If you didn't know what writer/director Richard Kelly has been up to since his '01 cult hit Donnie Darko, well, he has a new movie coming out this year: Southland Tales. Despite all my jaded feelings about newer films (and the obstacles in seeing them in a theater) in the last couple of years, this is actually a film I'd like to see when it gets a theatrical release.
Details on what Southland Tales is about have been abstract until recently. Interviews with its stars and Kelly have talked about certain things that happen, but only recent reviews have talked about key plot points. By going off of what I've read, this film is definitely not for everybody. A multi-character film with a backdrop of futuristic sci-fi, black comedy and social commentary is not guaranteed box office gold. I seriously doubt the film will play well for a mainstream audience, but neither did Donnie Darko when it was released into theaters.
If I'm interpreting what I've read correctly, the structure of Southland Tales sounds similar to a couple of Robert Altman's films, namely, Nashville and Short Cuts. Neither film blew me away, but I didn't hate them either. I want to go into Southland Tales with a fresh perspective and not make constant comparisons, but I wouldn't be surprised if I come back to those films for reference after I watch Southland Tales.
I bring up Altman's films especially in the case of critical and box office reaction. Do you hear about people's thoughts on Nashville or Short Cuts everyday on TV shows like Extra or websites like Ain't It Cool News? Nope. So why do we put so much stock into what people say about a film around its release? Well, talking about a film is a part of the promotional campaign because so many dollars have been soaked into spreading the word about the film. Of course that's a big "duh," but the point I've made several times before is that no matter how much money a film makes or what critics think in the short term, this means nothing to the life of the film itself. The fact that the movie got made is the success.
In the case of Southland Tales, the film recently premiered at the Cannes film festival in France. With the handful of reviews that I've read so far, all kinds of critics have panned the film. "Sprawling, messy, willfully self-indulgent and incomprehensible, Southland Tales is the biggest sophomore slump for a seemingly indie-filmmaker since Kevin Smith's Mallrats -- and the scope of Southland Tales' failed ambitions and vain pretensions make its failure all the more depressing," wrote James Rocchi for Cinematical. Seeing these kinds of reactions now, I had to laugh. In college, these kinds of tar-and-feathering reviews would make me mad. Now I just laugh. Rocchi's comparison to Mallrats especially made me laugh really hard.
When Mallrats came out into theaters, almost every critic who praised Smith's first film, Clerks, turned on him. Calling the film a major bust and a dropping of the proverbial ball, Smith's work was generally made light of and passed off until he made his third film, Chasing Amy. Smith would later describe the initial Mallrats reaction as the people who praised you and loved every thought you had are now telling you to get out of town because they think every thought you have sucks. Mallrats would find a major audience on rental in the years to come and turn a healthy profit. I love the movie, but I could understand why people didn't like the film. When a director makes such a profound statement in his opening bow, the follow-up is almost guaranteed for disappointment. But you know what? That doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things.
No matter how much talk you hear about a movie when it first comes out, it's gonna stick around, whether it's Casablanca or KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. People love talking about the business side of filmmaking because at the end of the day, it is a business. But the film business still has a creative side that is documented onto film that lasts and lasts over the years. Are we that transfixed by the now and can't look past the now? I know tomorrow never knows, but history has shown time and time again that sales figures shed very little light on the impact a film has on people.