Modern Mabuse: On Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales

By Josh Cabrita

Forty minutes into his incendiary final film The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), Fritz Lang invents a formal manoeuvre that has been imitated ever since: the camera, framing for a two-shot, pulls back to reveal that the initial image, far from being the product of an omniscient perspective, is actually the live feed of a surveillance monitor, a frame within a frame. By giving potential narrative motivation to the placement of the camera at any particular moment in the film, the German master makes us aware of the fact that assuming one position will necessarily preclude the possibility of viewing from another. What matters most in Thousand Eyes is not determining the veracity of an event—as one moment’s truth, seen from a particular vantage, will often be revealed to be mere illusion when viewed from another—but examining the position of the character who judges. One could ask, “What happened?” or “Who is telling the truth?” but these questions lead headlong into frustration, presupposing an all-seeing person at the centre of the world—someone with a thousand eyes.

When we see the monitor, our reaction should be to reinterpret everything we’ve previously seen inside the film’s world—call it a semiotics of seeing. Consider the film’s most exemplary sequence, a faked murder scene at a hotel involving a potential femme fatale, an industrialist who loves her, and the woman’s presumptive husband, which Lang breaks into three realms of perception: the man and woman acting out a quarrel, pretending as if she were in peril; the industrialist in the next room, spying on their scene from behind a secret one-way mirror; and the surveillance cameras strewn everywhere in the hotel, broadcasting to monitors tucked away in the basement. Here, Lang once again proves he is one of the cinema’s great epistemologists: no longer capable of transcending the usual human limits of time and space, the author has instead become entrenched in the very world he surveys. From this immanent perspective, the director does not offer a definitive interpretation of events, prescribe clear moral judgements, or determine a single legitimate reaction. In Thousand Eyes, there is no single, neutral point of view from which all others can be judged. Depending on what perch one views a particular scene from, it might very well be appropriate to find it risible or terrible, amusing or horrific, moral or immoral. Our responses are determined by our vantage, and our vantage is itself variable, always shifting.

I suppose now is the time to justify why I thought it worthwhile to begin a piece on Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006), whose Cannes cut has recently been released for the first time on home video courtesy of Arrow, with this exegesis of Lang’s final film. It’s not just that both Thousand Eyes and Southland Tales involve obscure conspiracy plots, take place in highly controlled and policed societies (the post-Nazi German surveillance state and the post-Patriot Act US, respectively), or examine complex information and transportation systems. (J. Hoberman’s observation about Southland Tales—“every aspect of its convoluted narratives is monitored, scripted, and directed from within the movie”—could apply equally to Thousand Eyes.) Rather, it’s that both Kelly and Lang are seeking to test our phenomenological responses to the vast network of perches and vantages, cameras and screens, that make up the respective media regimes depicted in their films. The author, as God, is dead, and so we, just like the characters, have become responsible for the terms under which the realities of the movies are to be understood. In Thousand Eyes, our convictions are displaced because our means of viewing have been multiplied; but in Southland Tales, it is unclear whether we’re even called upon to form convictions about its characters in the first place. Speaking to Los Angeles police officer Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), movie star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) hints at the problem when he says, “Do you ever feel like there’s a thousand people locked inside of you, but it’s your memory that keeps them glued together, keeps all those people from fighting one another? Maybe in the end that’s all we have: memory, gospel.”

What Boxer neglects to mention here, of course, is that he has lost his memory—and so, it seems, has Southland Tales itself, which is already in its fourth chapter at the time it begins. (The previous three are contained in a graphic novel that was released alongside the film, but whatever is in there can’t be said to be part of the film’s consciousness.) Even those characters who supposedly have their mental faculties fully intact—the Republican representatives seeking re-election, the members of the neo-Marxist resistance, or Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn), a Mabusean figure who guides the actions of both adversaries—act and speak in ways that can’t be accounted for by the various social milieux that constitute the film’s dystopian near-future Los Angeles. The reason for these widespread behavioural anomalies, the film informs us, is that the rotation of the Earth is slowing down by a rate of .000000006 miles per hour per day, damaging the minds of those living in a US that was rapidly transformed into a totalitarian state following a nuclear incident in Abilene, Texas. The outer world (the Earth) and the inner world (the self) are collapsing at one and the same time.

