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SOUTHLAND TALES: The Cannes Cut [Review]

By Simon Read [01.29.21]


On January 25th Arrow Video released a Blu Ray double pack of Richard Kelly's 2006 film Southland Tales. Disc 1 includes a new 2K restoration of the Theatrical Cut, along with a new retrospective documentary on the legacy and making of the film, while Disc 2 contains the longer, rarely seen Cannes Cut, which screened at that festival back in '06 to a glacial response. This is simply a review of the Cannes Cut, not of Southland Tales itself, so spoilers ahead if you've never seen the film before.


Cards on the table: Southland Tales has long been one of my favourite films. It is flawed, confusing, often frustrating, but it is a singular vision, and one to which I immediately responded all those years ago when I saw it on DVD. Somehow, I now own both the DVD and Blu Ray (and this new double pack Arrow edition), as well as the prequel graphic novel which sets up the story, the CD soundtrack to the film, a theatrical poster for the film, and a piece of memorabilia - an UPU3 patch worn by members of the fascist SWAT team. I have probably seen Southland Tales around fifty times over the last decade, and I am not exaggerating. I am a fan.


But I had never seen the Cannes Cut, so here goes.





Kelly has been keen to point out in interviews preceding this release that the Cannes version is not complete. Indeed, when it originally screened there were missing effects shots and the film would have inevitably come down in run time before any theatrical release. What we're presented with here is not his definitive version of the film (which Kelly still considers a work-in-progress) but something more akin to an extremely polished work edit.


From a technical perspective, despite being cleaned up by Arrow, the image is not as pristine as the Theatrical Blu Ray. The film looks fine and is in HD, but the first hour or so is slightly grainy, with occasional corruptions to the image. This is particularly noticeable in the early USIDent scenes which look murky and dirty - unflattering considering its sterile, brightly lit environment. These issues largely fix themselves after an hour or so, but the overall palette of the film is noticeably darker and muddier; those clear blue skies over Venice Beach looking just a little bit grey.


But what of the film itself? The Theatrical Cut runs 145 minutes, the Cannes Cut 158. It's not a huge amount of additional material, but what is startling is how much the new footage, combined with a different edit, allows the film to breathe, to build its world and introduce its characters with a much greater sense of ease, helping it to find a more natural rhythm.


There is no doubt that this is a superior edit, managing to iron out many of the Theatrical Cut's inconsistencies and plot holes, and while I understand from a studio perspective why cutting the film down for general release was deemed necessary from an economic perspective (and yeah, that really worked out) it is frustrating seeing quite how much the film suffered from this decision in terms of logic, coherence and character development - leading to the scattershot mess that was finally offered to the public on general release. It's impossible to know whether the film would have been better received by audiences had this cut been released to cinemas instead, but this is an altogether better film.



With the Cannes Cut, characters who had previously had little to no motivation or clear purpose within the story are provided a greater sense of context, and this changes how the film plays out considerably. Take the Neo Marxist underground, ostensibly headed up by the Beat Poet Veronica Mung (aka, 'Dream' - played by Amy Poehler), yet also co-ordinated by both Cyndi Pinziki (Nora Dunn) and Zora Charmichaels (Cheri Oteri). In all my viewings I'd never quite understood the structural hierarchy of this chaotic organisation and had always assumed that this was the point. The longer cut helps to explain who everyone is, what they're doing and why. It really does get you more involved when characters make sense and have clear goals and aspirations.


Without writing down all the changes to the film (and believe me I'd like to) there is a general feeling that everyone and everything simply makes more sense. I know now where Kenny Chan (Mike Nielsen) fits in as a stooge for the Marxists, simply because he's allowed two or three more lines of dialogue. I understand politician Bobby Frost's (Holmes Osborne) relationship with the mad Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Sean) far more clearly now, due to the addition of a few offhand comments from the two characters and their flunkies.


Scenes are moved around and extended, most notably the Baron cutting off the Prime Minister of Japan's hand, which basically opens the film now - replacing the massive info-dump intro of the Theatrical version - and this works much better to introduce this sadistic lunatic and his sinister entourage. Without the Theatrical Cut's awkward and jarring ten-minute introduction sequence the audience must gather information about what's happening themselves (as they would in any film) and that information then belongs to them. It may sound obvious, but by allowing us to find our way into the world of Southland Tales, and not banging us on the head with a clumsy intro, the story feels more satisfying.


Some altogether new scenes appear, such as Dr. Kuntzler (Zelda Rubinstein) conspiring with Serpentine (Bai Ling) to betray the Baron - a subplot the removal of which rendered the ending of the Theatrical Cut bafflingly nonsensical. Restoring this brief scene gives context to the events of the final act of the film - and what a difference that makes! I had never fully 'gotten' the final twenty minutes of Southland Tales, as beautiful and beguiling as they are, but here the plot threads finally connect.



Similarly, the characters Simon Theory (Kevin Smith) and Gen. Teena MacArthur (Janeane Garofalo) - both virtually missing from the shorter film - are fully restored, enjoying some banter and scheming of their own. An extended montage of Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) driving home in his roadster after the party at the Smallhouse mansion now expands into a rather glorious montage, as Blackout by Muse continues to play, we see what all the other characters are up to - again providing us information and context absent from the shorter cut.


