The writing was on the wall by 2006. Media had already started its descent into a gaseous constellation of confusing and manipulative voices—Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann squawking on the cable, Flavor of Love and the Apprentice dominating reality TV, HuffPo and TMZ running loose in the nascent blogosphere, and the Bush administration peddling flimsy and deceitful war pageantry. The membrane between scripted narratives and "real" objective experience began to decay. Pop culture and politics held hands and stumbled deeper together into a paranoid prison of funhouse mirrors, spurred on by the bloodthirsty economics of the 24/7 news cycle to be louder, faster, more now. The post-truth era was already upon us—we just didn't know it yet.
In response to that year's maelstrom of unreality, two directors released dystopian cinematic visions. The more well-known is Idiocracy, directed by Mike Judge of Office Space fame. Though the hamfisted comedy about a future full of low IQ morons bombed at the box office, it's become a cult favorite, even slipping into the vernacular. During the 2016 election, the chattering class commented on every new development with the snarky cliché, "Seems like Idiocracy was a documentary."
But another more unsettling post-apocalyptic comedy also hit theaters in 2006—Southland Tales, the sophomore outing from Donnie Darko auteur Richard Kelly. Highly anticipated and loaded with stars like the Rock and Justin Timberlake, it debuted at Cannes to rabid boos, and went on to lose more than $15 million. Although it has a following, it's often forgotten in the shadow of Kelly's legendary debut. That's a shame, because, in retrospect, it's one of the most visionary films of the last few decades. Southland Tales skipped the obvious punchlines of Idiocracy in favor of a nuanced look at how the fusion of politics and reality TV has transformed the texture of life in America into a paranoid, sublime mess. Over the past year, as my friends and I sent each other increasingly jaw-dropping headlines about Russian hackers, dick jokes at presidential debates, golden showers, Pizzagate, and so on, we'd often punctuate our astonishment with a single word: "Southland."
I thought of the film recently when I read the news that Moby, who composed original music for its score, announced that contacts in Washington had given him inside information about the infamous Donald Trump dossier. A vegan DJ claiming to have dirt on Russian intelligence blackmailing a reality TV star president with a "golden shower" video sure sounds like a narrative ripped straight from the twisted mind of Richard Kelly. In fact, it's nearly an exact retread of a Southland Tales subplot, in which a Marxist organization tries to blackmail the government into shutting down a surveillance program with a stolen sex tape featuring a presidential candidate's son-in-law and a porn star. I re-watched the film, and was astounded once again with how accurately it captures the haywire feel of our American dream-state.
One reason Southland Tales initially failed to connect with viewers is that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I've seen it half a dozen times, and I still struggle to keep up with Kelly's apocryphal labyrinth of government conspiracies, duplicitous villains, and madcap schemes. Long story short—it takes place in Southern California three years after a nuclear attack wiped out Texas and transformed the country into a police state. The Rock stars as Boxer Santaros, a movie star suffering from amnesia who's engaged to the daughter of the Republican presidential candidate (Mandy Moore) but sleeping with porn star and reality TV pundit Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Sean William Scott plays a supernatural pair of twins named Roland and Ronald Taverner, while Iraq war veteran Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) narrates the whole mess from his perch in a mounted gun turret off the coast of Venice Beach.
These characters pinball around Los Angeles on lunatic missions involving time travel, a drug called Liquid Karma, levitating ice cream trucks, a staged racist police shooting that turns real courtesy of a Jon Lovitz cameo, a dream sequence where a beer-crushing Timberlake lip-syncs the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done," and a flamboyant energy executive played by Wallace Shawn. As inscrutable narratives collide, a central thread emerges—the lurid entanglement of government surveillance and reality TV, warping the world on either side of the screen.
Throughout the film, characters speak in a breathless, manic syntax, punctuated with gems of Ryan Trecartin-esque absurdity. "You know, there'd be a lot less violence in the world if everyone just got a little more cardio," remarks a Marxist-feminist rebel played by Cheri Oteri. When Gellar's character performs her single, "Teen Horniness Is not a Crime," the Republican presidential candidate Senator Bobby Frost, a Bush facsimile watching from government surveillance headquarters, remarks, "I never said it was." The Rock, his rubbery face contorting into a pained smile, intones his mantra: "I'm a pimp, and pimps don't commit suicide."