Around the 50-minute mark of the Cannes cut, all of the aforementioned factions are brought together in (shades of Lang) a fake murder scene staged by two disguised members of the neo-Marxist movement, Dion and Dream (Wood Harris and Amy Poehler). The plan, inasmuch as I can reconstruct its logic, is something like the following: Dion and Dream, pretending to be a newlywed couple, will improvise a domestic disturbance, which will be checked out by Roland Taverner—who has actually been kidnapped and replaced by his doppelganger Ronald Taverner, an ally of the neo-Marxists—and Santaros, who is on a ride-along as research for his new movie, The Power (which prophetically relates what will come to pass in Southland Tales). Ronald will then pretend to murder his confederates, with the object of putting Santaros—whose father-in-law is the Republican VP candidate in the upcoming election—in a compromising position and thus sabotaging the Republican ticket. But when another cop (Jon Lovitz) unexpectedly interferes, the staged homicide becomes an actual homicide. The scene ends as Ronald dazedly asks the other cop, “Who am I?” The response: “None of your business.”

Consider it a mark of Kelly’s achievement (certainly, even those who despise the film will admit that it is an achievement of some sort) that, nearly 15 years after Southland Tales’ disastrous premiere, it’s still difficult to know how one stands in relation to convoluted scenes like this one. I myself have viewed the film four times over the last couple of years, and no two viewings have ever been the same: what might seem unnecessarily cruel or vulgar on one occasion would be poignant or cutting on another; what I found haunting one time might be trivial the next. The only other film I can think of made since Southland Tales’ release that is also practically impossible to find one’s footing with, whose terms of engagement can’t be supplied by any established system of belief, is Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018)—and it is hardly coincidental that that deliberately bloated, ugly, and cantankerous work also can’t seem to be adequately explained without invoking something approaching the entire history of socioeconomic relations over the last quarter century and its impact on modern popular media.

Indeed, many critics and scholars have responded to the challenge of Southland Tales and Ready Player One by inadvertently turning these films into pieces of theatre (to borrow a concept from art critic Michael Fried), in the sense that they have effaced all distance between the situation surrounding the film and the actual film itself. From this standpoint, everything counts—the artwork, basically superfluous, only works insofar as it guides the spectator away from its own objecthood and toward the broader context it’s intervening in (i.e., just about anything). This desire to pull back so as to take into account every possible thing impinging upon a work such as this is, if not always useful, at the very least understandable. Faced with something that resists the usual vocabularies we use to discuss not only mainstream blockbusters, but also any kind of movie, avant-garde or otherwise, we try to explain what factors could have possibly led to the coming into existence of this. I don’t think it’s incidental that Steven Shaviro, whose Post-Cinematic Affect contains perhaps the most renowned treatise on Kelly’s film, declares his intent at the outset of that book to be to “develop an account of what it feels like to live in the early twenty-first century.” That seems to be just about the only way to explain what makes Kelly’s film so difficult to discuss as a movie.

With all that said, the weird thing is that nothing about Southland Tales, at least prima facie, disrupts the basic parameters or common grammar of classical continuity filmmaking. Even in this storyworld where surveillance cameras, handheld devices, and turret viewfinders have become ubiquitous, Kelly does not ostentatiously disrupt the linkages between shots: if anything, the proliferation of these technologies only serves to tighten the material connections that take us from one space, character, and event to another. Where Lang’s mid-century tech grinded and strained to process Thousand Eyes’ excess of narrative information, Kelly’s film slides and surfs with the effortlessness and relentlessness of a computer, tracking the whereabouts and relations of all the figures that make up this narrative’s dizzyingly intricate network. Then, once all of these vectors have been traced, the movie ends—as if breaking down in exasperation.

