Kelly Witmer / self portrait as Cindy Sherman # 10
Kelly Witmer / self portrait as Janine Antoni coddling herself
Kelly Witmer / self portrait as Bruce Nauman as a fountain
by Chris Randle
Most of the radical modernist ideas circulating in 1920s Russia, whether Alexandra Kollontai’s Soviet feminism or extreme forms of artistic abstraction, were snuffed out scant years later by Stalinist repressions. Eccentrism wilted from lack of interest. I came across the short-lived movement’s hyperactive manifesto last week. In the introduction to that republished edition, translator Marek Pytel writes that its original 1922 printing was limited to 1000 copies; many were destroyed in a house fire. The Eccentrists did find some temporary popularity, or at least notoriety: Pytel describes them “disrupting the performances of ‘academic’ theatres with whistles, rattles and catcalls…they astounded guest speakers rash enough to mention the words ‘sentiment’ or ’emotion’ by smashing every stick of furniture in the place.” Punk rock?
The basic Eccentrist thesis was that Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton represented the truest avant-garde yet seen. Slapstick’s physical impossibilities were a model for political aspiration. I imagine this got a lot of contemporary reactions akin to the early gnostic sect which believed that Cain was Christianity’s real martyr. One member of “the Factory of the Eccentric Actor” (FEKS) wrote: “life requires art that is hyperbolically crude, stupendous, nerve-wracking, openly utilitarian, mechanically-precise, momentary, rapid.” They openly urged “Americanization” of the theatre. The implication was that the masses will be their own vanguard, artistic or otherwise.
The central Eccentric text can be maddening reading – its authors were all young men (a couple still teenagers), and even by manifesto standards their rhetoric sometimes overheats. At one point they declare: “THE 200 VOLUMES OF GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM DO NOT OFFER THE EXPRESSIVITY OF ONE SOLE CIRCUS POSTER!!!” There are several citations of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a like-minded Italian Futurist whose aesthetic fixation on speed, violence and machinery soon led him to stridently support Mussolini. Not long after the FEKS manifesto was published, Marinetti argued that “imposition of [Italian empire] will be an act of faith-force, a defiant youthful improvisation, a work of art miraculously blossoming.”
But the Eccentrists didn’t turn totalitarian, perhaps because they were too playful for that. Their theoretical writings are remarkably sly and self-mocking; they charm rather than bellow. A typical slogan says: “Charlie’s bum is more precious to us than Eleonora Duse!” They exalted roller skates over ballet pumps, and declared themselves the children of jazz bands, slang, torch singers, cinema, dance crazes and cheap pulp thrillers – might as well throw Marx and Coca-Cola in too. They once distributed their manifesto by randomly tossing it from a moving car. They’re very easy to like.
Although that original Eccentrist document had little immediate influence, several of its main authors continued experimenting with these ideas in the nascent Soviet film industry. Most of their ’20s productions are lost, and I haven’t watched any of the survivors. But I know that affection for mass culture became a broader intellectual trend over the period. Socialist utopias were explored in literally hundreds of SF novels and “Red Pinkerton” detective thrillers (lone Soviet blockbuster Aelita, Queen of Mars posited extraterrestrial revolution amidst Constructivist sets). Shostakovich wrote the score for one Eccentric-directed picture. Eisenstein shook hands with Mickey Mouse. You could place all this near the beginning of a narrative about shifting notions of cultural taste, one extending onwards to Warhol and camp and music-critic “poptimism.”
If that story doesn’t quite have a happy ending, at least it’s a fruitfully confusing one. Whereas the Soviet experiment congealed into a lethal bureaucracy, for art and so much else, after one chaotic decade. You can see it coming onscreen. From what I’ve read, the Eccentrists’ later films were identifiably Marxist, but in tense, ambivalent and even subversive ways that would soon be absolutely verboten. In 1927 director Abram Room, who knew the Eccentrics Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, made Bed and Sofa. It’s about a revolutionary young menage-a-trois who try to love one another as communists before realizing they can’t. The USSR’s film industry devolved into grotesque spectacles like 1949’s The Fall of Berlin, a WWII epic I stared at for three hours in a class last year; in one scene Stalin tells the lovelorn hero “don’t be afraid of poetry.”
