(What follows is a modified and expanded version of the Disqus comment, “Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales: Suicide Mission”. Various errors in that comment, such as the constant mis-spelling of Boxer Santaros’ name, are corrected here. What follows contains spoilers for Southland Tales, Knowing, and End of Days. Though an attempt is made to dis-entangle the plot by writing about the surrounding events of the movie in roughly chronological order, the assumption is made that any reader has seen the movie at least once and is somewhat familiar with its story. The prequel script referred to in this post can be found on scribd, a link I arrived at via the very helpful “The ‘Southland Tales’ That Never End: An Interview With Richard Kelly” by Abraham Riesman.)
The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately. Thirty seconds after, the explosion came first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty.
Kenneth Bainbridge, the supervisor of the test, turned to Oppenheimer and said, “Now we are all sons of bitches.”
From a description of the first A Bomb test, in Eric Schlosser’s essential Command and Control.
A film that plays the apocalypse completely for laughs, and which gave me a great deal of joyful laughter when I first saw it and badly needed such relief. The movie’s strength lies in the fact that its scenes work (or don’t work) as self-contained episodes, with any larger issues of structure or comprehensibility lessened by your focus on the immediate action. Were I to compare it to anything, it would be the strange skits that Saturday Night Live leaves for its very end, a sample of which might be found in “10-to-1 odds: 19 bizarre sketches from Saturday Night Live’s last 10 minutes” by Claire Zulkey, Steve Heisler, Erik Adams, Phil Dyess-Nugent, Ryan McGee and Will Harris, though perhaps the best example comes from Commander Blop in the comments: “How did “Potato Chip” not make it? I think of that as the quintessential example of the last fifteen or so years.” (link) This skit involves a NASA job interviewee stealing a single chip from the interviewer’s precious bowl of thirty five chips. The humor doesn’t really lie with the premise, or any single element, but the combined absurdity of it all: the anachronistic speech and manner of these Southern Country Gentlemen at NASA, Mr. Greenblatt’s petulance over the single missing chip, the baroque anguish of the secretary. “Potato Chip Thief” is on the Yahoo! SNL archive, though an excerpt from a transcript at SNL Transcripts (“Potato Chip Thief”) might convey the tone:
Mr. Greenblatt: Well, I got that space test right…
[ Mr. Greenblatt stops mid sentence and stares at the bowl of chips on the desk. He quickly scuttles towards it and begins thumbing through the bowl counting quickly under his breath. ]
Mr. Greenblatt: Thirty four. (stares at Mr. Aymong as he sits down.) Thirty four! (yells to get Janelley’s attention) JANELLEY! Could you come in here, please!
[ Janelley enters the office and approaches Mr. Greenblatt. ]
Janelley: (In a quivery quiet voice) Yes, Mr. Greenblatt?
Mr. Greenblatt: Janelda, how many potato chips did you put in there today?
Janelley: Thirty five.
Mr. Greenblatt: (with conviction) I thought so. I thought so! Janelley, what would you say if I told you that that man right there is nothing but a common potato chip thief!
Janelley: (In an overdone scream of horror) AHHHHHHH! POTATO CHIP THIIIIIEEEEFFFFF!!!!
The scenes in Southland Tales rarely fall under quotable humor, or things that can be easily summarized to explain why they’re funny. It’s this quicksilver quality which, for me, makes the movie so enjoyable, as the jokes keep coming in unpredictable sizes and shapes. The movie bears the influence of Philip K. Dick, an influence which it openly acknowledges with a witty reference: “Flow my tears,” says a policeman (in other words, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said), while both the prequel script and prequel comics feature a scene with the characters bonding over, respectively, The Man in High Castle and the already mentioned Flow My Tears 1. That its apocalyptic premise is coupled with absurdist dialogue makes Southland Tales feel closer to the books of Dick than adaptations like Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly which keep the vertiginous elements, while dropping the discordant hyperbolic writing that often sounds like an unintentional ten-to-one SNL skit, the beatnik daughter of Ayn Rand hanging out at the space disco. One might pick a few examples from an obvious and near-by choice, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.
These excerpts all involve the book’s lead, Jason Taverner (and of course, Seann William Scott’s protagonist in Southland is Roland Taverner), and his ex-girlfriend, Ruth Rae:
That was one factor about Ruth Rae: her obsession with sex. One year that he recalled she had laid sixty men, not including him: he had entered and left earlier, when the stats were not so high.
And she had always liked his music. Ruth Rae liked sexy vocalists, pop ballads and sweet– sickeningly sweet–strings. In her New York apartment at one time she had set up a huge quad system and more or less lived inside it, eating dietetic sandwiches and drinking fake frosty slime drinks made out of nothing. Listening forty-eight hours at a stretch to disc after disc by the Purple People Strings, which he abominated.
“Hi,” she rasped in her bourbon-bounded voice. “Who are you?”
Jason said, “We met a few years ago in New York. I was doing a walk-on in an episode of The Phantom Baller. . . as I recall it, you had charge of costumes.”
“The episode,” Ruth Rae rasped, “where the Phantom Baller was set upon by pirate queers from another time period.” She laughed, smiled up at him. “What’s your name?” she inquired, jiggling her wire-supported exposed boobs.
“I’ll go punch the stove-console.” Ruth Rae skittered barefoot, wearing only a box bangle, from the bathroom into the kitchen. A moment later she returned with a big plastic mug of coffee, marked KEEP ON TRUCKIN’. He accepted it, drank down the steaming coffee.
“I can’t stay,” he said, “any longer. And anyhow, you’re too old.”
She stared at him, ludicrously, like a warped, stomped doll. And then she ran off into the kitchen. Why did I say that? he asked himself. The pressure; my fears. He started after her.
Southland replaces this unintentional absurdity with its own intentional, utterly strange jokes. One of the first scenes, when Zora Charmichaels buys a gun and blanks for the staged shooting from a weapons dealer who works out of an ice cream truck:
You know, there would be a lot less violence in the world if everyone got a little more cardio.
HEY. Is that a bazooka?
What the fuck is this?
What…you won’t take a personal cheque?
No, I won’t take a personal cheque. Get the fuck out of my ice cream truck, you cro-magnon bitch.
There’s the reunion of Santaros with his in-laws, along with the woman who protected him during his time of exile, porn star Krysta Now:
Cock Chuggers 2? Cock Chuggin? Who the fuck makes this shit? Huh?
Hey, hey. She just cut her own pop album.
“Teen horniness is not a crime. Keep an open heart and an open mind.”
KRYSTA does the “love you, too” signal to the Senator.
She’s developing her own reality show. Clothing line. Jewelry, perfume, and not to mention, energy drink. Which I tried. And her drink tastes really really good.
KRYSTA mouths thank you.
Can I see the Cock Chuggers?
A conversation on Krysta Now’s talk show, which is kind of like The View, except all the table mates are porn stars, and where they discuss the important issues of the day, like teen horniness and quantum teleportation:
I have a question…for the Supreme Court. What happens…when a woman has sex on a flight from London to Los Angeles. Then takes the morning after pill. While flying across the time zone.
I don’t know.
Then it becomes the morning before pill.
You are a genius.
The Dickisian influence is there in the ways I see the movie: as a satire on the American fascination with the apocalypse, and as the briefly realized dream world of a dying man, Roland Taverner. Dealing with the first gives me an opportunity to lay out the surrounding timeline of the events of the movie, in chronological order, as described in the film, the prequel comics (Southland Tales: The Prequel Saga on Amazon), and the prequel script (Southland Tales: The Prequel Saga on scribd) – though they overlap in many ways, the prequel script and the prequel comics have their differences. Though “Everything you were afraid to ask about “Southland Tales”” by Thomas Rogers is very effective in disentangling the various plot details of the movie, it spends less time on the events leading up to the movie’s plot, which I think are equally important in understanding what takes place.
What should first be noted is that a central part of Southland‘s plot is the idea of various world religions in a competition for apocalypse (a kind of Death Race 2000, I guess), with one winner emerging from these sweepstakes. This is why Boxer has tattoos on his body of so many symbols and words representing various faiths, and when Christ’s head bleeds through at the end, this is the chosen (and expected) winner. This crude competition is very much satirical, and mirrors the religious bigotry of Bobby and Nina Mae Frost who express an opinion that doesn’t make it into the movie, but is very much there in the prequel works – that the war on terror is a war for Christian supremacy. In “The ‘Southland Tales’ That Never End: An Interview With Richard Kelly” by Abraham Riesman, Kelly confirms all this:
In the graphic novels, we learn that boxer’s tattoos represent all the major world religions, and that whichever one bleeds, it means that religion is the one true religion. Jesus ends up bleeding, of course. So, why Christianity? Why does it win?
Why does Jesus win? (Laughs) Well, because it’s Revelation and it is the Second Coming. And the joke is, someone *has* to win, and it’s part of the satire.
Sorta like a parody of the Bush administration’s invocations of god?
