Friday 15 October 2010

A Wounded America : Bad Lieutenant and Southland Tales

In the decade now passed The United States of America experienced two catastrophic events. On September the 11th 2001, passenger planes piloted by terrorists were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Weakened by fire the two towers of the World Trade Center toppled. The initial impact itself and the subsequent collapse claimed thousands of lives. In 2005 a hurricane struck the coast of Louisiana. The worst of the damage was wreaked in New Orleans. Up to 2,000 people perished as the city was flooded.

The country is still living these events. The pain goes on, not only for those directly affected, who mourn or are left with nothing, but for the whole nation. The Government, largely in response to the terrorist attack, would go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The public saw the suffering of the poor and helpless of New Orleans and shared in their misery.

Films that dealt directly with these subjects did not appear for the first few years. In 2006 Spike Lee's documentary on Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke : A Requiem in Four Acts, and two films highlighting heroism and hope on September the 11th, World Trade Center (Oliver Stone) and United 93 (Paul Greengrass), were released.

Works that seemed to capture a mindset, or the ambience of a moment in time, were made soon after the tragedies. 25th Hour, also directed by Spike Lee, and released in 2002, was the first film to include footage of 'Ground Zero'. Its tale of a man re-evaluating his life on the eve of a prison sentence did not take the terrorist attacks of September the 11th overtly as its subject but its protagonist's yearning to regain something that had been lost seemed to echo the travails of the tragedy.

Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, released in 2006, makes no mention of September the 11th and yet its world is parallel and near to that reality. Terrorist attacks in Texas may replace those in New York but the Presidency of George Bush Jr, and the war in Iraq, are part of its narrative. The war in Iraq is part of a new World War (abbreviated throughout as WW3). Southland Tales is therefore an amalgam of the two approaches mentioned above, close enough to make raw and pressing comment on current affairs, distanced enough to enable artistic and moral freedom. It is sufficiently removed for metaphor and allegory to take seed. Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, released in 2009, takes place in New Orleans. Its story begins in the immediate aftermath of the storm. It uses the hurricane as a starting point, as a screen on which to cast its plot, the titular lieutenant's investigation into the massacre of a family.

Southland Tales
is keener than Bad Lieutenant to depict a chain of cause and effect born of a real-life inspiration. What distinguishes and typifies both films, however, is their atmosphere. Although what connects the people and these (ongoing) real life instants of horror is not always explicit or direct, it is as though the elemental forces of specific cataclysms have been siphoned off into a reservoir of melancholy and sadness in which all individuals in the fiction are steeped.

Their psyche is wounded. There is a diminished sense of self, of security, of confidence, and of moral courage. Rightly or wrongly it appears that many (perhaps a majority of) American people in the real world felt misrepresented by and estranged from their government when those certainties of safety, righteousness and peace of mind were shaken. Bad Lieutenant and Southland Tales burn with a nervousness and a rootlessness that come from those fears.

How are these films about America? In what way are they about everybody American? There are many indications in the two films that these are not just tales set in America but rather tales of America.

In the opening scene of Southland Tales, the detonation of a nuclear bomb (tellingly, one of two terrorist attacks) is seen from the perspective of a birthday celebrated in a suburban garden. The gathering turns to watch the mushroom cloud sprouting on the horizon. People, everyday people not invested with great authority, are the focus and fulcrum of the narrative. During that same scene there is a Close Up of a couple of figures of Uncle Sam standing on a living-room table. Throughout both films, the symbols and icons of Americana proliferate. The predominant of these is the American flag.

A Tale of America : The American Flag
Southland Tales (top) and Bad Lieutenant 
Pinned to office cubicles, tied to car aerials, hanging in a pharmacy or down the sides of buildings, the flag is ubiquitous. The flag takes on particular significance and symbolic power during the denouement of Southland Tales. It is there, dirty and apparently bloodied, as Boxer Santaros (one of the “two witnesses who appear in Jerusalem to speak out against the sins of mankind”) kisses his wife Madeline and assures her of the importance and ultimate success of his mission. It is there when he fires a gun to signal the coming apocalypse. These films are a portrait of America. They are a portrait of an America placed under a microscope, larger-than-life and sharply clear.

The lyrics of a song sung in a drug-induced dream in Southland Tales talk of the nature of the wounds being universal. Pilot Abilene, a soldier scarred by friendly fire in Fallujah, sings / mimes the following line, from All These Things I've Done by The Killers :

“Everyone is lost”.