While it still makes sense to compare the formal logic of Lang’s and Kelly’s films in these kinds of mechanistic terms, what separates Southland Tales from Thousand Eyes is not only that we don’t know what is happening and what is true, but also that we no longer even know who it’s happening to. (There are no more “I”s, only people performing “I.”) Compare the murder sequences in Thousand Eyes and Southland Tales: in the Lang film, we can speak of “the industrialist’s point of view,” and know why his vantage point leads to him jumping through the mirror to halt what he takes to be a murder attempt. In Southland Tales, conversely, Kelly’s conflation of actor and character, of the movie’s world and our own, enables us to deny the reality of the characters entirely and to take up their plight from a perspective exterior to the world of the film. Who’s to say that the improvising couple are Dion and Dream and not just Wood Harris and Amy Poehler, and that their deaths, when seen in this way, are not just some practical joke?

This distinction has everything to do with what I previously referred to as a “semiotics of seeing.” In the Lang, even if there isn’t a single “correct” point of view, there is at least some ground to stand on: reactions one could and even ought to expect from the characters, given our loose but still tacit understanding of them. With Kelly’s film, in which everyone behaves randomly, each viewer must find their own footing to locate value in the exercise (or simply reject the whole debacle outright). Situations and formal cues that could once determine an acceptable range of audience reactions—reactions that were themselves predicated upon the legibility of characters and a collective understanding of how one should interpret their behaviour—no longer hold sway. We are all on our own, adrift. To bring the film back into the realm of communicability, then, it is necessary to experience Southland Tales as theatre—an event rather than a narrative, in which we can say that it’s the Rock we’re watching rather than Boxer Santaros, Seann William Scott rather than Roland or Ronald Taverner, Justin Timberlake rather than Pvt. Abilene, half the cast of ’90s-era Saturday Night Live rather than Dion, Dream, or sundry other empty vessels that flit by during the film’s 160 minutes.

By so strenuously constructing an alternate universe and then proceeding to dissolve all separation between the movie and the occasion of our viewing it, by denying the movie’s coherence as a world separate from us, Southland Tales proposes nothing short of a negation of art—and Kelly knows it. If Southland Tales is thus worthy of being called “post-cinematic,” it’s not because it takes up some of the aesthetic strategies of such “non-cinematic” forms as music videos (viz. Timberlake’s showstopping, ludicrous, and/or heartrending lip-sync of the Killers’ “All These Things I’ve Done”), nor because of the extratextual factors that are nominally inextricable from the film itself (the allure of its wildly mismatched stars, the little-read graphic-novel companion, etc.). Rather, it’s because these elements forcefully urge us to take Southland Tales as theatre, as a means for us to reflect on the confluence of things that brought this UFO to be. But if Kelly’s whatsit is to be taken as more than a provocation, more than the sum of its various curiosities, it will be because of how it challenges us to reinvest in our belief in its fiction—to find renewed power in the conventions of classical storytelling even as it knows it can no longer control or even invite a certain range of acceptable responses.

This is the most remarkable aspect of Southland Tales: much like the amnesiac who has no choice but to recreate herself at every moment, the viewer who tries to watch Southland Tales as a movie will be made to confront the perspectival nature of their judgements. We may no longer have the means to determine who is rational and who is mad, who is a prophet and who is a poser, what does and what does not constitute a revelation, but that does not necessarily mean we cannot, on the basis of how something presents itself to us in a given instance, form some conviction about it, even if that judgement cannot hold for all times in all places. As Boxer Santaros and his fellow unfortunates go about their lives already knowing that they’ve been scripted, that everything they do is already foreshadowed in The Power, Kelly creates a genuine sense of tragedy not from what happens, but from how his non-people choose to interpret and accept what happens. It’s not unclear that our own position is much different.