“Ladies and gentlemen, the party is over. Have a nice apocalypse. ” – Southland Tales – (My Favorite Bad Movies)

Before I move on to my consideration of 1942, please indulge me with a week or two of a new series. Since I took on the movies that caused me the most pain, frustration, and all around wonkiness , I decided it would be appropriate to consider the flip side of the coin. No, I don’t mean my favorite movies of all time. The movies in the last post are so bad that the best movies would be on an entirely different coin altogether – it’s the difference between that old brown penny that has been stuck to the bottom of your car’s cup holder in a gooey mess from spilled Coke and a shiny new gold dollar piece. I’m talking about movies that are terrible, but through some strange voodoo, turn out to be immensely enjoyable.

They are often called movies “so bad that they’re good,” but I’ve never felt comfortable using that term. It implies that there is a line of value and if you follow it down lower in quality it will eventually wrap around and rejoin the great movies like Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, and Greed. I reject the idea that there are movies so bad that they out-maneuver standard measures of worth. Bad movies are bad movies.

These movies are bad, some frankly terrible, but they aren’t enjoyable because they’re bad. We don’t relish the technical incompetence, lousy performances, and amateurish writing. They are enjoyable in spite of their badness. If that seems like a fine line consider an examples from, naturally, a film.

In The Producers Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel hatch a plot to put on the worst show on Broadway, a show so bad it will close sometime during intermission, so they coax gullible old women into investing more money than the show needs and pocket the extra money. They choose a terrible script, one that glamorizes and valorizes Hitler, then go on to hire an incompetent director and clueless actors. The show goes on to become a hit because the audience mistakes what’s awful about the show for comedy. The audience mistook the intention, but appreciated the effect. Springtime for Hitler turned out to be hilarious because it could be read more than one way.

That is the case with these movies, the movies that are terrible, but watchable and rewatchable. And, like Springtime for Hitler, the filmmakers were aiming for the bulls eye, but though a fortuitous nexus of incompetence and inspiration, they hit the picture of David Beckham next to the dartboard and it was a whole lot funnier.

So for the nest week or two I will post essays onrotten movies I love, leading up to my favorite bad movie of all time. But first, one of my favorite bad movies of recent years:

Southland Tales (2006) Dir. Richard Kelly

Sarah Michelle Geller and Dwayne Johnson in "Southland Tales"

This is one of those gargantuan messes so utterly disconnected from any sense of logic, proportion, history, social awareness, cultural consciousness, or theological grammar, that you can’t help but watch with equal measures of disbelief, amusement, shock, and respect. Richard Kelly showed a lot of promise with the morosely stylish Donnie Darko in 2001, but somewhere between the thoughtful artistry of that movie and Southland Tales Kelly appears to have lost his mind. Thankfully he is talented enough to make his disaster entrancing. Here’s the trailer:

If it looks awesome, it is. About all I can say for sure is the movie takes place in Los Angeles in the near future. I think—and to be honest I couldn’t swear to any of this – the movie is about an amnesiac movie star in played by Dwayne Johnson who goes missing and shacks up with a porn star (Sarah Michelle Geller) and together they write a screenplay about the end of the world that turns out to be uncannily prescient. He doesn’t know, however, that he’s engaged to a right wing Senator’s daughter (Mandy Moore) who is desperate to get him back without embarrassing her father’s political fortunes. Meanwhile a radical Marxist group (populated with a cadre of Saturday Night Live alums) plots against the proto-fascist state that the Bush era would have left us with had there been more terrorist attacks. And Wallace Shawn is a creepy scientist building something that is supposed to be revolutionary. And Miranda Richardson, doing her best evil queen routine, plays that right wing Senator’s wife who is in charge of a new agency that watches everything and everyone. Then there’s a policeman who has a double and Justin Timberlake plays a disillusioned Iraq war hero who overlooks everything from the Santa Monica pier, pushes a new drug called Liquid Karma, and pops in for a disjointed (but not unenjoyable) musical interlude. I’m getting exhausted writing about it, but take a look at Timberlake:

If you think the plot is a mess (and I’m exhausted typing it out), you have to admire Kelly’s audacity. Many of us bemoan modern movies; they are uncreative, derivative, mechanical. At least Kelly had the balls to try for the bleachers at a time when so many are just hoping to lay down a bunt. He’s so ballsy that he starts the movies somewhere in the middle of the story, just plopping us in with little reference. He wrote three graphic novels that begin the story and apparently we’re supposed to read the novels before or after or something to fill in the holes. (I haven’t bothered.) The movie itself has some great scenes and some laugh-out-loud moments (including a botched fake shooting between Amy Poehler and Wood Harris). Dwayne Johnson’s performance is so bad that we have to wonder if it’s intentional (though, sadly, I suspect it isn’t). You can catch glimpses of it in the trailer.

In the end we get what so many filmmakers who mistake themselves for intellectuals give us (think Godard or Resnais): stylish exercises that say more about the filmmaker’s ego than anything about life, love, philosophy, theology, society, culture, or the price tea in India. But I love Kelly’s visual and aural style. He knows how to use music, editing, and camera movement to create a great sequence. He takes the best of music video directing and integrates it into a feature narrative film. And I think that’s great. The more a director can do without dialogue is much more effective than wordy explanations. He excites my cinematic senses even in a confused movie like Southland Tales.

