Upsides and downsides

[Note: I am really sick right now. So for added humor, imagine me saying all of this with a stuffed-up nose and sore throat.]

Part of being a film critic (or whatever it is I am here) is reevaluating your own opinions. Because none of us exist in critical vacuums, so of course we’re constantly exposing ourselves to the critical discourses surrounding one movie or another. And we factor in these arguments as we reshuffle our thoughts, and… well, what I’m trying to say is that the art of criticism is complicated as fuck, and I’m still learning it. And since I’ve written recently about two movies – Inception and Southland Tales – one of which I liked and the other of which I disliked, I want to look at the flip sides of my opinions. Both of these movies are important, I believe, when you’re looking at 21st century American cinema thus far. They both have sundry strengths and beauties, yet both are significantly flawed. So here’s the other side of the story.

With regard to Inception, I wrote, “Nolan one-ups just about all [dream-centered movies] by manipulating the paradoxes, the irrational events, and the conflation of the symbolic and literal that are the stuff of dreams, all to enrich his action-packed, emotion-based story.” This is probably the weakest claim in that entire review, because Nolan doesn’t really have the same hold on actual dream logic that makes movies like Eraserhead or Paprika so enticing. He does, however, have an incredibly strong hold on his own inorganic, sometimes arbitrary, but always fun conceits. Inception is made out of rigid, rational science fiction (cue the word “Kubrickian”) rather than the free-wheeling, unhinged fantasy/horror of, well, dreams. It’s about embattled interior states being realized as unstable cityscapes, yes, but only in accordance with Nolan’s disciplined plot structure and ultramodern design aesthetic – and this goes right along with my complaint that “the performances sometimes feel cramped by the density of the script.” Nolan’s neo-noir vision is so fully in control here that neither the characters’ personalities nor their dreams get any breathing room.

None of this, however, prevents the movie from being twisty, action-packed, cerebral, and fun. But Nolan’s virtuosity leaves little room for idiosyncrasy. This also takes its toll on the film’s psychological aspects; the Cobb/Mal conflict is a great hook that bypasses the onslaught of narrative curveballs, but it feels more by-the-numbers than, say, Leonard and Natalie’s compelling interplay in Memento. And despite all of Cillian Murphy’s acting talent, beauty, and blue eyes, the inner turmoil of the Fischer dynasty felt more like a placeholder or a template than a real, lived-in father/son relationship. It was only in the movie to be manipulated, and it shows. Thankfully, what Inception lacks in terms of spontaneity or humanity it makes up for with cool ingenuity. I don’t regret the morning-after enthusiasm of my review; I still maintain that Inception is the best “Borgesian action movie” out there, and I suggest that you describe it as such whenever possible. But I do want to counterbalance that nerdy zeal with some weeks-later critical honesty.

Similarly, I want to balance out my pessimism about Southland Tales by pointing out its hyperactive, muddled glints of genius. No matter what else I say about it, I insist: Southland Tales is, all in all, a bad movie. But it’s bad in a fascinating, explosive, catastrophic, occasionally insightful way. It’s bad in such a way that I feel like I need to keep writing about it. I was recently glancing through an old issue of Film Comment (November/December 2009, to be specific) and I found an article entitled “All Fall Down: Thinking inside Richard Kelly’s ‘Box'” by Nathan Lee. Much of it deals with The Box, which I haven’t seen, but Lee touches several times on Southland Tales and, I think, he takes the right approach in defending it:

That’s the funny thing about Southland Tales, and the reason I no longer care about its many haters: what I admire in the movie doesn’t run counter to accusations of crap acting, unintelligibility, pretentiousness, shameless pastiche, overweening ambition, etc., but alongside them. For it’s precisely everything awkward, ill-formed, garish, tawdry, and clichéd about Southland Tales that enables it to so brilliantly embody, and thus parody, its moment. Less Lynchian than Tashlinesque, at once diagnostic and symptomatic, Southland Tales is the Showgirls of D-list celebrity sci-fi satire.

I don’t know if I’d say that Southland Tales does anything “so brilliantly,” but I’ll confess that in the film’s dystopian framework, frenetic pacing, and ensemble of self-concerned would-be superstars, you can distinguish traces of a scathing, self-conscious attack on Hollywood and the Bush administration. But saying that Southland Tales is scathing or self-conscious gives Kelly far too much credit, especially given how much of the movie he spends dwelling on Southland Tales‘ supposed profundity. I love many pieces of this movie, like how brashly it posits its Orwellian setting and how it wields some of its stars in unconventional, if miscalculated, ways. While watching it, I quickly realized that Southland Tales was exactly the kind of movie I would’ve dreamt up when I was 14, and I can still appreciate that now.

But so much of the movie is sunk by the flourishes of Kelly’s outsized ego and by his refusal to extend even the slightest olive branch to his audience. Because by the film’s climax, Kelly’s sci-fi twists and turns are about as arbitrary as Nolan’s dream rules, but they’re not followed as consistently or to nearly as much effect. Southland Tales is a mess, and while it may be a gorgeous mess, it’s also a self-cannibalizing, gorgeous mess. It’s successful as a paean to junk culture, but unsuccessful as sociopolitical commentary. I definitely recommend at least one viewing if you’re at all curious, and don’t worry about expecting too much. Because “too much” is exactly what Southland Tales has to offer.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Upsides and downsides

  1. I felt the same way about Inception, which is why it struck me as technically near-perfect, but not really great overall. For a movie that’s got a sticky emotional relationship at its core, I wasn’t really sold on that relationship. Granted, Mal is a projection rather than a person, and by Cobb’s own admission she’s not as complex as she should be, but then why base the movie around her relationship?

    Partly I blame DiCaprio. He’s a fine actor, but he still looks like he’s about seventeen years old, and I just can’t ever take him seriously when he plays the role of an adult. In Inception, given that he’s supposed to be a hyper-adult from his time in Limbo, I just couldn’t find him believable. This was the same problem I had with Shutter Island, another movie that would have been much better with a different lead.

    Southland Tales I haven’t seen yet, though I keep meaning to.

  2. Southland Tales is a fascinating disastor to me. I apoligise for it like I apoligize for Kelly in general (I like how you put it, he’s never really concerned with his audience). It is more of a dream world than Inception, which protrays dreams as easily pliable, cold and professional business establishments.

    Meanwhile, DiCaprio, gotta love him, grows some goatee and puts on his Serious Face,

  3. It’s a nice exercise to go back and reflect on your own reviews, and I applaud you for taking the time to do it. I wish I had time to do the same for all my reviews, but I’ve learned to live with my nagging doubts about whether I’ve given the film a fair shake or not. I see the job of a film reviewer (as opposed to, say, a film historian) as to hit hard and move on to the next assignment. As a non-academic critic, usually you’re giving your honest preliminary impression of the work, and most of the time that’s not going to change significantly: good films rarely turn into bad films or vice versa. As an essayist, you’ll want to go deeper, and spend weeks or months thinking about the same film and teasing out every implication.

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