Southland Tales: A Transmedia Experiment Gone Awry
Part I: The Prequel Saga
Originally published in three smaller parts starting in May of 2006 with the final chapter being released in January of 2007, the prequel saga arrived far too late for the Cannes release of the film on May 21st of 2006. It probably would also have been a safe bet that the majority of Cannes reviewers wouldn't have bothered with the prequels in the first place, meaning that viewers were still missing a hefty chunk of story. About 311 pages to be exact.
As the film saw a limited theatrical release on November 14, 2007, the prequels did have over a year to spread in the comics market, but with the limited theatrical release also came limited marketing. As mentioned in the previous installment, even the actors didn't really have an opportunity to push the film on the late night show circuit due to the writers strike at the time. And while I can't be 100% sure of this at the moment, Graphitti Designs solicitations usually lived in the back of the Previews (the catalog for the only major distributor of comics in North America at the time), so it's probably safe to assume that the offerings were nestled close to where all the t-shirt and toys were offered instead of with other books. That may not seem too relevant but trust me, solicitation placement can help make or break sales at times.
The compiled edition that I own would have been released around October of 2007, so at least that made it out kinda close to the mark. The film would have still been in theaters as it had a seven week run, so that's actually decent timing overall. So at the point of (somewhat) mass market release, if people wanted to partake in the transmedia narrative at least they generally could if they went on the hunt.
I'm going to give a kind of broad summary of the core plot of Southland Tales as a whole, as I was tempted with reviewing the film first but decided to go in the actual chapter order. The set-up takes place in 2005 when two towns in Texas (El Paso and Abilene) are destroyed with nuclear weapons. An alternate reality forms where the Patriot Act extends to create a new fascistic state and we enter a new War On Terror that essentially becomes WWIII. Fun stuff!
The film takes place in the then-future 2008 location of Los Angeles. There's a showdown brewing as the new government agency US-Ident strives to control the internet and lock down the country, clashing with a new Neo-Marxist movement that's plotting to overthrow the government and dethrone God. Meanwhile, there's an environmental collapse taking place as a mysterious German company introduces Fluid Karma, an alternative fuel source that can reinvigorate the US war machine. And during all of this, missing movie star Boxer Santaros has reappeared with amnesia and becomes the focal point of all of these different paths that will lead to the end of the world.
The prequel books immediately fill in a huge chunk of the blanks that the start of the film leave you with, and all for the better I believe. While starting off with a certain level of mystery is great, the film drops you in on character relationships that just leave you scratching your head. For example, the movie would have you believe that Will Sasso's character Fortunio Balducci is relevant, but he generally doesn't do much. He pops up in a number of scenes and you're left with the impression he was supposed to be relevant, but it's never really strongly set up. Balducci though is pivotal for a number of reasons in the prequels and we A) understand his motivations throughout, and B) understand his general relationship with each other major character. Hooray for storytelling!
Likewise, Sarah Michelle Gellar's character of Krysta Now is much more fleshed out. One of the aspects of the film is that she may have some psychic powers, but there's never a scene that explicitly goes into that. In fact, we're generally left with the impression that Boxer Santaros may have contributed more to the pair's psychic screenplay that's an important but underplayed aspect of the movie. In the books there's an interesting sub-plot about a plane flight that she's on experiencing trans-dimensional turbulence ( à la Donnie Darko) and this leads her to being utilized by a secret cabal that wants to attempt to crack the code of Revelation. They drug her up with mushrooms, read the entire Book of Revelations to her, and then she goes and writes an utterly terrible film script that basically foretells the end of the world. That's great.
In addition, decent chunks of each chapter feature snippets from the screenplay. They're pretty horribly written in the best way possible, miming what a bunch of celebrity airheads may consider to be artistic but still 'cool'. That story follows action hero and rogue cop Jericho Cane as he and scientist Muriel Fox attempt to save a baby who's cataclysmic farts could end the world. And that script is so full of itself and
it's important to read some of it to understand that some of the things that may seem pretentious in the film are probably just self-satire. And then they keep hitting us over the head with the Robert Frost references and you're not so sure again.......