There’s a DC Comics outfit called the Doom Patrol, a trashy superhero team that the Eccentrists probably would’ve dug. Each member was a freakish misfit, maimed, traumatized or alienated from society during the same event that gave them bizarre powers. The characters were relaunched multiple times until a new creative team took over in the late ’80s and infected the series with psychedelia, conspiracism and copious Burroughs.
Their new arch-foes were the Brotherhood of Dada, supervillains with a grudge against “consensus reality,” whose totally irrational schemes included transforming Paris into a giant artwork and mounting a surreal presidential campaign via the lysergic resonance of Albert Hofmann’s bicycle. The Brotherhood’s creator has said that he felt forced to kill them off when they became more popular than his ostensible heroes. I mention all this because it sounds like the logic that Stalin applied to actual artistic eccentrics. In 1949 Leonid Trauberg was fired as director of the studio Lenfilm. His offense? Being “a leader of cosmopolitanism.”
by Carl Wilson
“Three men enter. Two-thirds of the audience leaves.”
That was the outcome of the cage match Saturday night between three legends of Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene and listeners at the palatial Riverrun Centre in Guelph, Ont., home of an annual jazz festival that’s extremely adventurous for one in a town of its size. Amid its atmosphere of almost ostentatious open-mindedness, they discovered limits.
The trio was the back half of a two-part headlining show in the festival. Before them came Sangam, another trio featuring the venerable Charles Lloyd, titanic Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain and hot younger drummer Eric Harland. Their sound ambled joyfully and contemplatively, sometimes goofily, through the fields of post-bop, “world music,” free jazz and more, with a strong sideline in esoteric spirituality, all to the rapture of the Guelph crowd.
Then Mitchell, Lewis and Abrams took the stage, looking respectively like a shrunken-suited character out of Samuel Beckett, a genial grandpa and a tough old cuss. You could imagine them together in rockers on the retirement-home porch. Sax, trombone/laptop and piano were their props. Stage positions were taken. An intake of breath. And then an incredible mass of noise.
The teenagers beside me began erupting in uncontrollable giggles. This made it hard to concentrate and find a way into the thundercloud of music that had just advanced at us. But I tried to sympathize: The thundercloud was what their laughter was defending against. I’ve been listening to this kind of atonal, free, chaotic whateverthehell for a quarter-century and I was having a tough time. What were they supposed to do? (They’d clearly been dragged along by the one friend who was listening with steady concentration. When they finally convinced him to leave with them, he rose and made a quick bow toward the stage, fingers steepled in prayerful respect. I wanted to shake his 17-year-old hand.)
I wondered if the programmers had known what they were in for. Usually music this far “out” is at a church hall, an art gallery or some sort of loft space. You’re not in a lush theatre with a state-of-the-art sound system. The result was that there was none of the usual diffusion of intensity by space. I was in a balcony not far from the speakers. At times I thought I might have a panic attack. With rare exceptions the performance was all about timbre and dynamics. Notes, chords or rhythms were rare visitors.
In other words, these three senior citizens were playing the kind of noise set you’d expect from bearded kids in a basement in Brooklyn. It was purist. It wasn’t humorous (except for a few of the sound effects Lewis generated from his Mac, I suppose). It did not have an arc that was building to an intensity, trying to “find the zone” as improvisers often say, because it started from there – as if these three men carry that zone around with them everywhere. Of course they’ve all played other kinds of music, but many audience members might not have guessed this. It was militant.
What it was militant about was, in a way, old-fashioned: It was modernist. It demanded the audience come on its terms. You had to decide whether this was music at all. You had to figure out for yourself, unaided, why anyone would consider it attractive. I had a couple of flashes of a joke Stephen Colbert has done a couple of times when John Zorn or Ken Vandermark have won grants or prizes, and he plays 30 seconds of skronk and starts grinning manically and snapping his fingers as if it were a swing tune.