Before injecting himself with the drug, he had asked a customer, Martin Kefauver : “Do you bleed?” Given that all men and women bleed, the drug-taking slang veils a hidden and rhetorical question : 'Are you human?'. The implication is that if you are human, then you must be suffering. If you are suffering you must need a crutch, and the drug is that crutch. Later Roland Taverner stops Martin, who has just been conscripted, from committing suicide. Taverner asks him : “So why do you want to kill yourself?”. The emphasis on 'you' is a sign that despair is endemic in their communities.

 Despair - Southland Tales

Everyone is affected. When Mr Smallhouse asks, again in Southland Tales, “You ever lost someone close to you, a loved one, in a terrorist attack?” his companion (Codename Deep Throat) responds “This may come as a surprise to you Mr.Smallhouse but I lost two people in Abilene”. The fact that this information is volunteered under not insignificant duress makes one consider that each person in the background, walking past along the beach, may harbour their own secret anguish.

In Bad Lieutenant, the eponymous Lieutenant McDonagh, frustrated with the reluctance of witnesses to the crime to come forward, is altogether more upfront about the state of the nation: “You're the f***ing reason this country's going down the drain!” His Step-Mother says that she and he are “birds of a feather...we both like our poison”. In point of fact, as has been demonstrated, that flock is a large one.

One of the main characters in Southland Tales is Krysta Now. She had helped her boyfriend, Boxer Santaros, write a film script ('The Power') which “foretells the tale of our destruction”, predicting the destabilisation of the Earth's axis and, consequently, of its inhabitants. She is a Pornstar TV presenter looking to grow her brand into new areas. 'Now' is a moniker. Her topical discussion show deals with the issues of Southland Tales' Now - “Abortion, terrorism, crime, poverty, social reform, quantum teleportation, teen horniness and war”. Yet it is her own predicament that is a microcosm of Now. Before filming a pornographic scene, and because she is filming a pornographic scene, she goes to a friend for help : “Can I score some drugs?”. Although she puts on the mask of an uninhibited and blithely dishonourable woman, she cannot deal with the present. The promise of a better future is intangible and her political thoughts and allegiances are naive and superficial. She has lost herself.

 Krysta Now (nee Kapowski)

The majority of people (the ones we truly get to know) in Bad Lieutenant are battling with an addiction. Addictions and obsessions hold them under. The Lieutenant is hooked on gambling. Whatever money he has goes to fuel a cocaine and heroin habit : “Whatever I take's prescription...except for the heroin”. He started to use drugs, we are led to believe, after he injured his back saving a prisoner from a flooded cell. His girlfriend Frankie is addicted to cocaine too and, like Krysta, prostitutes herself. His father is an alcoholic. His Step-Mother is an alcoholic.

Their self-worth is very low. Scouring the water-side at night for an absconding witness Lieutenant McDonagh and Frankie cast their spotlight on a line of prostitutes enveloped by the dark, bleakly and pitifully soliciting business. At USIdent, the controversial Government surveillance organisation in Southland Tales (“All information sanitised”), dissidents are shot when individuals, lacking in self-esteem and dignity, are personally insulted:

           Kenny: “Nana Mae Frost [the head of one of USIdent's offices] can eat a f***ing dick”
           Nana Mae Frost: “Take him down!”

Zora, a Neo-Marxist revolutionary, is summarily shot upon yelling "Fascist pigs" at two gunmen on the beachfront. The institutions of state are infected by fragile egos, the nationwide police force bearing the aggressive and hyper-sensitive name of “UPU” (and its branches UPU2 and UPU3)

Both directors cameras will linger on the faces of these people to look into their glazed and sad eyes, to watch them look at themselves within the masks and prisons of their own skin and bone. Abused by a client, Frankie studies herself in the mirror, feeling the bruise, warily caressing her face and gingerly reapplying a beauty spot. At the end of Pilot Abilene's dream / hallucination, the drugs wear off and he stops dancing, staring at us with eyes full of boundless emptiness. Abilene, named after the place where one of the nuclear bombs fell, is a poster boy, the scarred face of the new nation. There are external and there are internal bruises. It is apt, therefore, that he is our narrator, Virgil to our Dante.

