The Films of Gregg Araki

As signalled by a recent, lengthy feature article in The New York Times penned by influential critic Dennis Lim, unrepentantly iconoclastic filmmaker Gregg Araki has passed into a more respectable stage in his fascinating, often misunderstood career.

His tenth theatrical feature, Kaboom (one of the unquestionable hits of last year’s Cannes Film Festival) arrived in theatres glowing with near-universal praise—a rarity for Araki, whose twenty-year career has seen him in combat with many of his key constituencies. Although he was labeled early on as a part of the New Queer Cinema movement and has continued to engage in radical explorations of sex, gender, sexual violence and the “queer underground,” his films have never really been embraced by the majority of the gay and lesbian community: they are simply too dark a vision of gay life, too extreme in their expectation of violence around sexuality and too gleeful in thumbing their nose at the community’s bourgeois aspirations. He also enjoys championing a fluid sexuality that neatly denies same-sex exceptionalism and questions the very idea of a community based strictly around sexual preference. (The last straw likely came when Araki quite publicly shacked up with Beverly Hills 90210 star Kathleen Robertson.)

If the gay community has been habitually unsupportive of Araki, critics have been little better, if not worse: many (male) mainstream journalists found it difficult to even watch the (now rather tame) sex scenes in Araki’s breakthrough film The Living End. More than this, though, critics have often been baffled by the unique dialectic that makes Araki’s films so tough to read. Araki’s films are driven by great passion, often concerning romantic love at its most tragic and populated by alienated youth set against the background of post-punk anthems. At the same time, they delight in coining hyper-stylized Valley Girl vocabulary, often culminating in infantile contests to name various sex organs and acts, revel in kooky outfits and visual design and include a panoply of B-list-and-below celebrities acting dumb. Unlike the highly analytical, intellectually precise (and largely unfunny) films of Araki’s New Queer Cinema compatriot Todd Haynes, critics often couldn’t figure out which side of Araki they should be reviewing—overlooking the fact that it is precisely the interweaving of these elements that defines Araki’s approach.

Aesthetically, Araki presents the same challenges. Ridiculously low-budget (his first four features cost less than $50,000 combined), his early work often looks chaotic and murky at first glance, but this lack of surface sheen belies how astutely Araki has digested and reinterpreted Godard’s framing strategies and editing tropes or Warhol’s ability to make the throwaway moment utterly profound. And even those (and there are more recently) who do see Araki as a crucial connection between contemporary American and 1960s European art cinema find his other major influence—the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s— tough to integrate into his genealogy. Araki’s loving dedication to Los Angeles also bucks the unofficial cross-media consensus that the city should only be represented as a kind of dystopian metaphor: resisting the urge to universalize his characters and stories, Araki revels in local idiosyncracies and the highly specific urban landscapes of southern California.

Apart from Splendor, his wild, one-off riff on Preston Sturges, Araki’s films are best understood as matched, symbiotic pairs. The first two films, Three Bewildered People in the Night and The Long Weekend (o’ Despair) privilege art-school pansexual angst and a hyper-grainy 16mm aesthetic, tropes which have become such a cliché of American independent cinema that one forgets how radical the films were at the time in their updating of Warholian disaffection to the alienated eighties. Next comes the early masterpieces The Living End and Totally F***ed Up, angry, prescient films about how American society marginalizes and destroys its most vulnerable outsiders. Although Araki eschews any political agenda in interviews, these are still among the strongest statements about how homophobia insidiously destroys lives, and not just gay ones. The Doom Generation and Nowhere are candy-coloured explosions that deepen his exploration of how America functions around sex and violence; largely dismissed (with palpable disgust) upon release, their gore-laced, go-for-broke aesthetics have had a huge impact on an emerging generation of filmmakers and musicians. (Araki himself connects Totally F***ed Up with these two films as a “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy,” but the earlier film’s touching melancholy and pseudo-documentary aesthetic feels at odds with the hyper-stylized garishness of the later duo.) After an unhappy detour into television, Araki re-emerged with the yin-yang duo of Mysterious Skin (a discomfiting sexual abuse drama that was Araki’s first unqualified critical success) and the slap-happy stoner comedy Smiley Face, cleaving the contradictory elements of his earlier films into neatly coherent halves. With its alternately raunchy and affecting portrait of freshman sexual experimentation coupled with whispers of conspiracy and apocalypse, Kaboom now sews those halves back together, attesting once again to the invaluable unpredictability of Araki’s urgent and indispensable cinema.

(Full description above from Cinematheque Ontario write-up)

Capsule review of Selected Films:

THE LIVING END (USA 1992) ****
Directed by Greg Araki
As the lead character Luke (Mike Dytri) says at the film’s start: “This is the first day of the rest of your life!”
These words have more essence as applied to Luke as he has just been diagnosed with AIDS.  The doctor gives his customary advice which seems appropriately funny given Luke’s attitude and what the audience knows about the disease 15 years now into the future.  But the result of the medical test is a Luke running amok creating havoc in everything, especially in the life of Jon (Craig Gilmore) a movie critic who he has just met.