When the remaining diehards had, defiantly, kept applauding for more, I considered calling it a night. But then Mitchell created a taut structure for the next improvisation – a harsh single note sustained, followed by silence, then again, and again. Abrams jitterbugged chromatic circuits around these poles, while Mitchell’s Mac generated complementary cumuli of static. Then he rose and picked up his trombone (I winced in anticipation of another existential workout), raised it to his lips – and put it down again, the encore falling dead after Mitchell’s stubborn conclusive note. I laughed with appreciation, but also relief.
At points, when the sound wasn’t driving down circuits of muscle and nerve that risked making me burst into tears, I thought it was a museum piece. I still think that if it had been three young guys doing it, it would have seemed absurdly retro. But from these three, who’d had to fight for their freedom on many levels and had built a practical and still-living artistic community on it, it moved me. Integrity trumped superficial artistic “progress.” Yet anger seemed the prevailing electromotive force. Did it have to do with the portentous date? The disappointments of Barack Obama? The yahoo pastor in Florida with his Koran and his lighter fluid? No, it seemed off, somehow, to consider this energy exactly political.
Maybe instead it had to do with the drunk driver who, not long before, had spun out in the rain and plowed into the back of the “jazz parade” that a genial Quebec oom-pah band had been leading from the festival tent downtown, and injured five people (none critically).
Or … not a protest, nor a mourning. No referential content at all. Perhaps it was instead a technique not that far from Sangam’s meditation-and-oneness concerns – a means of fully inhabiting a moment. Can you really let go of suffering, or do you turn on it and annihilate it? Think of shamans who reach higher planes not by dancing or chanting but by whipping themselves, even slashing themselves with knives, or returning from the forest starved and hungry. Not everything worth having comes gently. It is not always generous to be easy on people. You can ask a lot if you’re giving everything.
In the end, while not a lot of fun, it’s a concert I’ll remember, unlike most. It’s a memory burnt black and rain-battered and space-race (race-space) gold as a saxophone in a spotlight. In the “sonic eye” of my mind, it’s the colour of nothing but itself. Itself, and a mountain that can never truly be climbed.
by Margaux Williamson
(In a rush during the start of the Toronto International Film Festival, I decided to pick movies based on the names alone. Going over the first two days of programming, my eyes stopped at “!Women Art Revolution” and I investigated. The movie is from Lynn Hershman. Her 2007 film “Strange Culture”, a piece that documents a personal tragedy in artist Steve Kurtz’s life that led to an FBI investigation of his artwork, was one of my favourite things at a past Whitney Biennale. “Strange Culture” was one of the few things in the show that genuinely confused my sense of art, government and reality. Playing on a little tv in the corner of one of the galleries, it looked like an unassuming but well-developed portal out of the museum.
I was late getting to the theatre because I ran into a parade, the first sign of which was two women walking down the street with 4 legs, 1 torso, 2 heads and two enormous plush breasts protruding from their uni-shirt. “There go some balls”, I thought as they passed in front of my bicycle. I was late to the theatre but was ushered to my seat in the dark. After the screening, the director thanked artists featured in the movie who had also made it to the premiere – names, for the most part, that have been familiar to me since I was a teenager beginning to investigate art. The last shout-out was for the Guerrilla Girls. I was startled to see that they were sitting next to me. Two well-dressed women, in gaping-mouth gorilla masks, stood up and took a bow.)
This movie portal starts from the museum (most of the artists featured have found some success in the art world) but goes back in time, approximately 40 years, to when women could barely get into them. The movie is pieced together from footage shot in between.
As is true with most hopeful acts of defiance against enormous adversity, hearing these cultural workers talk with humour and self-awareness about their struggle to have a voice in the world is unavoidably moving. I specifically fell in love with Marcia Tucker, a curator I was unfamiliar with. She started The New Museum in 1977. Like the movie, she seemed a fountain of good things with very few blind spots. I was sad to eventually discover (in the duration of the movie) that I had learned of her too late – as she died in 2006. But I will look for her book, A Short Life of Trouble.