 Wounded Externally and Internally
Bad Lieutenant (top) and Southland Tales

Due to their low self-worth, the people lose their moral centre, or gravitate towards an amorality key, in their unstable worlds, to self-preservation. Lieutenant McDonagh's right hand man Stevie is willing to push the boundaries of justice to acquire information on the murders - “That means Guantanamo Bay rules”, he proudly proclaims, one of the few unambiguous references to our concrete political realities. If Stevie is the bad side of bad, then Terence McDonagh (though he is dismayed that a cop will not aid him in minor corruption: “Guardian of the flame, right? You f***in' ass!”) is the good side of bad. Terence pilfers police property, fabricates evidence, and variously abuses his position, yet he retains a core of goodness.

He is so determined to keep himself and this murder case moving forward that he takes the straightest course - a bent one. Terence is visibly and unmistakeably disturbed when a bereaved woman begs him for help at the victims' funeral. In his own way Terence is part of the solution. He knows what is wrong with society. Though he may wrestle with himself he ultimately pulls people out of the water and out of the mire. We see that the gangsters literally throw them in, wrapped in bin bags. In Southland Tales Roland and Martin tear a whole cash machine from the wall of a bank to facilitate an escape to Mexico. Needs must and the framework of right and wrong is shifted. The idea of it is twisted to the point of irrelevance.

The characters are separate from each other. They are withdrawn and detached. A criminal named Dave, in Bad Lieutenant, says of a proposed “sexual encounter” with Frankie : “...we engage with another human being, we remind ourselves we're not alone...”. The information streams played out on a wall of television screens at USIdent are a mosaic of interfaces, pieces of a fractured world that never coalesce into one image or a coherent voice of a populace. Political movements, Marxist, Neo-Marxists, Republicans, Democrats fight for something they have no true handle on, often in contravention of the tenets of the self-same movements they are part of.

The people of Southland Tales and Bad Lieutenant are like flotsam, floating free of each other, whether in Los Angeles, dizzying and chaotic, or a half-deserted, garbage-piled New Orleans. The reptiles that crawl on the streets of New Orleans are a reminder of where they came from, the swamp, and where they are in danger of returning to.

 Reptiles - Bad Lieutenant

The characters are separated from themselves too. They are separated from their old selves. They are literally split, cleaved in two. By the time Southland Tales' story has begun, the two catalysts for change (Roland Taverner and Boxer Santaros) have travelled, unbeknownst to them, through a rift in space/time half a kilometre wide. The rift in the 4th dimension sent them travelling sixty-nine minutes back in time. This means that there are two of the same person walking the earth, in this same “dominion of chaos”. There is now a Roland Taverner and a Ronald Taverner. Looking at himself in the mirror, one of the 'twins'' reflections is delayed. Boxer too is finally presented, towards the end of his journey, with his own charred remains. He recoils at the sight.

Reconciling the past with the present and future is the thematic crux of both films. That is to say, coming to terms with what has happened and coming to terms with what is going to happen. Simon Thiery in Southland Tales explains to Boxer that these two parts of the same person (the past and the future selves) would create a disturbance, or a dramatic event, if they came into close physical contact. He demonstrates this by bringing the fingers of his two hands close together and shaking them, mimicking Boxer's nervous twitch. Thus the imbalance and lack of certainty and peace felt by people in the film is obliquely explained as the separation of past from future.

The number sixty-nine appears again as part of Proposition 69, a vote on whether USIdent's powers of control should be rolled back. Purely as a symbol, 69 has a harmonious asymmetry. Their complementary shapes form a yin / yang (the competing forces of "Shadow" and "Light" are also invoked on more than one occasion). There needs to be reconciliation for there to be a new beginning. This is why these two men are viewed as Messiahs. They are symbolic of the split in all the people, and represent the opportunity for and hope of reunion.

Not reconciled, the void between the past and the future is filled by Melancholy. Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard talked of the 'Zone of Melancholy' which is described by Harvie Ferguson as a “meeting ground between the finite and the infinite, a collapsing in...”. French thinker Michel de Montaigne defined Melancholy as taking us “beyond ourselves”, as Taverner and Santaros are. He says Melancholy places us both in a void and enclosing a void. It is the overriding mood and humour of the pair of films in question.

