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“Southland Tales” Revisited; What Does Manohla See That I Don’t?

"Southland Tales" Revisited; What Does Manohla See That I Don't?

Last week, film critic Dave Kehr inaugurated another heated debate on the state of film criticism in a blog-post titled “Grumpy Old Farts vs. Whiny Young Whelps,” in which he confesses to the “increasing sense of absurdity” he felt “as a middle-aged male being asked to evaluate ‘The Princess Diaries’ or ‘Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen.'” Central to the comments that followed is the question of whether older critics can or should speak to teen-targeted Hollywood pop cinema — which most of it is, anyway.

The debate brought me back to last week, when many of us were running around the south of France like headless chickens, and I had just come out of “Southland Tales” mildly irritated and baffled. In my notebook, I had scribbled several things about the film (“If it acts like a dog and speaks like a dog. . .” and “where is this train wreck going to go?”), which were echoing in my head.

But then I ran into Amy Taubin and J. Hoberman, two venerable critics who I have the utmost respect for. And they liked it. They thought it was. . . I can’t even remember. But I stayed to chat with Amy for awhile, and she mentioned something to the effect that the film — which is some strange flipside of teen-targeted Hollywood pop cinema — actually speaks better to an older generation than a younger. She invoked Godard and spoke of the film as a valid representation of contemporary America’s mad, mad, mad world (fair enough). But does that alone mean it’s worth watching?

The real point being is that these were older, experienced critics — along with the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis — critics who I believe are the sharpest in the field, and they saw something in a movie that me, a relative neophyte, could not see. Now is this because they’re older? Is this because they’ve seen more experimental cinema than me? And that Kelly is tapping into some level of depth and intertextuality that went over my head?

I just don’t believe it. As Kehr says, in introducing his blog, “The real divides in the film crit community seem to me those of sensibility and approach, not of birthdays.” Kelly isn’t addressing those raised on Godard, Marx and Coca Cola so much as his own juvenile and rarely funny obsessions with Hollywood and politics. If these few older critics liked the movie, I think it’s because they approached it, as Hoberman writes, as “a big-budget, widescreen underground movie.”

But I don’t think that’s the movie that Kelly wanted to make. I think he wanted to make a Star Wars for Generation Y and a hilarious satire of contemporary society. But he fails on both counts. I’m all for crazy messed-up mash-ups of musical and drama, sci-fi and heartbreak — I’m a fan of Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud, for example — but Kelly’s imagery and ideas are just not as vivid or engaging, no matter how much he recuts it.

One of the reasons that Donnie Darko worked was its central character. Donnie is the heart and soul of the movie and his angst, his morbid fascination with death and apocalypse, is a pretty accurate reflection of those of us who grew up in the Joy Division-Echo & The Bunnymen-infused Reagan-Bush nuclear 1980s. That film struck a chord with some younger critics — I’ll never forget indieWIRE’s Sundance review by Andy Bailey — but it also had something universal to say about adolescence that critics, young and old, could latch on to, despite its postmodern-Spielbergian ethos. Southland Tales, on other hand, will only connect with a rarefied clique of critics, old and young, who are willing to see something there that won’t be for the rest of us.

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