In the movie, a thesis develops. Lynn Hershman suggests that these past forty years (and counting) of feminist art creation have been dominated by performance, role-playing and persona because these are the activities necessary for creating new spaces and new ways to be – creating bigger (and less oppressive and less boring) spaces for women to live and work in.
An interesting moment comes when Janine Antoni, a performance artist from the younger generation, talked about an experience she had in graduate school. Her professor, Mira Schor, looked at her work and asked if she had ever heard of Anna Mendieta or Hannah Wilke or Carolee Schneemann. She hadn’t, so she went to the library to investigate. There, she found absolutely nothing on any of the artists. Eventually, when Mira Schor brought in her own personal catalogues and clippings from home, Janine Antoni looked through the work and thought “I am making the work of an earlier generation.”
It is a pleasurable idea, and not one I take for granted, to think that some art really needs to be in the world – that there is actually a great deal of order to the often random-seeming nature of art creation. It is interesting to think that if some art doesn’t find its rightful spot in the library, this art will continue to be made until it arrives there.
by Carl Wilson
Usually Toronto appears in movies dressed up as another specific city (frequently you will see New York patrol-squad cars parked on our street corners) or as generic Anytown, with specific geographic markers minimized, generally in American movies. (Torontoist’s Reel Toronto series has a good time pulling back the camouflage.) But sometimes it plays itself, in movies made by Torontonians such as Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg and, increasingly, even a few non-Torontonians.
I’m an easy touch for localism, my own or others’, fetishizing site-specific references in songs, in art, on TV shows. I’d be unlikely to watch the striving-for-sparkling CBC show Being Erica if it weren’t set in Toronto; I’ll always be grateful for Kids in the Hall. This applies less to films. Perhaps setting is so vital to a film that the stakes are too high. It’s as if movies don’t do justice to Toronto and Toronto can’t do justice to movies. Perhaps the city’s not the right scale for feature film?
Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) may never be surpassed as a Toronto film: It documents Toronto when it was in the throes of post-adolescence, changing from provincial centre to metropolis, from sheltered Toronto the Good to a punchier, punk-rock city of dirty diversity. But it does not do so only with its background scenery – it’s actually about that process, choosing CITY-TV (“CIVIC-TV” in the film) and its soft-core porn (“Baby Blue movies” in real life) as the fulcrum of the change; the station’s Moses Znaimer (as more WASPishly incarnated by James Woods) as its instigator and eventual victim; the transformation’s psychic content as seeming to come from Asia but actually from America; its general theoretical content as coming from Marshall McLuhan; and Debbie Harry as making it all sexier.
This is all pretty accurate. Also, sometimes Toronto does make you feel like your guts are collapsing.
My next-favourite (at least excluding total art films) is probably Monkey Warfare (2006), which might be flawed and fidgety, but seduces me anyway. Its story, which centres on biking, pot, age-inappropriate relationships and soured idealism, could easily have taken place in Vancouver, where director Reg Harkema comes from. He had recently moved here, but I think the film mainly needed to take place in Toronto because it relies on the performances of Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (RIP), a couple playing a couple (I’d say couples are unusually important in Toronto), in their and my own gentrifying (in both film and real life) neighbourhood of Parkdale.
There’s metafiction and self-satire (local film-and-theatre “power couple” plays “loser couple”) in these doublings. But it is also a matter of camera angle – the eye-level view, slightly tilted down, that preoccupies the camera seems true to this city’s visual field. We have more and more tall buildings but we have not physiologically adapted to the idea that they are there. Toronto also seems an apt setting for any film about inertia, especially compulsively lively inertia.
This year, there’s been an unusually large number of openly, even proudly Toronto-based films. I haven’t seen Bruce McDonald’s This Move is Broken or Sook Yin Lee’s Year of the Carnivore or Atom Egoyan’s Chloe (or upcoming TIFF movies like Trigger, in which Wright also stars). But the last two movies I’ve seen are Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a movie based on a manga set in Toronto by a local artist, but produced by Hollywood and made by British director Edgar Wright, and No Heart Feelings, a film made by a group of Torontonians and set here.
