Southland Tales: A Transmedia Experiment Gone Awry
Intro: A Glorious Train Wreck of Ambition & Imagination
It's been a bit over twelve years since I originally saw Southland Tales, and whenever I bring it up to people they generally have no idea what I'm talking about or have only vaguely heard of it. Which is a little bonkers considering the size and caliber of the cast, but also understandable because of how the film flopped. It's a hodgepodge of genres straining under an overwhelmingly eclectic cast of characters with too many subplots, and the theatrical release had just enough cut out of it to leave you wondering if you were missing essential elements.
It somehow manages to be both pretentious but also self mocking, which is a bit unnerving. We're bombarded with T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost references and an endless stream of painful religious allegories, and I never feel that we get the wink we need to take everything as tongue in cheek. A harsher review from In/Frame/Out describes it as fratboy Orwellian and well.........yeah. It sorta is. I think it's a bit smarter than that, but it wields its desire to be meaningful with no grace, making you question the tone throughout the film. When a chunk of your cast consists of SNL alums it becomes increasingly difficult to assume that a story narrated by an omnipresent Justin Timberlake is supposed to be taken as meaningful satire versus sophomoric humor.
It is, to be honest, a hot mess. And I still really love it.
Since it was released on home media in 2008 it has since grown a cult following, and with it a growing amount of interest in the story of its production. As of January 2021 a new Blu-ray will include the Cannes Film Festival cut, allowing fans to see a slightly more complete version without having to hunt down cut scenes on Youtube. Keep in mind that critics at the festival gave it mostly negative reviews, but there is fifteen minutes of restored footage which should fill in some of the small holes of the theatrical cut. I mean, Janeane Garofalo was technically in that movie, but for about just a few seconds in the theatrical cut. And while it makes sense why she was cut (her character, like so many others, is completely unnecessary), it creates a new and unique distraction. What could we possibly be missing from her scenes, and can they explain any more about the larger plot as a whole? The short answer is no, but that mystery alone added some mystique over the past fifteen years.
Southland Tales was a creature born from Kelly's initial scripting of a heist comedy into its still unfinished final form, mutating along the way like a strange Final Fantasy boss fight that unfortunately never made it to its final evolution. After the September 11 attacks, Kelly started to expand the work into a satire and commentary on the military-industrial complex, the Patriot Act, environmental collapse, media and pop culture trends, celebrity worship, and pretty much everything else floating in the zeitgeist at the time. As the scripts were rewritten they would also include a healthy dash of Kelly's own obsession with time travel and metaphysics as he attempted to infuse a Philip K. Dick tone to the work.
Somewhere towards the start though Kelly also had it in mind that this needed to become a transmedia experiment, and that's a subject that I don't see people talking about as much. If you're unfamiliar with the term it generally refers to a narrative that extends beyond multiple media forms. This doesn't simply mean a franchise that also happens to have a book, a movie, and a video game that may or may not interconnect. Instead it means a story or world that may require you to jump from one medium to another to experience the work as a whole, and if a part isn't required to understand the larger whole it generally still contains some sort of synchronization with the other narratives. Southland Tales' various pieces of media pretty much do require you to check them out (with the exception of the website), and this is probably the greatest misstep of the entire experiment. It's also a great example of the scope of vision that Kelly had back then, which I think was just too ambitious and hopeful for the media landscape at the time.
While our modern comic fueled landscape world had trailblazers such as 1998's Blade, 2002's Spider-Man, and 2005's Batman Begins to thank for gearing up the world for the larger upcoming explosion, a lot of fans might agree that 2008's double punch of Iron Man and Dark Knight definitely helped cement the domination of theaters with a new age of heroes. With the commencement of the Marvel Cinematic Universe we saw the cultural zeitgeist accepting nerdcentric media more and more until this form of interconnected blockbusters became a new norm. So while it may be safe to say that Southland Tales' 2007 theatrical release was on the cusp of riding that wave, it was still just a bit too early before it could truly cash in on any audience's potential desire to read a few additional books and check out an interactive website to get the whole story.
There are other factors that hindered it as well, as the writers strike at the time prevented the cast from truly promoting the film on late night shows. Combined with a limited release (something along the lines of 63 theaters), there simply just wasn't enough of a spotlight to drive viewers to the finished product. It technically still wasn't finished, as the Cannes version wasn't the final edit and was missing a lot of final work on special effects. To this day, Kelly explains that due to all of the various restrictions, even the new Cannes cut from Arrowhead video is nowhere near what he envisions as a final product. And I think a big part of that may be because of how he divided the work itself.
The story is divided into six chapters, with the first three of them in graphic novel form. As you watch the film, you note that it's split into the following chapters:
Part Four: Temptation Waits Part Five: Memory Gospel Part Six: Wave of Mutilation
So as a casual viewer you may start off confused and feeling like you're missing out. Which isn't a great way to start considering the actual storytelling style of the movie. It's endlessly cryptic, doubles down on its allusions (there's a looooot of Robert Frost in this sucker) and obscure references (I just now figured out that one of the characters is a direct descendant to the wife of Karl Marx, and this is like my sixth viewing recently), and it never takes the time to explain why certain characters are doing certain things. So assuming a viewer isn't immediately turned off by all of this, then they needed to discover the other chapters. Which are titled:
Part One: Two Roads Diverge (May 25, 2006) Part Two: Fingerprints (September 15, 2006) Part Three: The Mechanicals (January 31, 2007)
And hey, I've worked in comics retail since 1995. These suckers flew right by me and I would presume they were barely a blip on the comics market radar. Remember, it isn't like the movie itself was well marketed or widely released, so why would the comic market necessarily pick up on it? Eventually the three chapters would be combined into a single volume by Graphitti Designs, which again, sort of the beaten path of getting your comic out there considering Graphitti was known for its shirts and toys at the time and less so their books. Sure, they did produce a lot of really nice limited edition hardcovers and art books, but generally for a small niche market.
Much like the comic tie-ins, I don't believe the interactive website really ever caught on either. They made an attempt, but I don't believe the USIdent website had the allure or mystery that a viral campaign needs. It's unfortunate because a chunk of the film's commentary was on us losing personal freedoms and governmental control of the internet, so highlighting this with a Big Brother-esque website made a decent amount of sense.
David Kelly attempted to create a tapestry of ideas and commentary that couldn't be contained in just one medium. This alternate reality was just too big, and so he made the transmedia attempt to catch the bleed over as best as the then current markets and mediums could assist. Unfortunately none of it was truly viable at the time, so the film ended up shouldering the full burden. And keep in mind, this is before the era of Hobbits and Avengers where 150+ minute films became a norm. Kelly had to trim this sucker down, but as you view it you know full well that there's easily two or three seasons of a streaming series trapped in the theatrical cut.
I had been thinking about the film a lot in 2020, and then a couple months ago I saw that the 15th Anniversary not only brought the release of the Cannes cut but also talk of Kelly revisiting the world. So I thought it might be time to dust off the graphic novels and do a quick highlight on this property. We'll start with the comics, touch on the web presence, and end on the film itself in an attempt to review the merits and pitfalls of transmedia storytelling from a casual perspective.
And who knows, with the nature of the streaming wars these days and virtually everything being optioned, we might just see the rebirth of this odd little world full of mentally unhinged movie stars, grand apocalyptic overtures, existential delirium, madcap quantum mechanics, and drug infused Justin Timberlake musical numbers.