Well, I mean, it’s the foundation of that entire administration, was Christianity. And Southland Tales is very much a reflection of that administration and those eight years.
These are the Frosts in the comic, on the intersection of war and religion:
These are the Frosts in the script, on the same subject (page 83):
The screenplay that’s mentioned several times in the movie, The Power, is a script which serves as a prophetic work predicting the events leading up to the apocalypse, and excerpts of the script appear in the prequel comics. Though it will be discussed at greater length later, we might look at the scene in the script where Jericho Cane gets his tattoos, after which Boxer Santaros will get the very same set of tattoos to play the role of Jericho Cane2. This is Jericho Cane getting the “armor of god”, the religious tats:
This is Boxer getting the same set of tattoos, in the script (page 66):
In the comic:
Serpentine: “When da true Messiah returns…da tattoo of the winning religion will bleed da blood of da serpent.” Fortunio: “The winning religion? Is this some sort of competition?” Serpentine: “Of course it is…you fool!” (page 80)
Perhaps the best place to start the chronology is with an exposition scene in the prequel script, where we discover the Defense Department has been funding research into the Book of Revelations for decades. The conversation is between General Teena MacArthur (Janeane Garafolo) and General Simon Theory (Kevin Smith); Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) is in the scene because he’s participating in a military experiment involving Fluid Karma (page 91):
The primer is Martin Kefauver, the man who fires the rocket launcher at the end, and whose name is deciphered later by Krysta Now.
As we know from the opening scenes of Southland, the expanded war in the Middle East has led the U.S. to research alternative energy resources. Baron Westphalen has solved the problem through Fluid Karma, a mysterious substance that generates electricity when exposed to oxygen. In the Baron’s presentation from the movie’s opening, he seems unable to quite explain how his energy system, powered by the ocean’s waves, quite works – this is because the explanation is a deception. Fluid Karma isn’t produced, but mined from the ocean floor, a place called the Serpent Trench.
By mining this material, they’ve unleashed something unforseen unto the world. The first sign of something gone awry is the incident involving Flight 23, going from Los Angeles to Dallas, where passengers and crew were struck by a massive outbreak of hysteria mid-point in the flight. Everyone on board afterward suffered from amnesia, except for one person – Krysta Kapowski, also known as Krysta Now.
During interview sessions after the event, it’s discovered that Kapowski now has psychic powers. It’s after this discovery that Dr. Katarina Kuntzler has her dictate the script The Power.
The script is supposed to be a kind of modern Book of Revelation, predicting the events leading up to the end of the world. Instead of the porn actress, the script features Krysta Now’s doppelganger, oceanography expert Dr. Muriel Fox, who describes Krysta’s experiences on United 23 as her own. Before the outbreak of hysteria, the passengers fall into a coma in which Krysta is the only one awake. She sees a vision of a multi-headed snake beast ridden by the whore of Babylon, Krysta Now. This perhaps is how Kapowski sees herself, as two selves separated by the transforming incident – Krysta Now and psychic Dr. Muriel Fox. This vision explains exactly what will take place before the apocalypse, events mirrored in the end of the movie:
Simon Theory has come across an anagram of letters that must be deciphered, F R E A K M A N V I R T U E, which also unscramble to Martin Kefauver, the man who’ll fire the rocket launcher at the movie’s end. This is the “trigger” they’re seeking, the man who’ll set off the apocalypse. From the prequel script, when Simon discusses the anagram with Teena MacArthur (page 113):
From The Power script in the comic, when Muriel Fox unscrambles the letters:
Muriel explicitly identifies Kefauver as “the executioner” in The Power script:
Much of Kapowski’s script is excerpted in the comics, and the impression given is of a prophetic document disguised as a juvenile Michael Bay movie. Two cops, Jericho Cane (played by Boxer Santaros) and his partner, Chuck MacPherson (not Roland Taverner, but an older man in his fifties), along with Dr. Muriel Fox, are trying to unravel the mystery behind a baby named Caleb that has mystic qualities and may well be the messiah. It ages at an accelerated rate, and never has a bowel movement, but its farts are so powerful that they shake the earth. Eventually, Jericho Cane takes the baby to a farmhourse where he finds the mysterious sorceress named Serpentine, the very same Serpentine of the world outside the script. Serpentine is surrounded by snakes, and one of them swallows the baby, before the serpent is destroyed by one of the child’s cosmic farts. Serpentine declares the child the messiah. It’s after this point that Serpentine explains the idea of the “armor of god”, the tattoos which must be printed on Jericho Cane’s skin.
Though it’s omitted in the general release cut, there’s a lengthier discussion of the script in one of the ridealong scenes in the Cannes cut. I know that some have accused this movie of pretentiousness, and yet the full cut of the scene gets close to the tone which the movie aims for all the way through, one that has a serious undertone, but is also through and through ridiculous. The recurrent phrase, “nobody rocks the cock like Krysta Now”, is something like an advertising jingle which ends up in the heads of everyone, though for a product more demimonde than we might expect for these infectious mantras.
So, I’m fucking her last night…and right before I come, I puke all over her tits.
TAVERNER (impassive, blase, unperturbed)
No, I’m telling you, nobody and I mean nobody, rocks the cock like Krysta Now. Nobody.
I got it.
Back to the Neo-Marxist headquarters. DREAM talks into the mic, which TAVERNER hears over the earpiece.
Ask him about his wife.
So what does your wife think about your new girlfriend?
Yeah. She cool with the fact that you have a porn star girlfriend on the side?
I’m not married.
No, I’m not.
I could have sworn you were married to the daughter of a Texas senator. Senator Bobby Frost.
Well no, I’m not. I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I don’t know who he is. Furthermore, I don’t want to talk about this. Why are you asking me questions? I just want to talk about my movie.
Okay, let’s talk about your film. What’s it really about?
BOXER now interested, leans closer
It all hinges…on a top secret experiment. Young couple comes home from the hospital. With their new-born baby. A week goes by, and the baby still hasn’t produced a bowel movement.
Maybe the baby’s just constipated.
No no no no no. This is a very special baby. This baby processes energy differently. Every time it farts, it creates a small earthquake. The prophecy of Jericho Cane says there will be one final thermonuclear baby fart which will then trigger the apocalypse.
I haven’t had a bowel movement in six days. I haven’t taken a piss either.
BOXER looks down at TAVERNER’s pants.
Though it’s never stated explicitly, somehow this baby Caleb is also Roland Taverner. The baby’s growth is so accelerated in the script that we can conceive this baby being of the age and appearance of Taverner when he first shows up. They both share a distinct trait: like Caleb, Taverner cannot have a bowel movement no matter how hard he tries. This is a point made several times in the comic:
The various researchers of the movie – General Simon Theory, Dr. Soberin Ex, Dr. Katarina Kuntzler – pinpoint that the strange incident on board Flight 23 took place over Lake Mead, Nevada, where an unusual structure has come into existence: a vast maze in the shape of Texas. Within the maze is a rift in time and space. Kuntzler believes the maze’s shape to be a reference to the nuclear detonation in Abilene, a communication by a sentient intelligence – the Serpent Trench.
Attempts are made to research this time rift. The best description of what takes place is in Southland when Satoro discovers his own dead body, and Soberin Ex tells him what led up to it:
And what did we do when we discovered a rift in the fourth dimension? We launched monkeys into it.
Only a human subject can survive that challenge. The soul of a human monkey can’t survive the dimensional threshold.
So we learned. At which point we decided that the first human subejct to travel through the rift would be a movie star.
Your celebrity and your political ties proved an irresistible combination.
At 10:59 AM, and this is sixty-nine minutes before you passed through the rift, a duplicate Boxer Santaross appeared.
You traveled sixty nine minutes back in time, sir. At which point your future self…and your past self, confronted one another.
So, I’m my future self. And I’m the dude who traveled through the rift.
And this…[nods to the burned out body] is all that’s left of your past self. This body…this artifact. This dual existence of a single human soul could unlock the secret of creation, the secret of humankind.
I don’t understand. I’ve never considered committing suicide. I’m a pimp. And pimps don’t commit suicide.
We don’t know what would happen if two human souls were to come into immediate close contact with one another.
This may be a deception as well; Boxer perhaps isn’t taken to the maze because he’s a movie star, but because of the prophecy of The Power script. Boxer is at a campaign event on June 27th where he’s with his in-laws, Vice Presidential nominee Bobby Frost and their family, when he’s kidnapped (page 74):
Afterwards, Boxer Santaros has forgotten everything in his life – except the moment of being in the maze. He comes across the monkey that’s already been sent through the time rift. This monkey’s gone to heaven:
In the prequel script, park rangers searching the area come across the dead monkey as well (page 8):
He wanders the maze and comes across a giant snake which then attacks him. This might be taken as a metaphor for the entire movie, characters wandering a maze ruled by a snake, Serpentine. Boxer escapes by ascending the stairs to a gauzy field marked by an open hand: the time rift. He jumps through and afterwards sees Taverner. When asked his name, he says “Jericho Cane”, even though he hasn’t read Krysta’s screenplay yet.
