As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Weekend Double Feature: Apocalytic fun

Posted by Hedwig on March 24, 2008

Among my friends, it’s rather the consensus that I “like weird movies”. I tend to find this statement a little broad, but it’s not untrue. A more nuanced way of putting it, is that I like to be surprised: after watching so many movies and recognizing so many familiar patterns in them, it’s nice to be taken aback, to be amazed. And well, to do that…often takes a little weirdness.

Oddly enough, the reason I like noir is exactly the opposite: noirs have so many familiar elements, so many tropes and customs, that it’s fun just to see them all appear. Chiaroscuro lighting? check. A conflicted, maybe-not-entirely-moral man in an entirely immoral world he can’t keep up with? check. A femme fatale? check. A delightfully depressing downer denouement*? check.

So really, it’s no wonder I liked Kiss Me Deadly. And that I thought the Richard Kelly disaster it engendered was… well, you can read my reaction to that after the jump.

Kiss Me Deadly really is a strange hybrid. It’s a noir all right: the source is a hard-boiled novel by Mickey Spillane; the main character, Mike Hammer, is a P.I., who gets tangled up in a web of corruption, but isn’t an innocent himself either; and it’s a girl that leads Hammer to his doom. But at the same time, while noirs are generally rooted in a dark but not entirely unrealistic world, here there are sci-fi elements thrown into the mix. And while the plot of some noirs (I’m looking at you, The Big Sleep) have plots that are impossible to disentangle, they’re not usually willfully mysterious.

I have to admit, though, it’s not because of the supernatural elements that I liked Kiss Me Deadly so much. I actually even think the movie goes somewhat off the tracks near the end, and I’m not entirely sure I approve. But what I love is the movies cynicism and gloomy atmosphere. There are no lily-white noir heroes, but few are as dark and twisty inside as Mike Hammer. And the opening… ah, that opening. Heavy panting. A woman’s legs. Screeching tires. I could describe it, but Kim Morgan already did that beautifully for the opening shots project. The only thing she doesn’t mention is that the titles scroll down, so that we have to read from the bottom to the top: a sign, already, that in this movie everything’s upside down. Not as it should be. Hard to ‘read’.

That opening is shown in the background in a shot of Southland Tales. It’s easy to miss if you don’t know the movie: this movie wildly overflows, every frame filled with so much detail and so many meaningless (or are they?) knick-knacks. Also, the panting can easily be mistaken for the sexual panting in a porn movie – the scene, after all, takes place in the house of porn star Krysta Now, given perfect, plastic shape by Buffy herself.

Later in the movie, the final scene (memorably paid homage to in Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark) is also on a TV somewhere, in the background, and one of the characters (or two, depending on how you want to see it) sees his hand glow. One character pleads another to remember her name, even though the name she gave him is a fake one. It’s hard to know if these references are relevant. After all, there are so many it’s hard to keep track: Clinton/Lieberman is fighting the Eliot/Frost ticket, and poems by both T.S.Eliot and Robert Frost are quoted, Revelations is cited at length, a character uses “Deep Throat 2” as an undercover name… I could go on. The references don’t add to the meaning, but maybe that’s because there doesn’t seem to be much meaning to begin with.

I won’t sugarcoat it: Southland Tales is a mess. It’s incoherent, overlong, wise like a pretentious seventeen-year-old (which is to say: not very, and certainly not as much as it thinks it is), over-the-top and out-of-control, much of the direction is stilted, the acting is ridiculously bad, and some of the effects are also. But what a glorious mess it is! A mess to laugh at wholeheartedly with the right kind of friends (the kind, for instance, that can talk at length about the difference between the pants worn by Kurt Russell in Escape From L.A. and Escape From New York), to be amazed by.

It’s a film brimming with bad ideas, sure, but at least it’s brimming with ideas! You simply never know what’s coming. Just when you’ve come to terms with a song called Teen Horniness is Not a Crime, an impromptu musical interlude from Justin Timberlake (who appears as a prophetic sniper) and a nearly unrecognizable Kevin Smith… there’s fucking cars. I mean, cars, fucking. And that might not even be the weirdest thing on screen. And how can you not give a movie points for featuring Christopher Lambert as an ice-cream truck driver slash gun salesman?

It’s a movie that makes you go “Ok. That was insanely bad. And I think it’s my new favorite movie”.

I won’t go as far as the above, paraphrased from a friend. And I can’t really recommend it, because I can imagine being totally left not just bewildered but annoyed by it. But it did make me laugh more than 99% of so-called “comedies”, and left me with a silly grin on my face, unable to say anything but “Awesome!”, over and over again.

* Ok, that might have been overdoing the alliteration, but indulge me this time. I recently saw a movie which didn’t shy back from any excess it could come up with.

