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The ‘Memory Gospel’ According to Richard Kelly

The 'Memory Gospel' According to Richard Kelly

I spent this weekend in Houston for much-needed time with Jarren (who is there during the summer for a job). We decided to spend Saturday night checking out a Houston Ballet production called “Moby in Motion.” The ballet is a very modern exploration of Moby songs (all from his landmark album Play), choreographed by the impressive ballet company. Watching all of these dancers move to the seductive beat of Moby’s work instantly reminded me of a (somewhat infamous) sequence in Richard Kelly’s film, Southland Tales.

The score of that film is credited to Moby, and his B-side track “Memory Gospel” serves as the film’s musical theme (it even played while cast and crew walked down the red carpet for the premiere). Many have written about one particualr scene in the film that involves a moody dance sequence – featuring The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore, and others – choreographed to the song (which, some may recall, was also used to great effect in Michal Mann’s Ali). Now, in a film riddled with scenes that do not work, this sequence in Southland Tales worked for me. And, for those of us who saw the film at Cannes last month, the question of which scenes should stay and which should go, is very important. As Mark Peranson reports for The Village Voice, Kelly is now “bruised but not beaten” about the negative response the film received, and faced with editing it quite a bit from its current, 160-minute condition.

Another bizarre sequence in the film that works, is the much-reported scene involving an inexplicably bloody Justin Timberlake lip-synching a Killers tune while surrounded by a chorus line of dancers. Again, it’s a sweet diversion for a cluttered and busy film, but it also doesn’t do much for the narrative. So, does that scene stay or go? Part of what’s so baffling about Southland Tales is that so much of what works doesn’t necessarily belong in the film you’re watching. Meanwhile, so much of what doesn’t work are key elements like character, plot, and motivation. It’s an astounding situation for Kelly as director, as well as whatever editing team is brought on to assist.

All the while, a lot of the online “talkback” on the film has been from Kelly faithful uttering thoughts such as “well, the industry didn’t like Donnie Darko either, and that film is now beloved.” True, but Kelly’s debut feature is a very different animal than Southand Tales. While Darko is a bit perplexing and difficult, it manages to do this within a quiet and subtle context. Darko gets by rather well because Kelly doesn’t try to achieve a dozen different messages and goals. Southland Tales, on the other hand, falls with a much bigger thud. It’s a sociopolitical satire that never quite makes its point. The elements (war, oil, Hollywood, etc.) are all there… but these various threads never seem to tie up anything resembling resolution. Instead, the pot is brewing with too many characters and too many subplots.

As it is now, Southland Tales has its champions. And there’s something to be said for the fact that so many of us who saw the film at Cannes still talk about it and think about it. But, when it’s moments in the film that seemingly might end up on the (next) cutting-room floor… does it matter? Make no mistake: Southland Tales shows the utter brilliance of Richard Kelly. That’s precisely what makes it such a frustrating experience. It goes without saying that the industry will be watching the status of Southland Tales… either hoping that something better can be created, or that our favorite moments of Moby music will be salvaged in whatever state is next.

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