After Boxer jumps through the time rift, his past self may have gone back into the Treer vehicle where it was destroyed by a remote self-destruct trigger, according to this conversation at the end of Southland:
You made sure to have no one go through the time rift with me. Then you hit the SUV self destruct trigger. By remote. Which means I didn’t kill myself.
You’re a pimp. Pimps don’t commit suicide.
You got that right.
Though Roland Taverner suffers from amnesia as well due to the time rift, he too remembers the maze as a dream, which he tells Boxer about when they sit down to eat during a break from the drivealong. The upbeat “Oh My Angel” by Bertha Tillman plays in the background, making things even more unsettling.
I’ve had this recurring dream.
BOXER can tell that he wants to tell someone, anyone about this dream.
Tell me about it.
I wake up in this dungeon…the walls are made of sand. As I slowly make my way through this…maze. Approaching a light source at the end. Guess who’s standing there, waiting for me?
BOXER is now very interested.
Do you ever feel there’s a thousand people…locked inside of you?
But it’s your memory. That keeps them glued together. Keeps all those people from [makes Rock’em Sock’em motions] fighting one another. Maybe in the end that’s all we have. The memory. Gospel.
It’s after this point that Boxer is picked up in the desert by Foruntio Balducci, while Roland Taverner ends up on the houseboat of his parents, along with his double, his past self. They’ve been gone in the maze for three days, since it’s now June 30th:
Whether Tab and Eve Taverner are actually Roland’s parents, or just actors playing a part, I’m not sure. They’re Neo-Marxists, and his father lies to Roland that the other body is his twin brother, and not a copy of himself:
Taverner is transferred by his parents over to the custody of fellow Neo-Marxist Zora Charmichaels, while Balducci drives with Boxer to a strip club where Krysta Now is headlining. The comic’s opening has many of the characters clustered all together on the Taverner houseboat, with Krysta Now and Balducci there for a gambling junket, where high stakes card games are played against, amongst others, U.S. soldiers stationed in Syria. We are told that Tab is on his way to drop off some very important cargo in Los Angeles – Roland Taverner and his copy. Balducci goes off into the desert, with a necessary state travel pass given to him by Krysta. Though it’s never stated explicitly in the comic, I make this assumption: Krysta is psychic, and Krysta knows Balducci will pick up Boxer in the desert, after which she’ll see them at her strip club. In the comic, they simply meet at the club, whereas in the prequel script, Krysta makes a beeline for Boxer. Again in the prequel script, she presents him with the prophecy script, The Power, which carries a co-writing credit for Santaros, while in the comic she enlists Balducci to convince Boxer that The Power is entirely his script. He’ll be playing a part in other people’s games, but it’s important that he thinks it’s all a product of his own imagination, his own creation.
When Krysta meets Boxer in the prequel script (page 17):
Towards the end of the prequel comics, there’s this moment between Krysta and Boxer which suggests she knows exactly what will happen to all of them, that they’re going to bring about the apocalypse:
A contingent point, revealed only at the comic’s ending: Krysta has been doing this all for the Baron. We’re told this in a scene where Krysta tells her friends, Deena Storm and Shoshanna Cox, that they’ve received an invite to dance on the Westphalen zeppelin for their fourth of July party:
Zora is an agent of the Baron as well:
The burnt out body of Boxer Santaros is found by park rangers. After they put the body into storage, mysterious figures come into the ranger station, kill the rangers and retrieve the body. In both the prequel comics and the script, the body then ends up in Westphalen laboratories, but in the prequel script, it’s more explicit that the kill orders come from the Baron:
The park ranger discovers the body in the prequel script (page 10):
Baron gives the order to shoot in the prequel script (page 11):
That Taverner ends up with the Neo-Marxists and Boxer ends up at Krysta’s, is also part of an elaborate plan, chess pieces in their proper place, as it’s made clear in the comic book:
The purpose of it all is to bring about the apocalypse. Janeane Garafolo shows up in Southland only for a few seconds in a mute appearance towards the end, alongside Pilot Abilene in the Utopia 3 Station; she’s there, according to the prequel script, after waiting it out at a remote command center. We have here the obvious irony, that she has to be at a remote location so she’s not destroyed, while waiting out the three days until all of earth is annihilated (page 116):
A compilation of Teena MacArthur’s scenes from the Cannes cut of Southland Tales:
The drive along with a staged shooting and the drive along disrupted by a real shooting are all parts of a larger plan. It’s Balducci who tells Dion and Dream to take the scenario for the faked shooting from a scene in The Power (page 82):
The scene of the couple from The Power:
That various characters are used as instruments shouldn’t imply that they know the full plan. Fortunio thinks the idea of a competition among the religions a ridiculous idea; all he knows is that he’s paid to do certain things, though these very tasks end up being necessary steps towards the apocalypse. One of the last scenes in the prequel comics is Fortunio confronting Krysta about what exactly she knows:
Though he doesn’t know the full plan, Balducci is still very much in the pay of these same shadowy forces. Southland, the movie, opens with Balducci welcoming Taverner as an old friend; he actually doesn’t know the man at all. He has been paid by Serpentine to bring about the meeting of Taverner and Boxer:
The last scene of the comics is Boxer overwhelmed by all the things he’s experienced, and going out to the beach where he collapses after injecting himself with Fluid Karma – which is not only a source of energy, but a potent drug as well. It’s in the morning after this that we see him in the movie’s opening, waking up on the beach. Fluid Karma is used in various military experiments on soldiers, in order to try to endow them with psychic abilities, and among the experimental subjects are Roland Taverner and Pilot Abilene. Those who inject themselves with Fluid Karma tend to experience time breaking down, or “bleeding”, and Boxer runs into this at the house where they first find baby Caleb, with the dead father of Caleb speaking to Boxer through a mirror. It’s this same phenomenon of bleeding that Taverner experiences in his opening scene, where his mirror reflection appears to be a few microseconds behind.
This is a movie where the apocalypse does not come about as an unexpected by-product of anything else, or by accident, but out of exact intent. Southland gets at the lunacy of nuclear madman theory and at the madness at the heart of the apocalyptic thinking now so prevalent among evangelicals in the U.S. The movie says the unsayable: that the destruction of the entire earth is actually part of a divine plan. We have it stated very well in the excellent study of the Book of Revelation and its modern misinterpretations, A History of the End of the World by Jonathan Kirsch:
Revelation achieved its first penetration into American politics with the unlikely rise of Ronald Reagan, first as governor of California and later as president of the United States. Raised in a church with roots that reached all the way back to the era of the Second Great Awakening – and reportedly an early reader of The Late Great Planet Earth [a book from 1970 which repurposed the Book of Revelation to predict the apocalypse in contemporary times] – Reagan was perhaps the first national figure outside of fundamentalist circles to openly and unapologetically affirm his belief in the imminent fulfillment of Bible prophecy.
“Apparently never in history have so many of the prophecies come true in such a relatively short time,” said Ronald Reagan, then serving as governor of California, in an interview that appeared in 1968 in Christian Life magazine. And he was even more forthcoming at a political dinner in Sacramento in 1971 when he commented on the significance of a recent coup in Libya: “That’s a sign that the day of Armageddon isn’t far off,” declared Reagan. “Everything’s falling into place. It can’t be long now.”
Reagan, in fact, was able to cite chapter and verse to support his prediction. The incident in Libya apparently put him in mind of a Sunday-school lesson on the apocalyptic prophecies of the Hebrew bible: “For the day is near, even the day of the Lord is near,” goes a passage in the book of Ezekiel. “Ethiopia, and Libya, and Lydia, and all the mingled people…shall fall with them by the sword.” And Reagan, apparently inspired by the sight of waiters igniting bowls of cherries jubilee in the darkened dining room, was mindful of God’s vow to bring down on Gog, the biblical enemy of Israel, “great hailstones, fire, and brimstone.” Reagan alluded to these passages during his table talk and concluded: “That must mean they’ll be destroyed by nuclear weapons.”