It needn’t matter that much that Scott Pilgrim is set in Toronto, as what dominates the production are the colourful comic-book and video-game effects that pop up on the screen. But the wryness of the movie depends on all the fantastical elements balancing off with the more drab, routine existence of its 20-something characters, who have bands that suck and live in little dark apartments where they make garlic bread for dinner. Wright was smart enough to realize Toronto could out-mundane just about any American city, at least any city that could simultaneously support a nightclub. The movie loves the city enough to make fun of it. It has the audacity to open with the words, “once upon a time in Toronto.”
The number of inside-Toronto-jokes may even have ankled it at the box-office – are Americans supposed to get why it’s funny that Ramona, the female romantic lead, is American (because, like her funky dyed hair, it’s part of what puts her out of Scott’s league)? The story takes place in winter, when any Canadian city is more itself (and less fun) than in the summer. Ramona has moved to Toronto looking for something mellower than her life in New York, but her (evil) ex-boyfriend told her it was “one of the great cities.” That boyfriend eventually follows to open a nightclub here, which is called Chaos, and reminds me strongly of another nightclub opened by a scenester New Yorker in Toronto, the late and unlamented Circa, which would equally have wished to describe itself as a “cathedral of cutting-edge taste.” A band is asked what they’re going to do for fun while in town, and the bass player says, “Fun? In Toronto?” This is funny because he’s a vegan from Montreal. When they’re going to rubberneck at a film shoot at Casa Loma, somebody says, “They shoot movies in Toronto?”
But ultimately Lee’s Palace, the defunct club Rockit, Honest Ed’s, Pizza Pizza and all the other landmarks are backdrops. The effect is not to have the movie set out an essay on Toronto – hell, Scott and Ramona blithely skip town out a magic door at the end – but to have Toronto altered just a little, forever after, by being used as a landscape for fantastic adventures. Next time I look down the Baldwin Steps, I can imagine a dumb skateboarding superhero being duped into doing a grinder down them to his doom. Next time I see a lousy band at Lee’s, I can envision someone headbutting the bassist so hard he explodes into a shower of toonies.
This is what the “telling our stories” trope of cultural nationalism gets wrong. Yeah, there is a hunger to have our lives, the places we live in, ratified in a sense by art: To have stories told that take place here sends the simple message that you can tell stories here. If you never hear stories about your place then you assume stories only come from elsewhere. But once that permission is clear you don’t have any obligation to “represent.” You have a mandate to transform.
This was the problem with a movie I really wanted to like better, No Heart Feelings, directed by Sarah Lazarovic, Geoff Morrison and Ryan J. Noth, which I saw at the Royal Theatre on College Street (it’s now playing at the Carlton). I’ve been leaving out of my survey a few set-in-Toronto works that friends have made lately, in part because I figure in them; I nearly have that issue with this movie: While none of the people who made it are my friends, they could easily be stunt doubles to my friends. Some friendly acquaintances show up in the backgrounds. I go the places the characters go and do a little too much of what they do.
So now I know what it’d be like to be an Upper West Sider watching a Woody Allen movie. I do not entirely recommend the sensation.
The film itself is a light cotton ball of partly improvised, mumblecore-style interactions, minor angst and sexy hangs that rolls pleasantly through the brainpan and leaves few threads behind. A couple of the actors (Rebecca Kohler, Steve Murray) are memorable, and several jokes. (At one point the characters, gathered at a cottage, are kidding around over dinner and someone says, “Didn’t you think that by now you’d be having serious intellectual dinner conversations? Are we even capable of talking about, like, politics?” “Perfectly capable,” another says, “but not interested.” Pause. Third character: “I once farted 12 times in a row.” Everybody laughs. “Was anyone else there?” “Yeah,” he says – “Jean Chretien.”)
