funded by pop-up ads, including one for “holograms that yell at you!”

“Episode 3” also continues the series’ trippy visual style, which has always featured simplistic stick figures marching against colorfully-envisioned digital backgrounds. Hertzfeldt throws in some new tricks, blurring some of the action to depict Emily’s faltering attempts to materialize herself—time-travel creates backwards-compatibility issues—and adding bewildering layers of content and chryons fighting for our attention. David’s hallucinatory journey to a distant moon to collect a trove of memories stored inside a robot could be Hertzfeld’s compressed stick figure tribute to 2001‘s Star Gate. With less dialogue this time around, the director pays greater attention to the sound design, which is stronger and stranger than in previous outings; there are ambient space noises, Emily’s messages are often glitchy and buried in layers of static. The soundtrack is classical and original music, sometimes used ironically (as when “relaxing music” meant to calm an agitated David is overlaid with an insistent electronic alarm directing him to his next destination).

“The Absent Destinations of David Prime” is the most ambitious “World of Tomorrow” yet, clocking it at over thirty minutes long, about double the previous two episodes lengths. The knotty time-travel plot will generates discussion and exegesis (charts may be helpful), without unduly sidelining the series’ main asset: its tragicomic empathy for the human condition. Each episode now is like a clone of the original “World of Tomorrow,” deteriorating in some aspects, but developing their own quirks or mutations, all the while maintaining a basic identity. Having survived the maturation of Winona Mae, it appears that Hertzfeldt’s imagination is capable of spinning out the series indefinitely into the ever expanding World of Tomorrow—and perhaps even to the day after that.

“World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destinations of David Prime” is currently available exclusively for purchase or rental on Vimeo. I predict that someday all three episodes (and maybe even a future episode) will be available bundled together on physical media. No time traveler has yet appeared to me to divulge the release date, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…. there was no way [Hertzfeldt] was just going to pack up his toys and call it a day after mashing ‘The Jetsons’ and ‘Brazil’ into the kind of digital sandbox that someone could play in until the Earth blew up without ever growing bored of the existential crises it allowed them to imagineer along the way… ‘Time is a prison of living things,’ David tells us, and like any prison, we are always looking for a way out. The impulse to escape will never change, it will only grow weirder.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Sioban Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, , Jeremy Davies

PLOT: Jack (Dillon), an architect–and prolific serial killer–recounts several examples of his “work” and philosophy as Verge (Ganz) leads him on a journey to Hell.

COMMENTS: Due to controversial films like The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark, and Antichrist, among others, Lars von Trier was already considered ‘problematic’ even before his infamous press faux pas at Cannes at the time of Melancholia‘s release. So it’s an interesting conundrum that, in light of his behavior over the years, his work is intellectually engaging and appears (my impression) to have a strong moral center at its core. Jack is much the same. At its Cannes premiere, it gained notoriety when over a hundred audience members walked out during the screening, as well as for for the ten minute standing ovation it received from the remaining audience when it ended.

Originally conceived by von Trier with co-writer Jenle Hallund as an eight-part television series, Jack is a treatise on serial killers and the culture of fascination regarding them. Jack sees murder as an art and himself as amongst the greatest of artists, as he argues to Verge (i.e. Virgil, the poet of “The Aeneid” and guide from “The Divine Comedy”) on their journey. He justifies himself and his acts by pointing  up examples in Nature (the Tyger and the Lamb; the “noble rot”) and Art (poetry of Blake, and the films of one Lars VonTrier).

Despite adopting the non de plume “Mr. Sophistication,” Jack, as portrayed Matt Dillon, is not the Hannibal Lecter type of cultured romantic one ends up liking despite his horrible acts. The film makes clear that Jack is a liar (not a good liar either), and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but gets away with his horrible acts because he uses his entitlement and privilege to full advantage. People overlook his behavior until it’s far too late. He acts so obnoxiously that some who might bring him to justice get annoyed and brush him off.  He’s abetted by the naiveté  and obliviousness of his victims, and everyone else; as he yells out of an intended victim’s apartment window, “Nobody wants to help!”

Despite this “success,” Jack’s flaws eventually catch up with him. For all of his lofty pretensions as an “artist” and creator, Jack is unable to complete any sort of life-positive project. His attempts at building a house for himself end in a Sisyphean cycle of frustration; the only structure he succeeds at is a grisly sculpture made from the corpses of his victims, which serves as his literal entrance into Hell. Despite Jack’s spirited arguments and defenses on their journey, Verge isn’t buying any of Jack’s b.s. As he remarks, he’s “heard it all and there’s very little that would surprise him” at this point. Jack’s ultimate fate, likewise, is no surprise at all, though he still thinks there’s a chance he can beat the House. He learns the hard way that the House always wins.

The House that Jack Built is a bleak look at an empty soul in an empty world. It’s also very funny, among the darkest of dark comedies.

Scream Factory released Jack in a 2-disc Blu-ray set in early 2020. It includes the standard theatrical cut, and the unrated cut that played in selected theaters for one night only. Extras includes von Trier’s introduction to the unrated cut and an interview with the director conducted by University of Copenhagen Associate Professor Peter Schepelern.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As the film progresses into its last stretches, it proves itself to be bizarrely satisfying, recontextualizing itself into something much grander in sadness and scope.”–Matt Cipolla, Film Monthly (Blu-ray)