In 2006, this dialogue threw people off. Nowadays, it scans as a prophetic antecedent for the kind of weaponized zaniness on display from Youtubers, reality stars, our president ("no puppet!"), and everyone else who's spent their life mugging into a camera for profit. Kelly foretold how the funhouse reflections of a media environment that rewards only the loudest voices would warp gestures and language into an Adderall frenzy. "Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted," gushes Krysta Now; reading the news in 2017, it's hard to argue with her.
One of film's most striking elements is Moby's score. He uses both original compositions and previously released tracks, including gorgeous ambient pieces like "Snowball" (originally from his 2005 album Hotel). These songs lend a sublime glow to the vicious banality on screen, letting us grasp how beauty coexists with madness and menace in the film's unhinged world. The anthemic "Memory Gospel" (originally released as a B-side on his 1999 masterpiece Play) lends dreamy texture to the garish brutality and frenetic acting in one of the film's climactic scenes, a montage of gun violence and stilted dancing; it underscores the film's dramatic tension between the otherworldly and the mundane.
I think Kelly's choice to employ Moby might be seen as an editorial decision. The whole film is an exercise in stunt casting—by using actors pre-loaded with kitschy cultural impact like the Rock, Mandy Moore, and Justin Timberlake, Kelly demonstrates how the affected mannerisms of celebrity culture have become embedded within the texture of everyday American life (a tactic Harmony Korine would steal to brilliant effect in Spring Breakers seven years later). Like the aforementioned actors, Moby exemplifies the kind of outsized archetype Kelly was drawn to. The DJ had long served as a lightning rod for his outspoken political views and veganism, even suffering a mock beating in Eminem's 2002 video for "Without Me" after he spoke out against the rapper's homophobia. To many, Moby is an inspiring philanthropic hero; to others, he's a paragon of holier-than-thou liberalism. His presence alone contributes to the film's polarizing energy.
And like so many other of the film's subplots (including reality TV politicians, war in Syria, and the spread of police brutality videos), Kelly's use of Moby proved clairvoyant. "After spending the weekend talking to friends who work in DC I can safely (well, 'accurately'…) post the following things," wrote the producer, in the caption of a February 13 Instagram post. "The Russian dossier on Trump is real. 100% real. He's being blackmailed by the Russian government, not just for being peed on by Russian hookers, but for much more nefarious things." Moby went on to claim that Trump is intentionally baiting Iran into starting a war by placing warships off its coast, and that a secret network of Republicans are scheming to impeach the president.
The credulity with which the press treated the producer's Instagram post was surprising, considering it contained outrageous and unsourced allegations that just so happened to confirm the biases of its author. The post garnered straightforward write-ups on both culture outlets like The FADER and Vulture and political sites like Business Insider and The Guardian. Far-right propaganda site Breitbart even got involved, leading with an image of the producer wearing a bunny suit.
This is not to say that musicians embracing conspiratorial ideas is a new development—remember when Courtney Love found the missing plane?—or even particularly troubling on its own. But the extent to which Moby's post was treated as some kind of real news development indicates a wider cultural shift that goes beyond paranoid DJs and content-hungry media outlets. The shrinking gap between pop culture and politics has finally sealed like a wound, just as Kelly prophesied it would. Mark Cuban owning Trump on Twitter and Melissa McCarthy mocking Sean Spicer on SNL make headlines. Hacked dick pics and leaked reality TV backstage videos decide elections. The culmination of a tectonic shift that began with the invention of television and caught fire during the Clinton impeachment trial is upon us. The scary thing about Moby's post isn't just its reception; it's that the facts he's asserting seem almost plausible. Reality seems to be in a race with itself to create bigger and bigger spectacles to feed the maw of the news cycle.
The climax of Southland Tales takes place at a Fourth of July party in a zeppelin high over Los Angeles. The Rock, Mandy Moore, and Sarah Michelle Gellar waltz on a stage inside the zeppelin before a crowd of U.S. government figures; the film's nesting dolls of conspiracy unfurl in a vortex of sound and color. That's all there is, ultimately, at the core of the film's power structure; politicians and celebrities together watching an illusory dance. An empty spectacle at the center of the maze. Eventually, the blimp is shot down by a missile. It falls to Earth in a blaze of fire, one more firework illuminating the L.A. sky.