All this previously unseen footage allows the film grow legs, and watching it just last night I began to realise how different in tone the Cannes Cut is. Back in '07 when it was (briefly) released in cinemas the Theatrical Cut had been (badly) mismarketed as a Sci-fi action thriller with lots of explosions and stunts. No wonder audiences were confused.


Kelly has often spoken of his intent to make Southland Tales a sort of absurdist political satire with a background of melancholy for a doomed humanity. Just as the Theatrical Cut was marketed as a thriller, it felt like it had been edited that way too, following the Cannes debacle - so much dialogue and small, 'extraneous' character moments struck off in the name of the bigger picture - but like stripping a house of its human contents, you lose the humanity. Not only does the Cannes version make far more sense, it also comes across as a purer version of Kelly's original intention - a funny/sad look at a post-9/11 America in which everyone is just trying to get through it all without going insane. It may feel rougher, more like broad sketches, but this feels right - the shorter version is slicker, but this cut feels far more representative of what Kelly was aiming for in terms of humour, humanity and pathos.


When I've told friends about Southland Tales in the past I've always couched my love of it in certain caveats, "It's really more of a mood-piece" being my favourite. It may sound like hyperbole, but the Cannes version really feels like a different film experience altogether. It is coherent, the characters are better drawn, it flows better, and (maybe crucially) it's a lot funnier. I rarely laugh out loud watching films on my own, but Dwayne Johnson made me guffaw twice, very loudly, with his additional lines. Thermonuclear baby farts.



From Seann William Scott's twin cops to Sarah Michelle Gellar's luminous reality-porn star and Johnson's neurotic, amnesiac hunk, all the characters are expanded slightly and given more to do with clearer reasons for doing so. Scott and Timberlake's history and their strange psychic connection - a previously confusing subplot - is far more intelligible now. Hell, even Mandy Moore's character seems more plausible and well-written, and that's saying something. Justin Timberlake's Apocalypse Now-style narration also contains far more helpful exposition when compared to his more cryptic mumblings in the shorter version, but overall the film just feels more cohesive and comfortable in presenting its crazy world. The characters inhabiting it contain more dimension, and thanks to a more functional, laid-back and relatively conventional narrative flow here, the jokes are funnier, the film revealing itself as more madcap romp than serious dystopian vision - something I don't think Kelly would dispute.


In the past I would have described Southland Tales as an interesting failure, a curate's egg, a noble attempt that falls short of greatness - some vague, prosaic way of expressing its muddled narrative and leaps of logic. Having seen the Cannes Cut now, I guess I'd just say, well… It works. It's a solid, interesting piece of work by an ambitious young writer/director. The Cannes Cut works far better as the mad yarn that is Southland Tales. Even the nods to Strange Days, Pulp Fiction, Kiss Me Deadly and Mulholland Drive - the film's primary cinematic influences - feel more organic, just another part of the film's eccentric DNA.


The Cannes Cut does not work to cure Southland Tales of certain inherent problems. Even in its expanded form it doesn't always work - certain performances come across as stilted or uncertain, and the plot remains dense and labyrinthine, albeit far easier to follow and engage with. It will always be a challenging film for the casual viewer - Kelly has never been one to shy from the esoteric - but for those interested in revisiting the film, this cut provides a more lucid, digestible experience. For those like me who love the film but have never seen the Cannes Cut, you are in for such a treat.



Of course, we are now living far beyond the future world of 2008 presented in the movie, and it happens that Kelly was prescient in predicting that the world would not get better. Kelly has spoken of Philip K. Dick as a literary influence on the film, and the various horrors facing our frightening little planet in 2021 don't feel so far-removed from Dick's mind-bending works of fiction. A film about staggeringly corrupt politicians, environmental catastrophe, economic collapse, mass insanity and megalomaniacal tech gurus gone wild may have seemed far-fetched fifteen years ago, but it's fair to say the film's themes have aged well - for better or worse.


I'll always love the Theatrical Cut of Southland Tales. It's been a playful obsession of mine for many years, but the more I think about the Cannes Cut, the more I suspect it'll be my go-to option for re-watching the film, and certainly for sharing it with friends. It may be rougher around the edges, the picture quality may not be perfect, but it feels purer, more consistent. For me, what started as a kind of crazy, beautiful art project with many glaring flaws has - thanks to 15 minutes of unseen footage and a less fractured edit - presented itself as a more approachable, enjoyable and focussed sci-fi satire. It's still a great big, meandering slice of stratospheric lunacy, and it always will be, but this is the way it was meant to be. This is the way the world ends.

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Arrow's handsome double pack Blu Ray is up to their usual high standards, presented with new artwork by Jacey, reversable cover and a booklet containing essays on the film by Peter Tonguette and Simon Ward.




Recommended Release: Southland Tales: Cannes Cut + Theatrical Cut (2-Disc Limited Edition)



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