When a cult following began to encircle Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko seven years ago, fans took advantage of the story gaps and vague chain of events to expand their own personal interpretation of the story. Did Donnie travel in time to a new dimension in order to reconcile his relationships with those close to him in a way that his untimely death didn’t allow? Is the rabbit the orchestrator of this warp in time and space? Is the “chut up” girl supposed to be God? (believe it or not, I’ve actually heard that last one) These questions resulted in numerous late-night dorm discussions on the metaphysical nature of time, the universe, rabbits, etc., which led an expansive cult network manifested on the Internet, increased DVD sales, and a theatrically re-released “director’s cut.”
Kelly’s follow-up, Southland Tales, attempts to replicate this fanboy attraction to his work via an epically expansive narrative and equally vague (though much more confounding) ideas regarding the repercussions of brief burps in time and space and, not surprisingly, the all-important subject of the apocalypse. The result, however, attempts to be everything and ends up being nothing. It’s an unapproachable combination of Philip K. Dick, Steven Hawking, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), uninformed leftist politics, the information age, and disposable pop culture.
This is because Southland Tales does not even seek to contain, within the film itself, the entire scope of the story being told. Southland Tales is so packed full of half-executed plot points that it can’t possibly be read on its own—one is required and expected to do their research on the Internet before and after viewing the film in order to fully comprehend its narrative. An expansive multimedia network was developed for Southland Tales before its release (aimed for the media-savvy young audience that appreciated Kelly’s first film) including a three-part comic book series (the film, perhaps nostalgic of Star Wars, encompasses parts 4, 5, and 6 of the overall story—the first three parts are introduced in separate comics) and what was sought to become a complex web experience on the film’s website that never saw fruition because of the film’s infamously bad reception at Cannes and dismal commercial performance at the box office. Thus, most of the potential audience was denied the extrafilmic information needed to fully comprehend its story before Southland Tales was theatrically released.
Southland Tales asks more from its audience than many films do (or should). But Kelly’s film is not the first to create a multimedia narrative to inform a film franchise. The Matrix sequels all but mandated the audience to immerse themselves in the extra information provided on DVDs, the Internet, and video games in order to fully comprehend the series. For example, anybody who did their research by watching The Animatrix before The Matrix Reloaded knew the important origin of the weasely teenager (The Kid) that Neo interacts with at the beginning of the film, but all others were lost in the dark. The recent Cloverfield built such an expansive alternate universe on the Internet that it was difficult for many to discern which websites were intentionally part of the film and which weren’t.
However, the narrative of a single film cannot possibly be expected to contain all the information that an infinite web-based universe can, so the resulting films built with so much multimedia effort and hype could not help but be disappointing in the end. Many were let down to find that, at its core, Cloverfield was simply a typical monster movie with fresh new packaging (unlike the web pages, nobody is returning to the movie itself to gather more knowledge—it made more than half its gross opening weekend). Also, The Matrix Revolutions ended the trilogy with a whimper, not a bang, when the fulfillment of Neo’s prophecy looked relatively simplistic in contrast to the complex theories built by collective fans on the web.
(shameless plug: for further readings on this subject, check out chapter three of Henry Jenkins’ fantastic book, Convergence Culture, or check out his blog)
My experience of Southland Tales oscillated between brief stints of entertained exhilaration at its unapologetically inflated style and narrative, and annoyed bewilderment at its overflowing bombardment of information. Even when ignoring the extra media necessary for experiencing Southland Tales, the film itself is jam-packed with information in each segment of each frame, but virtually nothing signals us as to what is most essential to comprehend. Southland Tales refuses to let the frame capture merely one image at a time, but is itself segmented into many frames: the film’s prologue which introduces the its setting shows several screens and events all at the same time, and most characters inexplicably have their televisions on and laptops open at all times. Audio elements overlap as many voices are heard simultaneously (from characters and media in the scenes); sometimes dialogue seems to come from no particular source, and characters utter befuddling single words that feign significance but ultimately fall short.
Even the tattoos on The Rock—I’m sorry, Dwayne Johnson—present themselves as important symbols (anything from Jesus to Japanese characters) that the audience is assigned to pick up and interpret. In watching this film, I felt like I was sitting in the same chair as Miranda Richardson’s character, watching eight surveillance screens at once and attempting desperately to comprehend them all.
The result is the same as several other films that go to great lengths to expand their narrative to a multimedia universe: what we get is not a film, but a vast series of ideas limited to a typical filmic running time. These ideas are often interesting, but they rarely to come together in a cohesive film. Without attempting to comprehend Southland’s outer universe, the film as it stands alone looks like something that tried to be many things, but couldn’t decide exactly which one it wanted to be. We don’t get a narrative—we get a database with which to pick and choose our own semblance of a narrative.
