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Kiss him deadly

Richard Kelly on The Box , the Jag, and the critics at Cannes
By ROB NELSON  |  November 14, 2007

THE NEXT WHATSIT? Kelly’s bringing it to Southie.

The wasted land: Richard Kelly goes for broke in Southland Tales. By Rob Nelson.
Bostonians flummoxed by the great whatsits of Richard Kelly’s vaguely Spillanean Southland Tales stand an outside chance of querying the puzzler himself, as the 32-year-old writer/director begins shooting his next feature in South Boston this very weekend. “The tax rebate here is very inviting,” says Kelly of his choice to make most of The Box on Southie soundstages, even though the movie’s set in Virginia circa 1976. Alas, aside from the revelations about its source material (the Richard Matheson story “Button, Button”) and star (Cameron Diaz), this Box is another whatsit. “I don’t want to spoil too much,” he adds. “But I can tell you that NASA [where his scientist dad has worked for many years] is heavily involved in the film and has given us unprecedented access to research materials and authentic props.”

Kelly, who sent a jet engine crashing through a suburban house for his 2001 debut, Donnie Darko, is a fabulist who favors playing with real toys — as real as possible, anyway. Southland Tales doesn’t just fetishize the 1955 film adapted from Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly; it features a precise replica of the kick-ass convertible Jag that Ralph Meeker’s private dick commandeered in that apocalyptic noir. Blink and you’ll miss it, however, since the car — on screen only for several seconds — is among the casualties of Kelly’s war with Sony during the year and a half since Southland’s longer, marginally trippier, and much-reviled version premiered at Cannes.

“When you’re picking your battles and asking [Sony] for more visual-effects money, you try to keep everything as fast-paced as possible,” the director points out. “But the Jag is still in there, you know? When I get to put some stuff back in [for a third, “director’s cut” version on DVD], I’ll probably make that shot a little longer.” Aw, just a little? After all, Kelly says that when he and his crew filmed Boxer Santaros cruising through the manicured courtyard of an LA mansion (this critic’s favorite shot in the Cannes edition), “we let a whole mag [of film] unroll.”

Not to say that Southland’s speedier theatrical cut lacks for va-va-vroom. “I tried to give the movie a very shiny, polished, fun, inviting, sexy look, with charismatic people in bathing suits on the Fourth of July having parties on the beach, everyone watching everyone else. I wanted to seduce people into accepting this nightmarish version of our American existence.”

Which is precisely what all of American pop culture exists to do, right? To seduce us into loving a living hell?

Kelly agrees — and he has a pop-culture reference to prove the point. “There’s that line in the Simpsons episode where Homer gets acquitted on sexual-harassment charges because of Groundskeeper Willie’s camcorder tape. Marge says, ‘Well, as long as everyone is running around videotaping everyone else, justice will be served.’ We’ve gotten to the point [in America] where rampant voyeurism and surveillance are justified by ‘security.’ The culmination of that [culture] in Southland Tales is the idea of having cameras in the toilet stalls at LA-X.”

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