In Southland Tales, the only caveat to this armageddon being part of some larger divine cosmogony is that this plan seems to be entirely the design of a less than divine figure, the comic book dragon lady Serpentine. It’s a movie that plays like a parody of a conspiracy theory, with almost every character acting as a double agent for someone else, whether it be Zora, Krysta, and Fortunio acting on behalf of the Baron, or the members of U.S. Ident, the NSA subdivision that oversees the internet, that are actually Neo-Marxist moles. Southland ends with the revelation of double dealing at the very tippytop of the hierarchy, with Baron Von Westphalen declaring himself a Neo-Marxist: “Our mission, is to destroy capitalism…dethrone god…” The very same credo uttered by a Neo-Marxist in one of the comics:
The mohawked Neo-Marxist who says this line is the ubiquitous Hermosa, who also applies the religious tattoos to Boxer, and makes a silent and enigmatic appearance in the movie, conferring with Taverner during a break in the ride along:
Baron Von Westphalen is actually a relative of Karl Marx on his wife’s side3, so the fight in this movie which at first appears to be a conflict between the left and the right, the Neo-Marxists against the establishment, is actually between the Neo-Marxists versus the Marxists, or, if we take the Baron’s final words as sincere, between the Neo-Marxists and the Neo-Marxists. This is a massive conflict where both factions are on the same side, where the outcome has already been foretold by Krysta Now’s screenplay, all orchestrated by a single, sinister force behind the scenes. Serpentine has all the qualities of a conspiratorial figure, qualities which approach the level of magic, being able to travel seemingly everywhere and, though she wears an eye-catching outfit, is near invisible to everyone around her, who never notice her ubiquity. This is a movie marked by characters who we assume to have great power, whether it be Boxer Santaros, one of the biggest stars on the planet, Bobby Frost, vice presidential candidate, Nana Mae, deputy director of the NSA, Baron Von Westphalen, said to be the most powerful man in the world (described as the wizard, presumably because his inventions resemble something close to magic), General Simon Theory (nicknamed the Dungeon Master, presumably because he stick to subterranean locations and the sense that he’s the hidden power behind everything) – and yet all their power is for naught in the face of this larger plan. Again, we have another standard feature of conspiracy theory, where the most powerful individuals are apparently helpless pieces in a plot. Though all these figures help bring about apocalypse, the only one who actually gets what they want is Serpentine. Again, we have the destructive paradox involved in the planning of various kinds of warfare: what else did you expect to happen when this plan was put into effect?
Kelly confirms this view of what takes place, of Serpentine orchestrating everything, in Abraham Riesman’s “The ‘Southland Tales’ That Never End: An Interview With Richard Kelly”:
What’s Baron’s endgame?
Well, I mean, that’s part of the ending that I’d like to eventually restore. The Baron has been duped by Serpentine, and Serpentine is aware of the handshake and shutting existence down with the handshake. The Baron has dreams of floating over the apocalyptic landscape in his MegaZeppelin and ruling over humanity, and Bai Ling tricks him and shuts down all existence. That’s why she’s—there’s more of it in the Cannes cut.
Who in the movie wants to bring about the end of the world?
Bai Ling and Zelda Rubenstein. Katarina Kuntsler. Inga von Westphalen is aware of it, somewhat. But basically, Serpentine and Katarina hoodwink the Baron into shutting down all existence because the Baron is drunk with power and intends to destroy humanity and lord over humanity in his MegaZeppelin, so they decide it’s better to shut down all existence.
The cut of Southland that appeared at Cannes has footage which establishes this point strongly. Following the scene where Cyndi Pinziki threatens Vaughn Smallhouse (“Let me tell you something, Terri. When the shit hits the fan, it all smells the same”) and which closes with Krysta’s line, “I don’t know what it is you’ve done…but you have to promise me he won’t get hurt. He’s not the person you think he is”, we have this brief scene at the Vaughn Smallhouse estate between Katarina Kuntzler and Serpentine, about the Baron:
The world is merely an object being manipulated by him. Your Baron is drunk with power. The tidal generator is driving everyone mad. And this madness, this religion of chaos will not abate, until the end of all things.
Today the world ends.
KUNTZLER nods and mouths a silent “yes”.
After the Baron’s line “Our mission is to destroy capitalism…”, we also have this:
Our mission is to destroy capitalism…dethrone god…
Officer Roland Taverner. That’s who you want.
We cut to the TAVERNERS shaking hands in the ice cream truck, the one in the sweatshirt pointing a gun to his head. We go back to the zeppelin.
He is the one who can dethrone god.
BARON is puzzled. Though he usually knows everything, he wasn’t notified of something.
Mother…he wasn’t supposed to go through the rift. The car was supposed to be on auto-pilot!
INGA VON WESTPHALEN is impassive.
This is the way the world ends…not with a whimper, but with a bang.
She places her hands together.
Both of these scenes, as well the other deleted scenes from the Cannes version mentioned here, are in the following compilation of clips on youtube, “Southland Tales Deleted Scenes”:
Southland tips its hat a few times to Philip K. Dick, it shares common obsessions with the late author’s work, and I find some of its DNA in Dick’s novel, A Maze of Death. In that book, (I think the SPOILERS tag needs to go here, if you want to remain unsurprised by Maze‘s final twist) a group of space colonists are trapped on a ship stranded near a dead star, as a result of an accident years ago. They pass their time by creating virtual worlds they can wander about in. The worlds are a consensus effort of the various passengers, the religion a synthesis of their beliefs, consisting of four divinities – the Mentafacturer, the Intercessor, the Walker-on-Earth, and the Form Destroyer. After all these years, the ship passengers despise their fellows, and they end up murdering each other on the virtual world. Inevitably, the world collapses and the Form Destroyer, their death god, overwhelms everything. The passengers are outwardly sane, yet secretly mad, and there is a secret, unacknowledged madness to not just the planning of nuclear war, but all war planning. Southland Tales is often about illusions that are suddenly real, and the anticipation of war is the expectation of both an illusion of heroism and physical genius, as well as a reality so cruel and sordid that it pierces all veils. It is supposedly a baptism, in which you will be re-born into something greater, and it is a secret lake into which you descend, and never come up for air. This is the veiled lunacy at the heart of Southland Tales, and here too, a Form Destroyer prevails.
Dick was obsessed with theology, and his books benefit and suffer from this, with his fascinating plots often metaphors for religious ideas, and these plots in turn trapping their characters like flies in amber, the entire book stiff with reflection on a particular idea, rather than focusing the reader’s interest page by page. We might get some sense of his obsession from the story related in the film Waking Life, told by the Pinball Playing Man (Richard Linklater) to the Main Character (Wiley Wiggins). I am grateful to the transcript from the site Waking Life, which offers transcripts by James Skemp to all the scenes featuring the complex and in-depth conversations of the movie, including “Trapped in a Dream”:
I’m gonna tell you about a dream I once had. I know that’s, when someone says that, then usually you’re in for a very boring next few minutes, and you might be, but it sounds like, you know, what else are you going to do, right? Anyway, I read this essay by Philip K. Dick [“If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others”, I believe, from The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick].
What, you read it in your dream?
No, no. I read it before the dream. It was the preamble to the dream. It was about that book, um Flow My Tears the Policeman Said. You know that one?
Uh, yeah yeah, he won an award for that one.
Right, right. That’s the one he wrote really fast. It just like flowed right out of him. He felt he was sort of channeling it, or something. But anyway, about four years after it was published, he was at this party, and he met this woman who had the same name as the woman character in the book. And she had a boyfriend with the same name as the boyfriend character in the book, and she was having an affair with this guy, the chief of police, and he had the same name as the chief of police in his book. So she’s telling him all of this stuff from her life, and everything she’s saying is right out of his book. So that’s totally freaking him out, but, what can he do?
And then shortly after that, he was going to mail a letter, and he saw this kind of, um, you know, dangerous, shady looking guy standing by his car, but instead of avoiding him, which he says he would have usually done, he just walked right up to him and said, “Can I help you?” And the guy said, “Yeah. I, I ran out of gas.” So he pulls out his wallet, and he hands him some money, which he says he never would have done, and then he gets home and thinks, wait a second, this guy, you know, he can’t get to a gas station, he’s out of gas. So he gets back in his car, he goes and finds the guy, takes him to the gas station, and as he’s pulling up at the gas station, he realizes, “Hey, this is in my book too. This exact station, this exact guy. Everything.”
So this whole episode is kind of creepy, right? And he’s telling his priest about it, you know, describing how he wrote this book, and then four years later all these things happened to him. And as he’s telling it to him, the priest says, “That’s the Book of Acts. You’re describing the Book of Acts.” And he’s like, “I’ve never read the Book of Acts.” So he, you know, goes home and reads the Book of Acts, and it’s like uncanny. Even the characters’ names are the same as in the Bible. And the Book of Acts takes place in 50 A.D., when it was written, supposedly. So Philip K. Dick had this theory that time was an illusion and that we were all actually in 50 A.D., and the reason he had written this book was that he had somehow momentarily punctured through this illusion, this veil of time, and what he had seen there was what was going on in the Book of Acts.
And he was really into Gnosticism, and this idea that this demiurge, or demon, had created this illusion of time to make us forget that Christ was about to return, and the kingdom of God was about to arrive. And that we’re all in 50 A.D., and there’s someone trying to make us forget that God is imminent. And that’s what time is. That’s what all of history is. It’s just this kind of continuous, you know, daydream, or distraction.