The screenplay does a lot of important things for the overall narrative, including finally explaining why the hell Dwayne Johnson's character has all those tattoos in the film.
It's part of an entire sub-text of the film that gets glazed over, which is the creepy undertone of a religious war as the American political forces in this alternate world would very much like to convert everyone to Christianity.
All the tattoo stuff also fills in a mental block for me personally as it sets up and connects this rando character who gets a lot of screen time and no lines:
To a lot of pivotal set-ups and interconnected character paths:
And like so many characters in the film, he feels relevant but truly isn't, but is still there for some reason. And now the reason is good, but we shouldn't have to read a whole book to know that reason. It's like Richard Kelly knew he should cut more stuff out, but couldn't bring himself to boot characters completely out of the narrative.
I could go on about other relevant characters in a similar fashion, but let's flip over to some of the conceptual revelations that are fleshed out better in the books. One of the key ones is Fluid Karma, a poorly defined plot device that affects much of the film. Throughout the film Fluid Karma is explained as the new energy source for wireless electricity, but it's also a special drug that has been leaking onto the streets of LA via the military.
The books set up a lot of the connective tissue between those elements and the origin of Fluid karma and why it's also destroying the world. One of the more important aspects is that it allows some people to see into the past or future, and the books give us a great scene of Boxer having a discussion with a Karma addict through a bathroom mirror (and through space and time). This later echoes a scene in the film where Seann William Scott's character is noticing that his reflection in a bathroom mirror is out of sync with him and delayed in time.
We also get introduced to the idea of natural 'bleeders', as Boxer triggers his own ability to bleed by going on a rollercoaster and essentially time travels.
These ideas are all decently built up throughout the first two chapters, while Chapter three does feel a bit smooshed together as it attempts to leave us at the starting point of the movie. This is also partially because the character count ramps up considerably, as we leave the fairly simple path of Boxer, Krysta, and Fortunio and get another dozen characters dropped on our lap. And while I had a decent time navigating that data dump as I was able to visualize all of the actors and there performances in the movie to give life to the comic iterations, I have to wonder how that would play out if you read this before the film. I would have to imagine that it would be a bit of a mess as there are simply too many characters to care about, and you're still trying to track the political backdrop, the dual meanings of the screenplay segments, and the random quantum mechanics and environmental messages.
At a certain point, I just have to believe it would have all been gibberish.
Let's chat a bit about the art. Art duties were by Brett Weldele, who you may recall from the 2005 series The Surrogates (which also got a big film release back in 2009). The early 2000's was the time that Ashley Wood and Ben Templesmith were really hitting their commercial stride, and Weldele's style feels very much of that time. As such, it generally forgoes detailed background work in exchange for moody coloring and shadowy tones. Weldele also does a lot of art prints these days based on popular movies, characters, and actors, so he's a pretty solid caricature artist who nails a lot of the actors in Southland.
There's a cartoony aspect to some of his work that I really appreciate as it plays up to the dark comedy of the franchise. It's an inherent quirkiness that infuses the work, which also helps to downplay any sense of pretentiousness. That innocent looking shot of Boxer waving from the flying roller coaster does a lot for me.
Weldele also has an interesting range as some of his work has a radicalized underground graffiti style to it to play with the Neo-Marxists subplots.
While the movie is supposed to stand on its own without requiring the consumption of the rest of the transmedia narrative, it pretty much fails to do so and your stuck with the end of a story and a lot of homework. I'm pretty sure the opposite was meant for the comics as they leave you with plots and mysteries ready to go in a sort of vague 'To Be Continued...' note. I actually think you might have an overall better experience if you were cut off from ever seeing the film and this was the only Southland content you could ever digest, gibberish and all. Still not complete, but from a storytelling standpoint it's a bit more cohesive. Which is a little alarming, considering the gibberish. That being said, I don't think I could ever recommend this on its own. It's part of a larger creature and experiment, and to be able to see the entire train wreck you need all the derailed pieces.
Which begs the question, is the true quality of Southland Tales the franchise in its value as a transmedia autopsy? We still have two more bits of media to go with a brief overview of the website and then the film itself, so I'll form a stronger conclusion to that idea at the end.