Araki’s few wheeling film also point a finger at film critics.  Those who can’t do teach and those who can’t teach (i.e. us film critics) tear to shreds other people’s work.  That would be a dare for a reviewer then to tear this film apart.

Fortunately, THE LIVING END is an energetic anarchic little film, full of life (or should we say death) and unexpectancies.  There are touches of BONNIE AND CLYE (Luke robbing a bank when the ATM is broken) and the free spiritness of countless classics like THELMA AND LOUISE, A BOUT DE SOUFFLE and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.  The film also makes total sense.  If one is diagnosed with a terminal disease, wouldn’t one want to change ones life and take full revenge?  For Luke, this involves killing a cop, shooting dead three gay bashers, splitting the head open of a homophobe among other nasties.  Luke gets his gun from two lesbians Daisy (Mary and Woronov) and Fern (Johanna Went) who had picked him up as a hitchhiker and then decided to kill him.

The film’s title comes from a song by The Jesus and Mary Chain, and a cover version of the JAMC song is performed by Braindead Soundmachine during the film’s credits. Early in the movie, Luke is seen wearing a JAMC shirt.

Though Luke’s character may seem the more interesting one, it is Jon’s.  Jon, also HIV positive does not share Luke’s enthusiasm and hovers between living his part and Like’s free spiritness.  Director Araki has a good grasp of what he wants to reveal of their characters and the message he wants to put across.  The climax of THE LIVING END is the confrontation of the two men which brings the film to a conclusion.  This is one of Araki’s best films.

MYSTERIOUS SKIN (USA/Nethrlamnds 2004) ****
Directed by Gregg Araki
Bad gay boy Gregg Araki (THE DOOM GENERATION, ALL F***CKED UP, THE LIVING END) returns after a 5-year absence with a more polished and matured piece MYSTERIOUS SKIN based on the acclaimed novel by Scott Heim. Araki’s films are marked by his maverick, often disjointed but highly energetic devil-may-care style, which in the case of MYSTERIOUS SKIN works to the director’s advantage.

Take the film’s awesome starting image. A blank white screen! As the camera pulls back, the viewer notices white flakes that could very well be snow or cotton but turns out to be sugar puffs. That segment actually traces the start of a child molestation segment – the key issue of Araki’s new film.

For one it is good to see Araki back in gay territory as his straight films were going straight (sorry - couldn’t resist using the pun) downhill. MYSTERIOUS SKIN alternates between two protagonists. What they share in common (besides being gay) is the child sex abuse they endured while under training as kids with the same baseball coach. One survives, the other barely. Araki interweaves the two stories together the way he knows best, creating humour (mostly dead-pan) in the oddest of moments and sympathy often when needed most. Grotesqueness is balanced with sensitivity but the Araki’s viewers must possess a fortitude just as much as his most long-suffering victim has to endure. Compared to the many recent films (BAD EDUCATION, MYSTIC RIVER) dealing with child abuse, Araki’s never judges or offers any solutions. The protagonists eventually have to come to terms with the truth – but in that achievement alone lies a certain peace.

SMILEY FACE (USA/Germany 2007) ****
Directed by Gregg Araki
SMILEY FACE begins at the end of the day, as Jane (Anna Faris) talks to the narrator of the story (Roscoe Lee Brown in his last film) while sitting on a ferris wheel, then flashes back to that morning where it all started.  The narrator goes on in a dead serious fashion on how by fate, chance or whatever a person goes from Point A to Point Z.  Point A is the start of the day when Jane gets the most stoned she had ever been in her life as a result of eating cupcakes laced with cannabis.  But she leaves the house after making ‘a plan’ and begins a series of hilarious adventures that lead her through an audition, her first bus trip ever and the theft of the original Karl Marx communist manifesto.  Never mind if nothing makes sense.  Don’t worry about any message (who knows, there might be one hidden) or climax or plot in all this.  Just sit back, relax and enjoy this stoner comedy which is the funniest thing I have seen in 2007 and this year so far.  The film is even funnier if you can relate to the characters.

TOTALLY F***ED UP (USA 1993) ***
Directed by Gregg Araki
One of Araki’s most serious films in the series, TOTALLY F***ED UP, is described by Araki himself as a rag-tag story of the fag-and-dyke teen underground....a kinda cross between avant-garde experimental cinema and a queer John Hughes flick.  It tells the story of the daily routines, thoughts and ‘aspirations’ of 6 gay teens, 4 males and 2 females overcoming obstacles created by a prejudiced straight society that includes rejection, homophobia among other issues.  Though the film looks like a documentary with the characters often speaking to the camera, the film is actually written by Araki with actors, including his regular James Duval (as Andy) playing the 6 teens.  The present is quite a ways off from 1993, and the 1992 angst appears dated.  The much needed humour is primarily provided by the 2 dykes, but it is quite a chore to listen to teens grumble and complain throughout a full hour and a half, despite at that time, timely relevance.


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