Southland is afflicted with the opposite problem, as the subject is very much religion, but without anything like the depth of knowledge or obsession which Dick brought to his work. The apocalypse feels like an appendage to the often very funny skits, and it’s perhaps relevant that Kelly worked on a script for the apocalyptic fantasy, Knowing, before moving on to Southland. I turn to Eliot Kalan, Dan McCoy, and Stuart Wellington of The Flophouse for a summary of this film. From “Episode #44: Knowing”:
Nicolas Cage is a single father, widower- [DAN: Just trying to make it in the world.] Yeah. His son acquires from a time capsule a piece of paper buried fifty years ago, with lots of random numbers on it, written by a creepy girl in the 1950s. It soon turns out, however, that Nicolas Cage discovers by applying his eyes and bourbon-
By applying whiskey to paper.
That these numbers match up to disasters or catastrophes, or things where lots of people died, where they say the date and the body count.
He finds out that it’s also predicting other disasters, he finds out that the numbers match up to the longitude and the lattitude that he just happens to be on one day and a plane crashes. And people are stumbling out of the plane on fire and he can’t save any of them, because he’s incompetent.
And he can’t dispel CGI flames.
Yeah, exactly. To make a long story short, because the movie was way too long [STUART: Super long.] He meets up with the daughter who wrote these numbers-
-played by Rose Byrne of 28 Weeks Later, and the hit show Damages.
She looks like, I think you put it really well, Eliot, when you say she seemed like an achievable Selma Hayek.
Was I the one who said that?
Or I said it.
One of us said something like that.
If you were at a bar, and you were hitting on Selma Hayek, and she turned you down, you’d be like, “OK, Rose Byrne’ll do.” It’d be like a cabana bar.
My wife saw her on the subway once, so she seemed attainable.
I saw Hope Davis on the subway once.
Anyway, he meets up with Rose Byrne, who’s also a single parent with a daughter-
Oh, that’s convenient, because it’s like puzzle pieces.
-the daughter and the son-
It’s like Step by Step.
It’s just like Step by Step, except without the wacky older cousin…who lives in a van?
Or The Brady Bunch, which is more appropriate.
Except less of them.
Yeah, or more well known.
Well, Step by Step is basically The Brady Bunch. Anyway, I’m glad we made that point. It turns out the son and the daughter have both been hearing whispers, from mysterious beings, and disasters happen and disasters happen, and it turns out there’s going to be a big solar flare that’s going to wipe out all life on earth. Mysterious beings turn out to be alien angels that take the son and the daughter up into the stars, and the earth is destroyed in a fireball.
And then we see the son and daughter on an idyllic planet, where there’s also a tree, representing the garden of Eden and Tree of Knowledge.
Not the ending one would expect at the beginning of the movie, based on the beginning of the movie.
Of some note is that the son of that movie, the only male survivor of humanity is named Caleb; and, of course, the Messiah baby in The Power script who appears to develop into Roland Taverner is also named Caleb. But is Knowing any good?
I really didn’t like this movie, it was long and boring, it was shot kinda cool, and the music was nuts.
He was stealing from everything.
Yeah, it was crazy. It was boring, it was way too fucking long, and it was not exciting, so don’t watch it. Although some of the explosions were cool. The CGI flame was awesome.
I agree. This was a bad, bad movie. And I didn’t enjoy it, it was slow and boring and long, with Stuart. Although there were some scenes that looked pretty. That were shot nicely.
Oh, that moose that was on fire? The CGI moose that was on fire?
Knowing, despite its CGI moose on fire, takes very seriously what Southland plays for laughs, and given the success of Knowing and its barely veiled religious references, the question that might be asked of the audience and its makers is: how seriously do you take this? The apocalypse of Knowing is not presented as a disaster, or a sick joke, but a good, just, and necessary thing. Southland‘s satire of apocalyptic thinking isn’t mockery of straw men and women, but the ribbing of a sensibility that is very much in existence. The counter-argument is that the perspective isn’t actually prevalent, that the belief is unimportant, that politicians who profess such belief don’t actually believe it – and Southland‘s counterargument in turn is, suppose they do?
Though it makes this counterargument, the apocalyptic plotline which comes to the fore in the last hour is Southland‘s weakest aspect. The characters of this movie are broad types, a necessity for the kind of comedy they’re doing, yet broad types should still have details and nuances that make them inextricably part of a profession, time, or region. No such knowledge is displayed of employees of the NSA or the military. Southern politicos are probably the most interesting politicians in the United States, but Bobby Frost is a rote combination of a Texas accent and religious fanaticism. Fanatics, as Flannery O’Connor has taught us over many stories, are not dull, and as Orson Welles said, quoting Renoir, “Everyone has his reasons.”4 This last problem overlaps with the movie’s insufficient depth when it comes to religious thought, a flaw that marks too many movies now, a result of the perhaps commendable development of a less ardently religious culture in the United States. The movies are characterized by knowing religious belief seemingly only from the outside, as a lifelong agnostic. Somehow this sensibility marks the movies of the believers as well the skeptics, whether it be Knowing or 2012: they have the feel of chintzy, sentimental “Yours in Christ” greetings by a printing shop that makes most of its money with dirty postcards.
Southland Tales might be connected with Knowing, but even more with two other movies about the apocalypse, End of Days and Kiss Me Deadly. Jericho Cane is the name of the cop that Boxer Santaros plays in the script, The Power, and though his last name is never dropped in the movie, it’s the credited name for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s former cop in End of Days. The ridiculousness of The Power script featured in the comic book is very much the ridiculousness of End of Days, as two streetwise former New York cops go up against Satan himself. In The Power, Serpentine tests whether the baby Caleb is the messiah by having a snake swallow him, while End of Days opens with a woman giving birth, after which it’s determined that the baby is the fated one, the woman who will in turn give birth to Satan, by feeding her snake venom, and seeing that the poison has no effect on her. The finale of End of Days takes place among the roaring crowds and celebrations of the millenium; the finale of Southland Tales is set among the hoopla of the fourth of July. Mysterious figures in The Power come to take the baby Caleb, and mysterious figures (who turn out to be Knights of the Holy See) come to kill the woman who’ll serve as the vessel for the devil’s spawn. Krysta of Southland Tales is a woman who is afflicted with psychic premonitions of the future, and the woman at the center of Days suffers from visions as well, and her name is Christine.
There’s another Christine in Kiss Me Deadly, the woman in the trenchcoat who Mike Hammer picks up, and who starts the case off. Krysta Now wears the same style trenchcoat at the Smallhouse estate, Boxer’s car when he races off from the estate is Mike Hammer’s car, and the backview shots of him racing away are just like the over the backview shots of Hammer in his car at the beginning of Kiss Me. The very beginning of the movie plays at the opening of Southland when Krysta wakes up, and its ending plays on the zepplin’s screens near the movie’s closing. These two moments supplement other appearances in the comics and prequel script. “What are you watching?” Boxer asks Krysta in the script (page 110). “Kiss Me Deadly,” she says. “I think it’s based on the Lita Ford song [“Kiss Me Deadly” by Lita Ford].” In the comic, Boxer asks, “Who does Ralph Meeker play?” Krysta: “He plays Mike Hammer. The hard boiled private eye. This is your favorite film. You based the character of Jericho Cane on Mike Hammer.” The doctor who explains to Boxer what happened in the desert is Soberin Ex, and the chief villain of Deadly is Dr. Soberin. “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot and “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost recur in Southland, whild the center of Deadly‘s mystery is “Remember” by Christina Rossetti, “the darkness and corruption leave”, hinting at the destructive capacity of a new weapon. As Deadly moves towards its end, Hammer’s secretary Velda falls apart. She’s deeply in love with Hammer, who doesn’t return anything like her affection, and this might parallel Starla’s obsession with Jericho, and her erotic hunger for him is like the immediate and fervent hunger every woman in Deadly has for Hammer. That movie ends with a kind of small apocalypse, with a small box containing a strange and devastating energy, an antecedent for the unrestrained apocalypse of Southland. The horrific revelation of Santaros comes in a box as well – the sealed container with his double’s body. There are no martyrs in Deadly, but there are in Southland, with Boxer surrendering himself to whatever comes next, and there’s a martyr in End of Days as well. In the finale, the bodily host of Satan is destroyed, which leads him to take over Jericho Cane, and Cane defeats Satan by sacrificing himself.
A compilation of moments from the movie and comic of Southland Tales which intersect with Kiss Me Deadly.
Another movie which references Kiss Me Deadly.