Are the people aware that they are stuck? Do they want to be free? Is there a way out? The people of Southland Tales are as aware of their entrapment as they are in Bad Lieutenant. They feel, however, that the large scale of political life must be revolutionised in order to change the personal and the small scale. Pilot Abilene may have been offering a drug (Fluid Karma, the same substance used to remotely control vehicles) that pushes people further into the void, but he offers it with a semblance of a sign of the cross. They know that they require benediction but they do not know where it can be received.

Lieutenant Terence McDonagh confides “sometimes I have bad days” and Dave bemoans the fact that he has not made enough money from a criminal life to retire. He is “stuck doing this shit”. Terence's father and girlfriend book themselves into rehab while his father's wife takes, at least, the step of admitting that she has an addiction. They want out and they are trying to escape. They have a very long way to go, however. Terence imagines (“ain't no iguana”) iguana on his “coffee table” (it's not a coffee table, and it's not his) to the tune of “Please release me”. They need releasing and, even in Bad Lieutenant, a force majeure or deus ex machina may be needed.

The image of excrement is a recurring one in Southland Tales. One man is tied to a toilet. Another is shot on a toilet. There are places throughout the city where incriminating material can be delivered to Neo-Marxist underground cels; “Feed the Hole” they say. One of these holes is located in the toilet of a bar called 'Poopdeck'. One of our potential saviours, Roland/Ronald Taverner has not had a “bowel movement” for weeks. In summation, the energies have stalled, and the traumas of the past and the present go undigested and unexpelled.

“For how long am I gonna be in pain,” Terence asks a Doctor after treatment for his back, “for the rest of my life?” The physical and mental state of our bad lieutenant is an allegory for the state of the post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans he inhabits. Can the wound ever be salved?

Heidi, a police officer Terence flirts with to get drugs, has a mantelpiece covered in statues of the Pope, of angels, of the Virgin Mary. Either she has found a way to salvation or she may be trying as best she can to find it.

Boxer Santaros in Southland Tales tells his wife that there is in fact a “way to end all suffering”.

In spite of the enveloping despair (Southland Tales' chapter headings are shrouded by cloud) hope is never extinguished. Even fate can be negotiated with. It needn't be fought against, circumvented or ignored. The name of the man behind the massacre the lieutenant is trying to solve is Big Fate. That is, powerful, all-encompassing fate. In a final confrontation, where Big Fate is caught unarmed, Stevie is willing to engineer Big Fate's death. But Terence wants to embrace and control fate, not destroy it. 

Bad Lieutenant's opening scene depicts a prisoner up to his neck in water. By the end the prisoner, Chavez, is one year clean of drugs. If you have not drowned, you can still be rescued. When Dave dies in a shootout, Terence orders him to be shot again because his “soul is still dancing”. Hallucination or not, the human spirit as illustrated in the two films is not easy to kill.

Suddenly things become better. Having caught Big Fate, Terence gains another promotion, his girlfriend falls pregnant, and the case is resolved. At long last he finds the pirate treasure of an old silver spoon that was lost in his shed (given to him by his mother). The goodness in them has been excavated. He hands the spoon (his heart) onto his girlfriend: “That's so sweet,” she says.

                                          Goodness Excavated - Bad Lieutenant

There is deliverance of a sort. It is, in fact, a deliverance that could have been foreseen. Southland Tales is divided into biblically-based chapters that culminate, inevitably, in “Resurrection” and “Revelations”. In the same way a brighter future was bound to dawn in Bad Lieutenant. Its full title as it appears in the film (the title is abbreviated in most promotional material and for the DVD release) is The Bad Lieutenant : Port of Call New Orleans. The excision of “The” is not a trivial departure. Whereas Bad Lieutenant implies a finite, unchangeable character, The Bad Lieutenant, like Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant, implies a journey. “The” makes it a fable. It makes one wonder why the tale is being recounted and makes one expect, subconsciously, that he will not be 'bad' throughout.

Both films end with a transfiguration of their first images. Southland Tales began with a nuclear explosion, the fission of a nucleus. It ends with the two Taverners shaking hands, heralding the end of the old world and the beginning of a new one, through a “nice apocalypse” (“God wiped the tears from their eyes so the new Messiah could see out to Jerusalem”, says Pilot Abilene). The handshake is a fusion, the fusion of a nucleus. Incarnations of the same person reconcile the past with the future. The reunion delivers all the people who are wounded, all those who struggle to find sense and meaning. They rise up in wholeness; the ice cream van in which they are sat floats up into the night sky.

