Awards for the best trailers are handed out in June at the annual Golden Trailer Awards. Statuettes shaped like a gilded camper trailer are awarded to previews in just about every conceivable category — Best Documentary, Best Foreign Romance, even Best Video Game Trailer.
Personally, I think the greatest triumph in the art of making trailers is “the ugly duckling” — taking a terrible movie, distilling the finest two minutes of footage, choosing the perfect music, writing some good lines for voice-over god Don LaFontaine to intone with thunderous import, and stitching them all together to create an overwhelming rush of images and emotions that convince the viewer, all contradictory knowledge notwithstanding, that a movie like Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) is going to be great.
Some trailers have the opposite effect. I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to see There’s Something About Mary (1998), which turned out to be hilarious. The trailer for Go (1999) is another disaster, yet the movie is actually pretty good. I’d heard enough about the disastrous screening of Southland Tales at the Cannes film festival in 2006 to know that the film was going to be an overwrought mess. But when I watched its trailer I was pretty enticed by the use of the ponderous “UK Surf” version of the Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” in the first half. And given my limited knowledge of the movie’s plot, Elbow’s “Forget Myself” seemed like it would be used somewhere in the film’s final moments, or possibly over the end credits. To my dismay, it isn’t used in the film. At all.
The Film: Southland Tales
The Song: “All These Things That I’ve Done”
The Artist: The Killers
Who’s Who: When writer-director Richard Kelly’s low-budget first feature, Donnie Darko, was released on October 26, 2001, it was weighed down by the unfortunate combination of its storyline, which includes a series of accidents involving a jet aircraft, and the terrorist attacks of September 11. The film had a tepid reception during its short theatrical run, but it was interesting enough to attract a devoted cadre of fans intent on deciphering the mysteries of its complex narrative, and Kelly was inspired to develop his metaphysical ideas even further in Southland Tales. The film was originally intended as a nine-part multimedia experience involving six graphic novels (eventually reduced to three) that were to be published prior to the film’s release, with the film itself representing the final three parts.
Set in the near future, Southland Tales centers on an action-movie star named Boxer Santaros, played by real-life action-movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Boxer is stumbling through southern California in a daze, trying to unravel a web of perplexing occurrences that began a few days ago when he awoke in the desert with amnesia. In defiance of his wife, Madeline (Mandy Moore), and her powerful parents, the vice-presidential candidate Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne) and his wife, Nana Mae Frost (Miranda Richardson) — who directs the newly opened US-IDENT, a steroid-enhanced version of today’s Department of Homeland Security — Boxer has become involved with Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star aspiring to a more mainstream kind of success. He tags along with LAPD cop Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott), ostensibly to research a role in a screenplay he’s written with Krysta, though his real motive is in service of a plot to frame Taverner’s twin brother, Ronald, for a racist murder and to bring down US-IDENT. Taverner is haunted by memories of another movie star, Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a disfigured veteran who narrates the story from a rifle post on the end of the Santa Monica Pier.
Why It Works: It doesn’t.
What Goes Wrong: There’s no doubt that Richard Kelly has good taste in music — the Donnie Darko soundtrack features some great songs from the ’80s like “Under the Milky Way” by the Church and “The Killing Moon” by Echo & the Bunnymen. Southland Tales also brings some good songs along for the ride, like “Wave of Mutilation” and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s “Howl.” And while I’m not enough of a cynical hipster to look down on the Killers for being too popular, “All These Things That I’ve Done” simply has no business being used in a dance sequence. It’s like going to the nightclub Tryst in Las Vegas and hearing a Regina Spektor song — it just doesn’t fit.
Justin Timberlake may be one of the finest dancers of my generation, but all he does in this sequence is act drunk, stumble around spilling beer, and stare at the camera. It’s not a terrible imitation of drunkenness — there are a few inspired moments — but it really doesn’t do much of anything to advance the plot, nor does it succeed as an entertaining diversion. Apparently Richard Kelly put up a fight to avoid cutting this scene from the movie, although I can’t really see why. It demonstrates, in a small way, what’s wrong with the entire film — it’s just too damn complex. There’s too much going on at once, and the overload of ideas and concepts renders it incomprehensible.
Consider, for example, the soldiers in fatigues playing video games in the background at the beginning of the scene. They might be a reference to the increasing reliance of the military on technology and automated warfare that’s more like a video game than actual flesh-and-guts combat. The adoring gazes of the dancers dressed as WAC nurses may serve as a reminder of the ruined Pilot’s history as a movie star. The photo booth, Pilot’s fleeting interest in the dancers, the bloody pattern on his shirt, even the brand of beer he’s drinking (Budweiser) could all potentially be symbolic in one way or another. But with Kelly it’s hard to tell what’s relevant, and there’s such a glut of information that it’s impossible to sort it all out.
Other Stuff: Albert Einstein developed the philosophy and equations of relativity that form the foundation of modern physics, but it was rumored that he couldn’t be bothered to make use of an invention as simple and practical as shaving cream. If you accept the postulate that Richard Kelly is a genius — and I’m not sure I do — then it seems to follow that he’s the same exact type.
Despite evidence of brilliance, more than a few of the decisions that he makes in his filmmaking are shockingly inept. His casting choices are an excellent example: Seth Rogen as a bully? Jon Lovitz as a cop? And just because Dwayne Johnson is an action star in real life doesn’t mean he’ll be able to play one effectively in a movie. Given how much of a financial flop Southland Tales turned out to be, making approximately 2 percent of its budget back in box office receipts, it’s unlikely that Kelly will get another opportunity to indulge in an ambitious production of this magnitude anytime soon.