Southland Tales is a movie obsessed with movies and pop culture, and where Kelly displays his aptitude, where he shows a real familiarity, is in the area of performers and the entertainment industry, and it’s this world which dominates Southland‘s first half. All the performers have an exaggerated sense of their self-importance, they’re solipsistic, and they see everything in terms of the entertainment world they live in. They may be broad types like every other character in the movie, but Kelly has the speech and manner down pat. Vaughn Smallhouse, the political advisor to Vice Presidential nominee Bobby Frost, asks Krysta Now if she’s the mysterious figure that’s been leaking information against them: “Are you Deep Throat II?” Krysta: “I’m not in that movie.” Smallhouse picks up a tape that might damage their political reputation from the Neo-Marxist porno director Cyndi Pinziki. “Is this the only copy?” Smallhouse asks her. Pinziki: “I’m not in distribution.” All the artists, even the Neo-Marxists, are hustlers. “I write poetry. I’m developing my own pop album, reality television show, clothing line, jewelry line, perfume and energy drink,” Krysta says in the prequel script. “So… you guys are spoken word poets now?” asks Roland of Dion and Dream in the prequel script. “We’ve released four folk albums. We’re publishing a memoir of free associative thought… and we’re in final negotiations to bring our tantric dance revue to Broadway,” Dream answers. “You know, I still don’t see why facial prosthetics are necessary,” says Zora of the disguises that Dion and Dream sport for the faked shooting. “I’ve told you a million times, genius,” says Dream. “Dion and I are cultural icons. We cannot afford to get recognized by the camera.” The movie’s characters cannot see outside themselves, and this is something shared by the protagonists of Maze of Death, as one of them laments: “Everyone in this colony had a dream. Maybe that’s what was wrong with us, he thought. We have been lodged too deeply in our respective dream worlds. We don’t seem able to come out of them; that’s why we can’t function as a group.”
This is a movie about the movies themselves, and the way movies offer a hypervivid imitation of life which derives its power from its hypervivid resemblance to life, but which we end up preferring to life itself. A good example of this might be found in “A Drug Dealer Threatened To Kill Me Because Of A Feature Script” by Molly McAleer5, where McAleer’s association with a name TV network is a kind of magic, though she doesn’t like the work or think it’s any good. She only plays the part of a successful TV writer, and her dealer buys more fully into this image than anyone else, thinking she has the cachet to produce a script written by one of his jailmates:
At the time I was working for a premium cable network that had a comedy website that was supposed to be their answer to Funny Or Die/ Huffington Post. Their vision was v. unclear and we were all getting paid a crazy amount of money for writing shitty sketches then hiring decent comedians to perform them for us. I would be stoned pretty much every day at that office and never treated it like a real job because it was so obvious that the whole thing was going to fall apart soon. But being young and naïve and again, new to the city and life, basically, I’d tell people, “Oh yeah, I work at [insert premium channel’s name here.]” and they’d be all like, “Wow, you’re so impressive,” and I’d be like, “I know.”
During one of our chats, Greenie asked me what I did for a living and I told him what I told everyone. It didn’t even occur to me that I might not want to tell my drug dealer where I work and what I do. As soon as he heard the flashy name, he started to tell me about his friend who was in prison for murder (and how he was totally innocent) who had written a movie about his days as a martial artist. He started to pitch the project, basically. I listened politely because like, why not, and then he told me he was going to get me the script to read and give notes on. I explained that I had limited experience with any kind of screenwriting and absolutely no pull at my company. I wasn’t even in the feature department. I wasn’t even in any department, really.
Boxer Santaros rides along with Roland Taverner to learn how to be a cop, though Taverner isn’t a cop at all, but has learned how to talk and act like a cop from Dion and Dream. The feuding couple are simply a reprise of a scene from Krysta Now’s script. The script is a piece of prophecy by Krysta Now, but it also resembles how movies are self-actualization, the screenplay written and movie made because of characters the actors want to be, and which the audience wants to pretend to be as well. Krysta Now blends into Dr. Muriel Fox, who is both Krysta and not Krysta, an oceanography expert who moonlights at a strip club. Santaros is going to be playing the part of Jericho Cane, but he’s already started being Jericho Cane. “Who are you?” asks Roland Taverner in the maze, and Boxer gives this as his name. “Are you ready to become Jericho Cane?” asks the tattoo artist before applying the religious tats. Southland is about how movies approach the real, for the frisson of reality, and then pull back into the realm of fantasy – except Southland doesn’t. In what might be the most powerful effect in the comic, a young couple at 1400 Wanito Place are killed in various ways, over and over again in variations of fantasy, hallucination, and reality. In the script, Jericho Cane and his partner show up at a domestic disturbance, Rick and Tawna fighting. Cane, just like Bart Bookman, shoots Rick dead. A bunch of black Suburbans then show up, carrying a security detail acting on behalf of the Baron, and they raze the house with gunfire which kills Tawna. Jericho and Muriel Fox go to a McDonald’s where they meet a cashier, Shawna, who’s Tawna’s identical twin. Again, the black Suburbans show up, and flail the place with gunfire, and Shawna is killed – and it’s as if Tawna dies again. Boxer and Krysta visit the actual Rick and Tawna for research, but Rick is already dead, having overdosed months ago. Boxer goes to the bathroom and sees a vision of Rick from months before, a channel opened up between the past and the present.
When Rick discovers he’s dead in the future, he overdoses as Boxer looks on. Dion and Dream reprise the couple’s lives, and they’re shot dead by Bart Bookman. We’re suddenly outside of the world of performance, but we also never leave it; earlier, Dream scolded Zora, “Just because it’s loud doesn’t mean it’s funny,” and now Zora listens in as they’re shot dead, giving the counter-critique: “Now that was loud. And that was funny.”
Dion and Dream are two people playing, while Bart Bookman is very very real, an actual cop whereas Boxer is reproducing an imitation of an imitation. The question of the sincerity of the performance, whether something said is false or actual feeling underlies one of the best scenes in the movie, a moment in the ridealong. The scene is memorable, without any of the flop sweat usually produced through self-importance or attention getting provocation:
We assume that both BOXER and ROLAND start out from prepared parts, prepared by others – BOXER reads his initial questions from index cards, while ROLAND wears a very visible earpiece.
Roland, let me ask you…what goes through your head when you sit behind the wheel? Cruising the streets. Digesting humanity. Is it a process of elimination? Each car that passes. The person inside…are they a mere suspect? Or, are we all innocents, our chariots mere chess pieces waiting to be thrown from the gridlock and into the arms of the wolves?
Well, I say we act like concerned citizens. We look at all the people, all the cars. We look for any unusual and erratic behaviour, speed changes and lane changes, see what’s safe.
Yeah, but don’t you think emotions come into play? Judgement calls. Affected. By whatever mood you’re in on that particular day. Emotional responses based on your past events.
Well, there is one thing.
I knew it. I knew it. Tell me. Be honest.
To be honest…we’re just looking out for the niggers.
There is a very long pause here. BOXER takes off his sunglasses, and gives ROLAND a look of loathing that he’s finding it difficult to suppress.
Yeah. They’re everywhere.
ROLAND has turned to BOXER when he says this, and he gives an ugly laugh.
BOXER smiles, and though part of him seems to want to let this go, he’s not quite ready to let this go.
No, I’m not joking.
BOXER’s smile leaves his face.
I’m just fucking with you, man.
ROLAND gives a small laugh, and BOXER gives a laugh that’s obviously false, contemptuous in its falseness.
That’s a funny joke.
These moments preface the movie’s ending, where we once again wonder: are you for real, or are you playing? This very question was there about Ronald Reagan’s belief in the apocalypse, and again Kirsch’s End of the World addresses it well:
“We may be the generation that sees Armageddon,” he [Reagan] told televangelist Jim Bakker in 1980. “You know, I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if we’re the generation that’s going to see that come about,” he told a Jewish lobbyist in 1983. “I don’t know if you’ve noted any of those prophecies lately, but believe me, they certainly described the times we’re going through.”
Such notions were wholly unremarkable in the fundamentalist churches of America – and they reached an even wider audience through the radio and television broadcasts of various apocalyptic preachers, both famous and obscure – but they were deeply unnerving in the mind and mouth of a man who is accompanied wherever he goes by the launch codes of the American nuclear arsenal. If the president of the United States is a true believer who is convinced that “the day of Armageddon isn’t far off,” would he not be tempted to take it upon himself to rain fire and brimstone down on the latest enemy to be seen as the Antichrist?
That troubling question was raised by network correspondent Marvin Kalb during the televised debates of the 1984 presidential campaign, Nancy Reagan could be heard to mutter “Oh no!” in the background, but the president himself was prepared with a reasonable and even statesmanlike answer. Reagan conceded that he had a “philosophical” interest in the biblical prophecies about the battle of Armageddon, and he argued that “a number of theologians” had suggested that “the prophecies are coming together that portend that.” But he concluded that it was impossible to know whether Armageddon “is a thousand years away or day after tomorrow.” And he insisted that he “never seriously warned and said we must plan according to Armageddon.”