Pilot was wounded by Taverner in Afghanistan. His was the friendly fire. The two Taverners converse, forgiving themselves for what they have done: “Friendly fire” “I forgive you” “Friendly fire” “I forgive you” until the light of new life, akin to the flash of a nuclear blast, becomes blinding. To the echoes of The Star Spangled Banner America has forgiven and come to terms with itself.

Transfigured Images : 
Bad Lieutenant (above) and Southland Tales (below)

Bad Lieutenant opens with a snake skating over the floodwaters that surround the prisoner. It ends with Terrence McDonagh and the man he saved sitting, with tranquility, in front of a large aquarium. Water has been reclaimed as a positive symbol, as innocent and cleansing. Water is no longer drowning or sweeping the country "down the drain". Innocence is not fully regained but it is within reach. Shortly before Terrence had toasted to his new family after his second promotion, both undeserved and richly deserved:

"To new life".


  1. Damn, this is good writing, and a good appraisal of Southland Tales as well. I've watched it a few times, but somehow it never completely works for me, but I still find it very noble. SMG as Krysta is perfection, heck most of the actors are at their best here (who'd a thunk Sean William Scott could be so moving, so melancholy?). What the film does right is all the points you mention, but on viewing it, everything becomes so chaotic (and cameo-filled)that it's tough to follow. Or maybe that was the point?

  2. This...was...depressing...

    But still very good. I've always been a supporter of these two movies, and you kind of summed up why.

  3. Rob,

    Thank you very much. I agree on Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sean William Scott surprised me too. Though, as with most films I enjoy or get carried away by, I didn't think of the actors only the people.

    I found it hard to follow as well. Even after a third viewing there are little details that I am not sure on. I do think that's the point both in terms of showing a world with no clear direction and Kelly trying to make a film about everything.

  4. Thanks, Simon.

    I'm glad to hear you liked it and even gladder to hear you like the films.

    Sorry if I depressed you.

  5. These movies are so good, the actors are so good. I did find many comparative points among the two as I saw The Bad Liutenant.
    You make very good points, congratulations on an amazing piece on two of the most understimated movies of the past decade.

  6. This is one of your more brilliant pieces as of late Stephen. The lead-in is compelling and the thematic examination is fecund and cogent. I am particularly a fan of Herzog's film, which pairs two artists who seem made to work together! Th eBiblically framed SOUTHLAND TALES is an accomplished work as well. You've selected agreat pairing here!

  7. Wow. Sweeping and epic. Haven't seen Southland Tales, but this article is really something. It's so... dense and so acutely-observed (especially the invocation of the theme of excretion). I double Sam's comment on this one being one of your best. This post makes a great case for both the films. Bravo Stephen!

  8. Thank you very much, Jaime.

    I think Southland Tales is the better film (though they are both good). I think it is dismissed too quickly and for silly reasons - using TV Actors, or trying to do or say too much.

  9. Thank you, Sam.

    I'm happy you think it an essay worth reading. For me the comparison was inescapable, for the atmosphere they create if for nothing else.

  10. JAFB,

    Thank you so much. Southland Tales is a very good film, for me the superior of the two. Richard Kelly is making films like no one else - no-holds barred intelligent, funny, fun, spiritual films.

    Southland Tales and The Box are the kind of film Darren Aranofsky's The Fountain tried to be. Maybe The Fountain feels too po-faced.

  11. Man, we are on the same trail. I love every movie Richard Kelly has made, and Southland Tales is one of my favs of all time, and I agree that it's the superior one.
    Even though when you read the piece it may read otherwise, just saying.

  12. Jamie,

    I would actually discount DONNIE DARKO - I really didn't like it. It's funny that the films which received the most negative criticism are the ones I like best.

    "Even though when you read the piece it may read otherwise, just saying."

    That's interesting. As an essay, there was no conscious judgement of value.

  13. Sorry Jaime for calling you Jamie.

  14. What an interesting write up.

    Sadly, I feel our country has had it too good for far too many years, to see that something like this finally occurred.

    Always makes me feel sorry for all the other countries who have endured these things for too many years, and continue to do so.

    Cheers! CM

  15. Thanks CM. I'm glad you liked it.

    "Always makes me feel sorry for all the other countries who have endured these things for too many years, and continue to do so."

    Absolutely. Well said.

  16. Thank you very much Amy.

    Happy New Year.