The Dukes of Hazzard (Jay Chandrasekhar, 2005) is either a leaden, unfunny hicksploitation comedy with a nonexistent sense of irony, or one of the most remarkable and subversive works of surrealist cinema I have seen...well, ever, really. Unthinkably, I find that I tend to the latter view.

It's a long, hard road to get there, so bear with me. It is a fact about the cinema, that no nondocumentary film exists in "the real world." Some films appear so, more than others, but it is not the case. It may seem that On the Waterfront is set in a facsimile of the real world in a way that The Thief of Bagdad does not; but both have been constructed, both designed in a specific way; both exist in a specific universe whose rules are laid out by the text of the film, and are unique to that film. It may so happen that the rules which govern On the Waterfront are closer to the rules we are familiar with than The Thief of Bagdad, but the rules still most be established by the film; the film is bound by the rules of its universe. The reason we accept flying horses in The Thief of Bagdad is not because we believe such things exist; it is because such things are held to exist in the universe of that film, just as the universe of On the Waterfront is one in which Hoboken dockworkers are held to exist.

(This is not just a commentary on fantasy vs. reality. An American in Paris exists in a universe in which spontaneous, fully orchestrated and choreographed song-and-dance numbers are part of normal conversation; Some Like It Hot exists in a universe in which many dozens of people believe that Jack Lemmon looks like a woman).

It is a rule that we commonly accept, that all movies establish a reality to take place in, and the "believability" of a film is not dependent upon how closely it hews to our reality, but upon the internal consistency of its invented reality.

This does not take into consideration the very small number of films in which no reality is created; films whose very purpose is to exist in the absence of a set of universal rules. These films are called "surreal," and their narrative and dramatic thrust is almost entirely concerned with their lack of a guiding reality: in a film such as Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie, the entire film exists to demonstrate that no causality dictates the events that can and do happen within its diegesis. It is my belief that The Dukes of Hazzard falls into this genre.

It is not that events in DOH could not happen in our world; although they could not. And it is not that the events in DOH could not occur believably in the world of the film; it is that we, the audience, are given no indication of whether or not these events are believable. To take just one example: at one point, Bo Duke (Seann William Scott) speaks to the General Lee (the car; and if you know so little about the TV series or the movie that you are unaware of the General Lee, you must stop reading), and responds as though the car is speaking back; Luke Duke (Johnny Knoxville) reacts as though he views this as a sign of his cousin's dementia, but the film gives us no indication either way, and never returns to this possibility, although Bo speaks to the General Lee elsewhere in the story. This incident is isolated, taking nothing from the rest of the film and giving nothing back.

It is not the case that DOH is "bad" because of this, in the way that e.g. Fantastic Four is "bad" for being unbelievable. Fantastic Four is unbelievable because it sets up rules of character interaction which it then proceeds to ignore. DOH is interesting precisely because it does not set up any such rules: it exists as a collection (not a series) of events which lack an ordering moral force. In the world of DOH, events are arbitrary and controlled randomly: Luke, Bo, and Daisy (Jessica Simpson) create and define situations through force of will. They take advantage of their world's lack of a central ordering force to enforce whatever situation is immediately advantageous to their goals.

The structure of DOH put me in mind of the structure of an atom. At one point, the atom was believed to be composed of a nucleus, around which a collection of electrons orbited with neatly defined, clockwork precision. This is the structure of a normal film: a center around which events whose relationship is clearly delegated revolve. We now believe, however, that an atom is more chaotic and amorphous; there are regions within the atom in which there are probabilities of finding a certain number of electrons, but the whole is a sort of undefined mass of entropy (physics people: I know that this is simplified and inexact and somewhat inaccurate. It's a metaphor). This is the structure of The Dukes of Hazzard: it is a collection of events which exist only as themselves; their relationship to each other defines a whole, but the precise nature of that relationship is indistinct and indefinable, and there is no connecting them which gives the sequence of events meaning. It is a sort of jazz fantasia on the elements of the television series. Things happen because they are made to happen, and it seems like they are all premeditated by the artist, but there is no reason why those specific things should be better than other things which do not happen, and their order seems arbitrary and forced by the linear nature of our consciousness, and not by the material.

That said, it is my belief that none of this was the intention of the director, Jay Chandrasekhar, or the writer, John O'Brien. I'm sure they wanted to make a goofy hicksploitation comedy, with Jessica Simpson's sexy ass doing duty to keep your attention between car-chase set pieces. And I'm afraid that's the film I really watched, and the surrealist manifesto that I've spent the last three hours thinking about was created by my brain in an attempt to ignore that fact that I was making it pay attention to The Dukes of Hazzard.

Rating: 10/10, for the film that I watched and enjoyed.
4/10 for the film that was actually playing.