We expect Southland Tales to finally veer away from the apocalypse, but no, all these silly games are leading up to an end of the world that won’t be blinked away. The link between the real and the unreal, life and movie life, is there in the relation between Taverner and Santaros. The latter is a movie star, on whom we bestow the qualities of the divine and the sacred6 In the prequel comics, there’s a gathering of Neo-Marxists who wave giant glow sticks powered by Fluid Karma, and the crowd of light forms Jericho’s face – pagan worship and modern idolatry at once. This idolatry surfaces again with Starla’s worship, literal worship, of Jericho Cane. We expect this actor to carry all the qualities of an action movie character, the embodiment of will, but the actor who plays these parts is the exact opposite. Boxer tells us his exact character in a brief confession when he’s first picked up by Balducci in the desert: “I am a pragmatic prevaricator with a propensity for oratorical seniority, which is too pleonastical to be expeditiously assimilated by any of your unequivocal verities.” Boxer is a pragmatic prevaricator – when he’s confronted with a crisis, like the killing of Dion and Dream, he runs away. He’s constantly putting a seemingly random loud emphasis on words – a propensity for oratorical seniority – which he does to give himself authority, but instead conveys the entirely opposite impression, that he has no idea what he’s talking about7. We are given a lead-up to Santaros confronting his secrets in the zeppelin, with some standard motifs of action movies – it’s scored to Beethoven’s Ninth just like Die Hard, Santaros picks out a conveniently located gun – all of which leads up to Santaros drawing his gun on General Simon Theory, only to be easily outdrawn by the general. We’re surprised by this, but only because Boxer plays action heros, and is played by an action star (Dwayne Johnson), while Simon Theory is played by Kevin Smith – in terms of the characters themselves, it’s not surprising at all. Simon Theory is a military veteran with decades of experience, and Boxer Santaros is an actor.
This character calls to my mind Hal Incandenza’s essay in Infinite Jest on contemporary television heroes of the time, Frank Furillo of the police drama Hill Street Blues and Steve McGarrett of Hawaii 5-0 (this section can be found on google books, page 103 – however for this excerpt, I am grateful for the transcript on the tumblr My Infinite Jest: A Record of the Bookmarks I Made While Reading Infinite Jest, “3rd November Y.A.D.U.”):
What kind of hero comes after McGarrett’s Irishized modern cowboy, the lone man of action riding lonely herd in paradise? Furillo’s is a whole different kind of loneliness. The ‘post’-modern here was a heroic part of the herd, responsible for all of what he is part of, responsible to everyone, his lonely face as placid under pressure as a cow’s face. The jut-jawed hero of action (‘Hawaii Five-0’) becomes the mild-eyed hero of reaction (‘Hill Street Blues,’ a decade later).
And, as we have observed thus far in our class, we, as a North American audience, have favored the more Stoic, corporate hero of reactive probity ever since, some might be led to argue ‘trapped’ in the reactive moral ambiguity of ‘post-’ and ‘post-post’-modern culture.
But what comes next? What North American hero can hope to succeed the placid Frank? We await, I predict, the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines.
Though Santaros has all the marks of the divine, a figure that is distinct and unique, in the movie’s theology he’s not the messiah, but only the guardian – Taverner is the messiah, though a seemingly powerless one. That Taverner is the messiah of this world makes sense to me, because I think he’s very much its creator, and this world is one entirely of fantasy, the last vision of a man on the verge of death. The movie might be likened to “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, or “A Torture by Hope” by Villiers De L’Isle-Adam, though the theme has been reprised in countless other movies and stories which cannot be named without spoiling their twists. We have here another similarity to Maze of Death (though this effect is often used in fiction), where the characters do not simply cease consciousness when killed in their virtual world, but persist in imagining an existence:
A terrific _bang_ boomed at her eardrums; deafened, she moved a step back and then she felt great pain in her chest; she felt her lungs die from the great, painful shock of it. The scene around her became dull, the light faded and she saw only darkness. Seth Morley, she tried to say, but no sound came out. And yet she heard noise; she heard something huge and far off, chugging violently into the darkness.
She was alone.
The clear, white light appeared. She yearned toward it, and something helped propel her. Are you angry at me? she thought, meaning the enormous presence that throbbed. She could still hear the throbbing, but it was no longer meant for her; it would throb on throughout eternity because it was beyond time, outside of time, never having been in time. And–there was no space present, either; everything appeared two-dimensional and squeezed together, like robust but crude figures drawn by a child or by some primitive man. Bright colorful figures, but absolutely flat. . . and touching.
“Mors stupebit et natura,” she said aloud. “Cum resurget creatura, judicanti responsura.” Again the throbbing lessened. It has forgiven me, she said to herself. It is letting the Intercessor carry me to the right light.
Toward the clear, white light she floated, still uttering from time to time pious Latin phrases. The pain in her chest had gone now entirely and she felt no weight; her body had ceased to consume both time and space.
Wheee, she thought. This is marvelous.
Throb, throb, went the Central Presence, but no longer for her; it throbbed for others, now.
The Day of the Final Audit had come for her–had come and now had passed. She had been judged and the judgment was favorable. She experienced utter, absolute joy. And continued, like a moth among novas, to flutter upward toward the proper light.
This imaginative experience is described eloquently in a passage which attempts, however, to convey only the sense of the brief life of a literary character ending with the closing of the book, by a writer focused intently on books only as books. The passage would be the very last sentences of Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov:
Rings of blurred colors circled around him, reminding him briefly of a childhood picture in a frightening book about triumphant vegetables whirling faster and faster around a nightshirted boy trying desperately to awake from the iridescent dizziness of dream life. Its ultimate vision was the incandescence of a book or a box grown completely transparent and hollow. This is, I believe, it: not the crude anguish of physical death but the incomparable pangs of the mysterious mental maneuver needed to pass from one state of being to another. Easy, you know, does it, son.
I do not arrive at this possibility capriciously, and I don’t think it’s anything like a kludge, but one that fits well with all the other aspects of the movie. One might observe certain recurrent notes, the way an obsessive thought occurs in variations like a dream. The woman controlling everything is Serpentine. Fluid Karma is mined from the Serpent Trench, which has the shape of a serpent. The secret project where Santaros and Taverner are dropped into the time rift has the peculiar code name Serpentine Dream Theory. There is the strange fact that there is nothing inherent in the project which might make one associate it with dreams, yet the word is there in the title; there is the strange fact that the project title is made up of three character names: Serpentine (the woman who controls it all) Dream (the partner of Dion) Theory (General Simon Theory). The bill which would stop surveillance of the internet is Bill 69, and both Santaros and Taverner are sent sixty nine minutes into the future. The juvenile associations with this number are not accidental. This is a movie filled with dualities, feeding off of each other. The dream consciousness of a man dying from a suicide attempt reacts to that man’s actions: the mirrored selves of Roland Taverner, inextricably bound in a handshake, with which this movie ends. The Neo-Marxists are fighting the Baron, himself a Neo-Marxist. It’s a kind of ouroboros, the classic image of a snake swallowing its own tail.
We are told in the comic that Pilot Abilene and Roland Taverner are best friends who serve together in Iraq. By accident, Taverner throws a grenade, which hits Abilene. It’s an event that has a horrific impact on Abilene, but on Taverner as well. “Fallujah,” Abilene narrates in the comic. “My face haunted his dreams. It was an accident. They call it friendly fire…and Private Taverner could not forgive himself.”
I think Abilene is killed by this, and afterwards, Taverner commits suicide in grief. All the events of the movie – the expanding war, the mining of Fluid Karma as an alternative energy, the creation of the time rift as a result of this mining – are an outgrowth of the event at the movie’s beginning, a nuclear bomb going off in Abilene, Texas. Though Pilot Abilene and Taverner are now stateside, are best friends, and very near each other in Venice Beach, they make no attempt to meet. In the comic, Taverner finds a letter from Abilene, a letter which is also featured in the movie.
What is “the other side”? Both men are now stateside. There is the other curiousity about Pilot Abilene in the movie – though he remains always in one location, the energy depot of Utopia 3, his narration suggests he’s all seeing and all knowing, an omniscient narrator who can travel to whatever point in the world he wishes to. This is intertwined with the other strange point of Abilene, that he doesn’t interact with any of the other characters in the movie, except one, and that’s Martin Kefauver: the trigger, the executioner, the man who’ll bring this dream to an end. In the movie’s most bravura sequence (and its best known), Abilene sings along to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” while a group of Marilyn Monroesque women in nurse outfits dance alongside him – the clip is, of course, on youtube: “The Killers – I’ve Got Soul But I’m Not A Soldier”. The choice of song is not arbitrary, but the one that Abilene was listening to when hit by the grenade. The women dance with electric happiness, while Abilene moves with sullen anger, his mood becoming more and more grim as the song goes along. The sequence captures better than so many other attempts the contagious happiness of popular music, but also the sense of isolation when one feels outside the audience. Abilene is at the center of the song – he’s singing it – and at the same time he’s apart. This is not the usual rock star pose of indifference at the orgy, but of a man surrounded by the physicality of life who’s already kissed life away.