From the perspective of a film analyst, the result of this task is often disappointing, because the exhausting amount of information accumulated that is necessary to comprehend the overall storyline serves only the film and limited within the film itself. One would think this methodically delivered, seemingly important information would eventually lead to some sort of astounding revelation, but in the end, they only serve a story made up by one or two people who are no smarter than you and me. Just because a movie is expansive does not mean it is complex or significant. In the end, these complicated multimedia exercises say nothing about “real life”—they rarely reveal themselves to be grand allegorical commentaries of society at large. Maybe I’m an idealist or a killjoy, but I can’t help but feel disappointed when all this effort is put into something that, in the end, has no practical significance.
These movies say and do a lot to engage their audience, but rarely do they ultimately “mean” anything. Yet there are numberless movies released each year—that “stand alone” as movies—which have plenty to say about social discourse and the human condition. But database narratives, by contrast, adorn the guise of significance through the importance put on its homework, but the network of various media needed to comprehend the film can’t help but be revealed as merely a new marketing tool. As a result, any semblance of meaning is dumbed down to the immediate needs of the ever-expanding narrative structure. The Matrix was embedded with theological undertones, but these were inevitably revealed as superficial plot devices rather than statements of modern spirituality. Even the overt political landscape of Southland Tales (which seems to think of itself as a postmodern 1984) is merely a setting for science fiction fantasy, not a revealing satire, and its politics are as ill informed as its characters involved with them.
Thus, information that would be essential to the plot of a traditional film is reduced to one superfluous fact among many. In a Q&A with Creative Screenwriting Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Jeff Goldsmith, when asked if the apocalypse inferentially occurs after the film’s closing credits, Richard Kelly forwardly asks Goldsmith, as if it were plainly clear, “Did you see the tidal wave?” Goldsmith: “The what?” Kelly: “There was a tidal wave behind Justin Timberlake’s character while he was dancing.” Goldsmith: “Oh…nope, I didn’t see it.” The tidal wave, which one would think would be essential to understanding the film’s ending, becomes obscured as one detail within in a frame cluttered with details. Thus, the important facts are not delineated from the disposable ones. And obscurity does not equal complexity—just because it’s difficult to understand your movie doesn’t mean it’s smart. I for one did not see the tidal wave, and I probably won’t go back and look for it, because I know the reward for my effort will not make the film any clearer or more enjoyable.
Such database narratives have sometimes been heralded as the future of fiction cinema, a way to complement our culture of increasing transmedia immersion and information overload within our typical modes of entertainment. But, at least at this point, filmmakers must find a way to sustain their films on their own merit while simultaneously expanding their universe elsewhere. These new forms of narrative experience must make the other media outlets both essential and optional (superfluous?) at the same time in order to work. The homework must not be forced upon the spectator, but an outlet for possible rewards for the more determined fan. Kelly and the Wachowskis must remember that Donnie Darko and The Matrix drew audiences in before their narrative expanded into a multimedia universe, not the other way around.
Database narratives seem to work better on television than in the movies. Lost has been incredibly successful in molding its engaging narrative through audience interpretation of the vast amounts of information given on the show (but when this same team used a similar informational network to bring Cloverfield for the big screens, the result was simply not the same). The framework of Lost has required fans both on the Internet and by the watercooler to keep fresh on the task of uncovering the show’s many mysteries among the vast amounts of given information. (Lostpedia is evidence of just how great this following is, and how seriously they take the show.) Lost is the perfect prototype for television in the era of TiVo, TV on DVD, and Internet exhibition—its viewers benefit in attaining a greater understanding of the show’s narrative universe with the rewind and pause button.
Yet even Lost has suffered repercussions from diving headfirst into this new world of storytelling: many fans, annoyed by a consistent lack of resolution to many of the show’s mysteries, have abandoned it, feeling the writers have no great secret to reveal that will reward them for their efforts (one journalist said Lost forces us to “go down a rabbit hole with no rabbit”). As a result of losing about three million viewers since the its first season, ABC has made a habit of airing reruns with captions that serve as filler to update viewers of certain important facts, and even approaching the impossible task of informing brand new viewers the complexities of the story’s vast cobweb of information. Loyal viewers of Lost (such as myself) view this new “pop-up video” format as doing the homework that viewers were originally asked to do, and making clear connections that were originally intended to be interpreted by such fans, thereby dumbing down the task assigned that made Lost so engaging in the first place.
Even in its perfect model, database narrative still has, and will continue to have, its limits.
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