Recommended reading: a far smarter defense than mine, by Steven Shaviro, can be found here. I think he gives Richard Kelly a bit too much credit: I think the movie’s insane brilliance is largely accidental. But he makes some good points.

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9 Responses to “Weekend Double Feature: Apocalytic fun”

  1. I guess it’s time I caved in and saw Southland Tales. Twice at AFI I skipped it in favor of something else knowing I could easily catch it when it was released, but it slipped through the cracks.

    You’ve said just enough to intrigue me. We’ll see how it goes. It’s a good time of year for DVDs anyway.

    Now that David Lynch’s Lost Highway is on DVD, perhaps it’s time to have a Kiss Me Deadly double feature of my very own.

  2. Chuck said

    I had a similar reaction to SOUTHLAND TALES, and I think at least part of it is intentional. The film is obviously somehow about how the new generation self-medicates through loads and loads of every media imaginable and so that’s how the film itself it told: through the same ennui plagued short attention span.

    But large parts of it ARE deeply, deeply tedious. Still, in its own fucked up way, its far more interesting than the also overly self-pleased DONNIE DARKO.

    KISS ME DEADLY is just wonderful.

  3. Kaj said

    I guess the friends do make a difference. I watched it with two friends, of which one continuously was badmouthing the film and at a certain point got with the intention to leave the house. I didn’t finish the movie until a night later. I usually delight in weirdness, and frequently laugh at it. But when I find out that all I’m gonna get is just one over the top weird sketch after another, the weirdness becomes normal, mundane even, because without any normality weirdness isn’t weird anymore. And then it’s not funny anymore.
    That’s why I didn’t find the whole pimp/suicide thing funny anymore when it came. Too little, too late.

    For the same reason Kitano’s Getting Any? becomes boring after a while, only to redeem itself somewhat by becoming a lot more weirder in the end (also including strange, improbable and utterly unconvincing science fiction). Kelly, however, isn’t nearly as absurdist or weird or funny as Kitano, so maybe the comparison isn’t really just. Maybe that is the problem. Southland Tales is all weird, messy, incoherent, pretentious, overlong and what not, but somehow in such a conventional MTV kind of way that makes it all bland (likes it’s setting) rather than blend.

    I’m not buying into Steven Shaviro’s theories, but that has a lot to do that I’m not buying into the theoretical viewpoints of the likes of McLuhan and Chion that he bases himself on.

  4. sarcastig said

    Still, in its own fucked up way, its far more interesting than the also overly self-pleased DONNIE DARKO.

    Now those, Chuck, are fighting words!

    To be honest, my love for Donnie Darko now is largely nostalgia for how obsessed I could get at age 17, but while I can’t argue with the self-pleased, I’d argue that it manages to somehow overcome the director’s intentions, and become a very different beast than Kelly intended. It’s even a different film than Kelly thinks it is! At least that’s the impression I get from the director’s commentary on the DVD. To reprint a part of a commentary I left on Shaviro’s blog some time ago:

    Donnie Darko was my favorite film for about 3 years (ages 17 to 20, more or less), and it still reveals something new every time I see it, but sometimes I feel the brilliance of it is merely accidental. The Director’s cut is somehow a much lesser film than the original, and I didn’t even listen all the way through the commentary because it felt to me like Richard Kelly (though he’s obviously intelligent and insightful about other people’s movies) didn’t quite ‘get’ his own film.

    Of course, this feeling might reflect the my own possessiveness. After all, when a film feels as personally made for you as Donnie Darko did for me, you feel your own reaction to the film is the truest. But it does seem as if Richard Kelly has a thousand thoughts a second, not particularly coherent but based in a subconscious that somehow “connects” with the world as it is now – or maybe just with my own subconscious.

    Anyhow, I’ll defend Donnie Darko like I’d defend my 17-yo self and all her peculiarities!

    @Kaj: I think I saw a few more connections and reflections than you did, and while the movie did jump all over the place, I saw a cohesive spirit and mood, if not a cohesive plot. And partly, this is due to the MTV style you lament. Yes, it’s bland, and sure, the line delivery is ridiculously flat and breathless, but I didn’t find it boring for a second, much less tedious. I was constantly mocking the film with my friends, but every other comment was “well…at least it’s entertaining!”. And to me, it was, to a high degree.

    Just the ‘acting’ choices the Rock makes, for example, are fascinating: what’s with all the wiggling with his fingers? The hunched shoulders? And how can he remain so truly and completely a movie star nonetheless? Because he does somehow: like so many other people in this film, he has a kind of media charisma that shines through. Even Mandy Moore (the blandest and most wholesome of pop starlets) manages to captivate your attention. Well, managed to capture my attention, in any case. And that’s not even mentioning all the great supporting turns by the likes of Wallace Shawn, Jon Lovitz, and let’s not forget: the oft-fugged Bai Ling.