Audiences, even those who were charmed by the cult status of Darko, agreed. The $17 million dollar film didn’t even break one million dollars at the box office worldwide. Many who did see it reacted against its sensory overload, while I ended up embracing it. Again, it’s as empty-headed as any other trashy movie, though Richard Kelly might not know it. I suppose this is meant to be some sort of expansion on the time travel musings of Donnie Darko, but what felt fresh in that movie feels stale and gimmicky five years later. I wasn’t left pondering the mysteries of time and space. All I was left with was this question: What the hell is Kelly’s fascination with time travel? It’s paradoxical. We get it. Move on.



Filed under Best Bad Movies

10 responses to ““Ladies and gentlemen, the party is over. Have a nice apocalypse. ” – Southland Tales – (My Favorite Bad Movies)

  1. Jason – what an inspired new series! I can’t wait to see the rest of this countdown. I have yet to watch this because it looks so mindnumbingly awful – but maybe I will eventually.

    One of my favorite bad movies of recent memory is 2012. I just love every stupid thing about it.

    • Thank you David. I’m having fun writing these essays too. It’s sort of liberating to admit that I really enjoy these crappy films. I can imagine that Southland Tales is mind numbingly awful for many (or most) people, but where else can you hear lines like, “I’m a pimp. And pimps don’t kill themselves” or “If you don’t let me suck your cock, I’m going to kill myself” or “The fourth dimension is going to collapse on itself, you stupid bitch” or “My vagina will not be denied a vote in your subjective election.” It also has an inspired cast including those I mentioned in the essay and Zelda Rubenstein, Cheri Oteri, Christopher Lambert, Seann William Scott, Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, John Laroquette, Bai Ling, Kevin Smith, Curtis Armstrong, and, though mostly cut out of the U.S. release, Janeane Garofalo.

      And 2012 is a pretty entertaining bad movie, though it isn’t going to quite make this series. It doesn’t fill me with the joy that movies like Southland Tales do.

      • Holy crap! With dialogue like that, what the hell have I been waiting for? To Netflix I go!

      • So this was available streaming on Netflix – so I had to watch it. And I have to say – what a riot! You can’t tell me this wasn’t supposed to be a comedy. Everything – from the acting to the directing to the writing to the lousy cinematography and idiotic set designs and second-rate FX was completely inept. Yet so much thought clearly went into it – as if Kelly thought he was making some grand statement – like this was his SATIRE – his Clockwork Orange or what have you.

        It was so awful yet so entertaining – you had forgotten to mention the SUV’s having sex and the references to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (that Rebekkah Del Rio version of the Star Spangled Banner was pretty hip – and you can’t tell me Beth Grant wasn’t done up to look like the blue-haired lady from Club Silencio).

        WOW! What a movie – nothing can really prepare anyone for just how asinine this film is. Complete trash on every conceivable level. And like you, I loved it.

        I still think I like 2012 better though – it had a better and more universal message about parenting (global flooding is a great cure for bedwetting!) What was the message of this – pimps don’t commit suicide? How am I supposed to apply that to my life? LMAO

        • I think you’re right. I think Kelly did think he was making a penetrating and thoughtful social satire like A Clockwork Orange. However, there is nothing thoughtful or penetrating about this movie. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m half expecting hate mail for some of these choices, but I’m not sure how anyone could hate Southland Tales.

          And I didn’t mention the SUV sex scene because there has to be some surprises! It’s funny you mention the Rebekkah Del Rio scene because I immediately thought of Mulholland Drive as well, but I didn’t make the Beth Grant connection.

          And the message of this movie? Sure you can take away pimps don’t commit suicide, but I think there is a much more meaningful and useful message to take away here: if you go back in time and meet yourself, don’t shake hands.

        • Thank you, Jason. I will remember the next time I time travel to keep that in mind! What a great piece of advice. I wonder, though, what would happen if I just waved at myself?

          It also cracked me up when I realized that the “graphic novels” upon which this film was based were all cooked up by Kelly in conjunction with the film. I wonder how well they sold! HA!

          Wondering – what did you think of THE BOX? I found it charmingly amusing and utterly stupid – though I loved that 70’s look (especially on Cameron Diaz). It seems Kelly is a Shyamalan-like wonder and DONNIE DARKO (which at first I loved but doesn’t hold up very well) is his SIXTH SENSE.

        • You know, I still haven’t seen The Box. It does look deliciously dopey, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see it. However, I disagree about Donnie Darko. I think it holds up quite well. It may very well be one of my favorite movies of the 2000s. It hurt my heart a little to see you compare it to The Sixth Sense, a truly rotten, overrated movie (No, I’m not saying this because we now know Shyamalan is a hack. I was saying this then.)

  2. Pingback: Godard’s ‘Band of Outsiders,’ ‘Brighton Rock’ and Musical Countdown on Monday Morning Diary (September 12) « Wonders in the Dark

  3. Your THE PRODUCERS lead-in is terrific–what better example could you possibly give to explain this exciting new project’s parameters? Anyway, I wouldn’t myself be so hard on SOUTHLAND TALES, but if it fits teh bill with you and David, fair enough. I think myself of some of Ed Wood movies, some 50’s horror flicks and something like Hawks’s LAND OF THE PHAROAHS, which holds up as splendid entertainment, whatever it’s fatal flaws may be. But there are so many more.

    • Thanks Sam. When thinking about bad things that turn out to be good, The Producers seemed like a natural fit. Of course the opposite side of the coin would be Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, which doesn’t work at all.

      Yes, there are so many more schlocky movies that we can’t help but love. Hopefully this series will give us a chance to remember and advocate for them.

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