Nothing much else happens at the cottage that we can’t predict. When characters in a movie about a city leave the city, it’s normally an opportunity for a transgressive turn, but this is a movie again about lively inertia, about people who are having trouble changing – nominally from youth to adulthood, but really from frivolity to substance. The movie doesn’t seem to have much to say about this problem (one guy makes art) except that one should try not to fall for the wrong people (which to be fair is about all Woody Allen movies often have to say).
This is in part because it is too preoccupied being a “love letter to Toronto,” specifically “our” Toronto of Kensington Market, College Street, bicycling, coffee shops, art openings, etc. After the initial wave of familiarity, the warmth becomes claustrophobic.
I do like little comedy-of-manners details the movie picks up on, in the particular ways Toronto life is shaped by bumping in to people on the street, or the dynamics of its yard sales and house parties. (Scott Pilgrim addresses the latter too). If it were as funny as prime Woody Allen, or the characters as engaging, it might get away with it more completely. Instead I start missing the escapist function of films – and realizing that for me any movie not set in Toronto is automatically more escapist than one that is, and more generally any emotional register is more escapist than everyday banter, and that a story that simply returns reality to you unaltered is not exactly a story, although it is a skill.
Next time I am at Ideal Coffee, I’ll remember the conversation in this movie about how it’s a place that can make you feel not cool enough to drink coffee, but that won’t alter the place much more than an iota. Where’s that shower of golden coins?
The question of privilege is hard to avoid – of what kind of cultural position might make dissatisfaction and self-satisfaction so hard to tell apart. But there are lots of middle-class movies in that zone. Maybe if I’d been Argentinian and seen it in Buenos Aires, or even Canadian and seen it in Kingston (it played festivals in both places), this wouldn’t bug me as much. But five years ago when a bunch of us were talking cheekily about “Torontopia,” the notion was something like this passage from Ivan Chtcheglov:
And you, forgotten, your memories ravaged by all the consternations of two hemispheres, stranded in the Red Cellars of Pali-Kao, without music and without geography, no longer setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. Now that’s finished. You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist.
The hacienda must be built.
All cities are geological; you cannot take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. We move within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives, allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. It must be sought in the magical locales of fairy tales and surrealist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, mammoth caverns, casino mirrors.
The hacienda was there to be built, the materials there to be found. Scott Pilgrim seemed to me to know that the casino mirrors can then become glittering lakes, or at least waterslides. It’s like Videodrome that way, although a much more cotton-candy version. No Heart Feelings casts its eye across the building materials, then sits down on them and has another beer. Come on, folks. Break’s over.
By Margaux Williamson
(My friend Ryan Kamstra, a poet and a musician, recently asked me if I could articulate why “Donny Darko” worked as a movie when “Southland Tales” didn’t. They are both poetic, intuitive and unlikely Hollywood science fiction narratives, set in the near past and near future respectively and grounded in the contemporary. They were both made by Richard Kelly.
A lot of people love “Donny Darko”. A lot of people have defended “Southland Tales”. It’s easy to understand why – “Southland Tales” is an unusual movie that seems to have been made with just enough hope to strain past private despair about America, the war, the end of the world and celebrity in order to try to say something meaningful about it all. It is the kind of movie that most people I know would want to make – if they were the kind of people who made Hollywood movies. All that being said – I bet Richard Kelly had wanted “Southland Tales” to touch more people than it managed to. I bet it was confusing why “Donny Darko” touched so many people when “Southland Tales” struggled to. This is how I understand my friend’s question.)
Donny Darko is a teenager who lives in a big white house. He is very smart and a little off – luckily his family is also very smart and a little off too. A tall bunny with a scary silver face, named Frank, communicates to Donny Darko in hallucinations. Frank often calls Donny Darko out of bed and Donny Darko, sleepwalking, follows him out of the house. Donny Darko often wakes up on the road or in a field or in a golf course. One morning, after waking up on a golf course, he returns home in his pajamas and learns that, in a freak accident, a jet engine fell from the sky and crashed into his bedroom. He was not killed because he was sleeping on the golf course.