This is a movie where Taverner has given himself a companion in this dream life, Boxer Santaros, the way some people find comfort in the images of celebrities – yet Santaros, a pragmatic prevaricator, offers no comfort at all. The lives of the men mirror each other: both are together in the desert maze and both enter the rift in time. They come together for the drive along, then are set apart, though their fates are intertwined again by the movie’s end. On the zeppelin, Santaros finally discovers the most horrific secret: his double is actually dead, a burnt out corpse. It’s after this point that the theme of suicide shows up again and again, among different characters. On seeing the body, Boxer’s first response is: “I don’t understand. I’ve never considered committing suicide. I’m a pimp. And pimps don’t commit suicide.” Boxer interrogates Serpentine, and the most crucial point for him is that the dead body is not the result of him committing suicide:
You made sure to have no one go through the time rift with me. Then you hit the SUV self destruct trigger. By remote. Which means I didn’t kill myself.
You’re a pimp. Pimps don’t commit suicide.
You got that right.
There is two very major, very relevant differences here between the Cannes cut and the final release; in that cut, when Boxer discovers his double in the zeppelin, he’s also told that he most definitely committed suicide:
I’m a pimp. And pimps: don’t commit suicide.
BOXER gives a wink to Dr. Kuntzler.
We don’t know what would happen if two identical human souls, and the vessels that they traveled in, were to come into immediate close contact with one another. Your quick, decisive decision to commit suicide was a sign to us: that humankind cannot go on with two, identical human souls walking the face of the earth.
Humankind owes you a great debt…for your sacrifice.
And in that cut, after all of Boxer’s denials, when we come to the moment where Boxer points a gun to his head, the Baron states explicitly that Santaros did commit suicide:
BOXER fires the gun into the air.
EVACUATE THE ATRIUM! MOVE TO THE REAR OF THE MEGAZEPPELIN!
MEGAZEPPELIN COMPUTER VOICE
No. Everybody…go back to your seats.
Or I’ll kill myself. And I swear to gooooood…I’ll do it.
Now, Mr. Santaros, put down the gun. You killed yourself once already, there’s no need to be redundant.
Jericho Cane’s initials, as one character points out, are the same as that of a well-known martyr. Jericho Cane wishes to martyr himself, and a suicide that’s the result of Taverner’s kind of grief is a kind of martyrdom. What is the last name of Jericho’s character? Cane, the soundalike for the man who killed his own brother – Taverner killed his best friend and fellow soldier, Pilot Abilene. At the movie’s end, Jericho Cane ends up on the zeppelin’s stage, points a gun at his head, and says the following line: “This is all in my head. And I can pull the trigger now, and this whole nightmare will be over.” We then move to the floating ice cream truck, where the Taverner doubles confront each other. Taverner began the movie looking at his reflection, and the film ends with him looking at his reflection again. One double points a gun at the other, and then at his own head. His left eye is smashed in from the accident, just like the left eye of the double of Santaros. All along, Taverner has suffered from amnesia, and now it stops. “Do you remember Fallujah?” one double asks the other. “I remember everything,” the other answers. Then one double says to the other, the one holding the gun to its head, “I forgive you” several times.
Both TAVERNERS are in the floating ice cream truck, their hands locked tight in a clasp.
TAVERNER #1 (SWEAT SHIRT TAVERNER)
You have to let go!
TAVERNER #2 (UPU2 TAVERNER)
You have to let me go!
TAVERNER #1 picks gun up off floor, points it at TAVERNER #2.
The truck will fall and we’ll both die!
TAVERNER #1 points gun at his own head.
Let me go or I’ll pull the fucking trigger.
No you won’t.
I swear to god, I will!
No, you won’t!
We go outside, to a sweeping shot of Los Angeles, alongside a skyscraper with various apartments on fire. We go back inside the blimp.
Officer Roland Taverner, that’s who you want.
We return to inside the ice cream truck.
Don’t you remember, Ronald?
TAVERNER #2 shakes his head, no.
Do you remember Fallujah?
I remember everything.
TAVERNER #1 collapses for a moment in grief.
The zeppelin explodes from the missile, and we return back inside the ice cream truck. TAVERNER #1 is back to pointing a gun at TAVERNER #2.
It wasn’t our fault.
TAVERNER #1 points the gun at his own head.
It wasn’t our fault.
I forgive you.
I forgive you.
Friendly fire, friendly fire.
I forgive you, I forgive you.
TAVERNER #1 lets the gun fall to the floor.
I forgive you, I forgive you.
PILOT ABILENE (V.O.)
Revelation twenty five: and god wiped away the tears, so the new messiah could see out to the new Jerusalem. His name was Officer Roland Taverner, of Hermosa Beach, California. My best friend. He is a pimp. And. Pimps. Don’t. Commit. Suicide.
What exactly is he forgiving him for? I take the scene as a parallel of what happens with Santaros – he is both dead and alive, knows that he is dead, yet some consciousness persists on, and in denial of what took place. The dream life Taverner forgives the Taverner that pulled the trigger and ended it all. In the comic, Rick “bleeds” into the future only to discover he’s dead. We see in his first scene the mirror reflection of Taverner a few microseconds behind the actual Taverner – a side effect of this time bleeding, but also like the microseconds before physical death finally consumes this last bit of consciousness. We even have Taverner point the gun at his own head and watch as the reflection follows suit, with Taverner even firing the gun – though away and into the ground.
Various characters quote T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”, but they also frequently quote “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost; this movie is about a chosen side path before inevitable death. So, this is a vision incited by the destruction of Abilene (the death of Pilot Abilene), which brings about the split of the Taverners (the dying physical Taverner and this dream life Taverner), a split which takes place in a maze shaped like Texas which is believed to be a reference to the destruction of Abilene and a signal from an outside intelligence: again, the death of Abilene shapes all this. Pilot Abilene is given the movie’s last line, and gives Taverner an epitaph: “His name was Officer Roland Taverner of Hermosa Beach, California. My best friend. He is a pimp. And pimps don’t commit suicide.” Though I think the film touches here on a subject that is a more live wire than it suspects, this scene is keenly felt, and it makes the movie about one thing and nothing else. This is Roland Taverner’s apocalypse.
(Illustrations for the Southland Tales prequel trilogy by Brett Weldele; prequel trilogy comic books copyright Graphitti Designs, View Askew, and Darko Entertainment; all images from Southland Tales and End of Days copyright Universal Pictures; all images from Kiss Me Deadly copyright United Artists.)
(Though there are still other things that might be mentioned here, for the moment this post is long enough, and I’ll leave it as is.)
(On August 7, 2014, the notes on the Cannes cut were added. I give grateful thanks to those unnamed persons who let me see it. On August 8, 2014, some additional notes were made on Boxer’s suicide in the Cannes cut and on Taverner’s suicide in the last paragraph. On August 9th, the compilation of several of the deleted scenes from the Cannes version was uploaded to youtube and links to this compilation were added to this post. On August 10, 2014, the dialogue between the Taverners at the end of the movie was added. On August 11th, the following additions were made: the excerpt where Boxer is told by doctors Ex and Kuntzler that he committed suicide; so was the excerpt from Waking Life on Philip K. Dick’s religious obsessions; the excerpt from Roland Taverner telling Boxer about his dream; and the section on the connections between this movie, End of Days, and Kiss Me Deadly. On August 21st, the sections on Jonathan Kirsch’s History of the End of the World and “A Drug Dealer Threatened To Kill Me Because Of A Feature Script” were added. On August 22nd, the introductory excerpt from Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control was added. On August 27th, the section on Hal Incandenza’s essay was added. On May 17, 2015, the gif of Kiss Me, Deadly and Southland Tales comparisons was added.)
1 From the prequel comic:
From the prequel script:
2 Thanks to “Southland Tales Breakdown & Analysis??” by TheStrangeVerse, an intersting though restricted examination of the movie, I found out that Jericho Cane is a reference to End of Days, where the Schwarzenegger protagonist carries the same name.
3 The lineage is succinctly described in the comic books, accompanied by the irony that this incredibly rich family, seemingly an exemplar of capitalism and repudiation of its name, owes its wealth entirely to military contracts with the state:
Q: There’s always that, for the viewer anyway, a kind of moral ambiguity about the characters in that, Quinlan…
Q: -although he’s sort of vile, he’s-
WELLES: Well, you know what Renoir said? He said everyone has his reasons. And that really sums it up. You know, there’s no villain who doesn’t have his reasons. The bigger the villain, the more interesting it becomes, the further you explain his villainy, not psychiatrically, not because mama didn’t love him…but because you humanize him. The more human you make the monster, the more interesting the story must be, it seems to me.
5 Though I cite a story from ThoughtCatalog which I consider to be very good, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up some of the controversy surrounding the service, as described in “Why 53 Writers Have Asked Thought Catalog To Remove Their Work” by Callie Beusman and “Thought Catalog Is Now a White Supremacist Publication” [archive link] by Rich Juzwiak.
7 This comes out most clearly in the beach house when Taverner and Santoro first meet, a transcript of which can be found at “Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales: The Beach House Scenes”.