    I actually almost popped it in the DVD player again yesterday. Then I realized that if I go to the press screening, I don’t want to be too familiar with it yet, so I’ll wait.

  5. Kaj said

    Well, there was a bit of an overall spirit and mood, a deadly serious and pretentious one that really didn’t do the movie a service. How can Kelly take all this bullshit serious?

    I did find it boring, and I didn’t hear anybody say that at least it was entertaining. And although the wiggling was intriguing at first, like most of the strange things in this film it became nothing more than strangeness for the hell of it, and not in a good, funny or entertaining way. David Lynch can does such things well, for instance, but Kelly never reaches his level, which he makes all the more clear by referencing Lynch on several occassions.

    The Rock never convinced me as a movie star. The charisma you speak about I found sorely lacking in most actors with larger parts in the movie, especially Sean William Scott. And the likes of the overtanned Mandy Moore never captured my attention. Bai Ling irritated the hell out of me as the movie progressed. Did she do anything but hang around everywhere?

  6. Daniel said

    Kaj’s last comments fully resonate with me. I may be the only one here who was at the theater opening weekend for ST, but as it makes the DVD rounds I’m growing irritated again. I think it took a week for my eyebrows to become unfurrowed.

    I don’t want to get too worked up right now, but I really struggled to make it through the movie. The characters were so poorly written, the plot was stupid and half-baked, and I just grew increasingly irritated throughout. Lots of movies are that way and it doesn’t sound like anyone’s denying this with ST, but whereas Hedwig and others made it through unharmed, I can’t say the same. Seriously, the more I remember about it the more angry I’m becoming. I’ll stop!

  7. sarcastig said

    Wow, vicious feelings all around. Vicious feelings I can sorta, kinda understand: go into this with the wrong or even just slightly too high expectations, and you might get burned. Me? I went in expecting a terrible mess…and hoping, maybe a little, that I could find something in it to champion. Which I did.

    The thing is (and I hope I’ll be able to articulate my thought, which is somewhat confused), I don’t think I would have enjoyed the movie half as much if Kelly hadn’t taken himself so seriously. If this had all been a spoof, a mockery, it wouldn’t have risen above the level of, say, the Scary Movies.

    The movie doesn’t have a plot, just elliptic allusions to familiar stories we’ve seen a million times, and references to familiar tropes from noir, science-fiction, but also non-narrative forms such as the MTV music video. The movie doesn’t have characters: it has reflections (sometimes upon other reflections) of personalities we can’t help but know intimately, or else previous characters played by the actors on screen, the memory of which supersedes any role they might have in the absent story. In the former category, there’s Justin Timberlake, for example, the bland pretty boy with curls who turned out to have killer dance movies and something like an edge. Or Bai Ling who’s famous for… well, “hang[ing] around everywhere”, as Kaj put it so succinctly, and looking like a parody of manga cartoon sexiness doing it. In the latter category, there’s Wallace Shawn, for example, who doesn’t say “inconceivable” in the movie but might as well have. Or Christopher Lambert, who is and forever will be the Highlander.

    All the above is just to show that more than a movie, this is a meta-movie. So maybe it makes sense to watch it in a meta-way. And if the maker’s in on the joke… then that just doesn’t work.

    Anyway, this will be blasphemy to Kaj, I know, but I much prefer this to Inland Empire. Now that was a tiresome, boring, exhausting effort to watch (with the exception of a few moments. Lynch does have a way of filming women’s faces. And he’s a greater artist than Kelly, I won’t dispute that. But ST > IE in my book. Yeah. I have a book).

    Oddly enough, a movie that comes back to me a lot when thinking about Southland Tales (which I’ve done an inordinate amount in the past coupl’a days) is Alphaville. That movie also relies on our knowledge of sci-fi conventions to skip all steps in between, and it’s also quite crazy… but I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It somehow never got past being an academic exercise, and it certainly never reached the pulpy enjoyability of the source material. Does anyone know any good articles on Alphaville that might shed some light?

  8. Kaj said

    Am I OK in it? 😉

    I expected a terrible mess, but I was hoping for an entertaining mess, a fascinating trainwreck. I was neither entertained nor that much fascinated.

    Yes, IE is exhausting, but to me it was also fascinating, engrossing, exciting and entertaining, and I did feel that it was actually about something, as opposed to the emptiness that Southland Tales ends up to be. I’m very interested in Alphaville though.

  9. Joe Valdez said

    Hedwig, I think your friend was onto something about a movie being so bad it thus becomes your new favorite movie. When you can stand up and name all the things that are wrong with a film like Steve Martin making 20 jokes about his nose in Roxanne, you have moved beyond ordinary badness and into a bizarre, yet fun-filled world of awfulness. Southland Tales definitely qualifies as such. p.s. I’m glad you like weird movies. Keep writing about them.

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