Life continues. Life is the suburbs, the bus stop, the private school, the television and the Iowa landscape. There is the school bully, a dearth of good friends, a little girls’ dancing troupe, the national election and the town’s beloved motivation speaker who spreads his own brand of gobbledygook. And though it is hard to see where meaning is in this life, the whole movie has the feeling of a meaningful dream that you can’t quite remember – a suggestion that meaning is hidden everywhere, but we just can’t quite see it.
Frank’s visits increase as do coincidences in Donny Darko’s life. Donny Darko is not sure if he is a high-functioning schizophrenic or someone who has been chosen for a great mystical mission. We don’t know either.
“Donny Darko” simultaneously tells two mirror-image stories: one is of someone going over and over random events in their life until they seem to be full of meaning and etched in stone by god; the other is of someone going over and over random events in their life because their destiny was etched in stone by god and they want to stay on the right path. The very beautiful thing about Donnie Darko is that it is both. It is meaningless and aching with meaning. It is meaningful and heartbreakingly senseless.
And then there is “Southland Tales”.
Boxer Santaros (an action star with Republican ties) starts out with amnesia, a porn-star girlfriend, and a screenplay. We’re not sure how he got there, how long he has been in this relationship, or why he seems so untroubled by his amnesia. Though the back story isn’t clear, we are easily fascinated by Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) and his girlfriend Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). They are both a pleasure to watch. This situation is followed by time-warps, neo-marxists, poetic tag-teams of conservative presidential candidates, internet surveillance, riots, quantum soul-splitting and other catastrophes. Boxer Santaros doesn’t know what’s going on and neither do we.
Luckily there is an equally fascinating, gun-wielding and bible quoting narrator, Iraq war veteran Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake). Unfortunately, he is a poet.
Some movies don’t work at all – things are consistently off key or, say, barely present. But “Southland Tales” is a different kind of not-working. In “Southland Tales” – though scenes contain humour, powerful moods and dynamic tensions – it is often difficult to understand what is happening, what people’s intentions are or even just who is who. It is hard to grasp the full weight and meaning of the narrative elements – and there are A LOT of narrative elements.
Near the end of the movie, when Boxer Santaros and Madeline Frost Santaros (his wife played by Mandy Moore) are reunited, alone together, in a luxury suite – no words of explanation or exasperation are shared. Instead, Boxer Santaros quotes Jane’s Addiction’s cryptic song of apocalypse “Three Days”. Madeline Frost Santaros quotes it back to him.
It is exciting to hear Dwayne Johnson quoting Jane’s Addiction to Mandy Moore with brutal sincerity in their luxury suite. If you sliced “Southland Tales” into 16 sections, you might have 16 remarkable poems. It is enough that Dwayne Johnson is quoting Jane’s Addiction to Mandy Moore in a luxury suite – that is a brilliant art show. That is something to think about. It is also exciting to witness an Iraq war scarred Justin Timberlake intentionally misquote T.S. Eliot to us while swiveling a machine gun around a crowd of civilians in a near-future Venice Beach.
But it is a very difficult task to turn 16 remarkable poems into a narrative movie. It is a lot for the director to control and a lot for the audience to pay attention to. In our attempt to grasp the full meaning of the complicated narrative (we assume that the director has given the narrative equal importance) AND juggle the depth of our culture’s beloved poetry, we frequently loose grasp of both. We are not good jugglers. So the power of the narrative’s turning points frequently escape us.
We understand narrative as well as we understand poetry (which is to say – not very much). But we have a great sense of both. We want to take meaninglessness and turn it into meaning, and we want to take what the world tells us is meaning and turn it into meaninglessness. It takes a lot of skill and luck to stay in the middle of those things.
In the familiar world of “Donny Darko”, we hold onto to the humble discoveries of meaning as tightly as Donny Darko does – they appear so infrequently. As we linger in this world, we also eventually begin to take the meaningless things and turn them into meaning – just as Donny Darko is beginning to do. There is not much else to do here and we have some time to spare. We begin to make out a beautiful and crazy (or senseless and sad) pattern. It’s a poem that’s inseparable from a narrative, a narrative involving meaningless tragedy and time travel – my favourite kind.
Southland Tales, section 16: