Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

"If You Can Hold On.": Counter-Apocalyptic Play in Richard Kelly's Southland Tales

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

"If You Can Hold On.": Counter-Apocalyptic Play in Richard Kelly's Southland Tales

Article excerpt

Richard Kelly's Southland Tales was widely panned by critics 1 for its narrative incoherence and indulgent style; neither was it well received by audiences at the box office. However, I will argue that the multilayered, multiscreened, indulgence of the film is making specific arguments about contemporary identities and contemporary ways of knowing. Kelly's film sets up images and tones, of news, scripture and surveillance, as intersecting apocalyptic ways of knowing and this unfolding spectacle reveals a playful parody of end-time dramas, celebrity cultures and the security state. The film's neo-baroque 2 , indulgent visionary style which moves the film from kaleidoscopic collages to staged musical numbers, from storm trooper attacks to home video scenes, produces a sophisticated open-ended text which refuses to foreclose on only one interpretation or critique of the systems at play. In this sense it is a particularly clear example of what feminist theologian Catherine Keller calls the counter-apocalyptic 3 : a style, which through strategies of ironic parody, both describes and questions the apocalyptic and its easy polarities.

The apocalyptic is a mobile and dynamic narrative that can be identified in different forms across different media and has been linked to both a historic religious mythology and a range of contemporary political discourses4. It can be found in film, political speeches, journalism, television drama, literature and other forms of popular culture5. It can take on rhetorical, documentary, dramatic and visionary forms and it is linked to a range of other narratives and mythologies and is best understood as a hybrid form.

The western narrative of apocalypse is primarily drawn from the last book of the New Testament - the Book of Revelation or The Apocalypse6 - which describes a set of graphic end-time visions of strange beasts, cataclysmic wars, and terrible plague brought by God's avenging angels. But these cataclysmic visions are matched with a promise of something new - the final descent from heaven of the New Jerusalem and the establishment of a millennial rule of peace. Contemporary apocalyptic narratives are therefore a set of anxious readings of the "signs of the times," tracking "wars and rumors of wars" (Matthew 24:6) in expectation of these terror visions becoming reality; but this anxiety is mixed with a simultaneous hope for the utopic millennium arising out of disaster.

Various forms of apocalyptic narrative are critical to many recent mainstream and alternative films7 from the apocalyptic story arc of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (Jackson 2001-3) to the post apocalyptic survival narratives of 28 Days Later (Boyle 2002), The Road (Hillcoat 2009) and The Book of Eli (Hughes & Hughes 2010); to the psychological apocalyptic reflections of Melancholia (Von Trier 2011) or Take Shelter (Nichols 2011); to the succession of blockbuster end of the world thrillers of Roland Emmerich: Independence Day (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009).

Several scholars have sought to directly link an analysis of film narratives to the form of the apocalyptic myth as outlined by biblical scholars. Such attempts to identify the parameters of a cinematic genre of apocalypse produced a run of cinema studies volumes and articles at the turn of this century. 8 While each of these studies makes contributions to unraveling the connections between the ancient and the contemporary apocalyptic traditions their collective attempt to come up with a cogent genre definition is even less successful than the early attempts among biblical scholars9. While Dailey10 for example holds up Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys as an exemplary apocalyptic film, which can be read against the classic genre definition of biblical scholarship, Stone11 dismisses it as not fitting his definition of a "revelatory" apocalyptic film. In the end, such attempts to strictly define contemporary filmic narratives against the conventions of Middle Eastern mythological literature are unhelpful in analyzing the wide variety of expressions of the apocalyptic as a continuing "network of discourses and practices in social and political use and circulation"12. …

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