Photo of director Gregg ArakiThere are filmmakers defined by a generation and others that define a generation. Gregg Araki is a fluid representation of both these roles. His films are influenced by the issues that permeate his world, but they also provide windows into the emotions swirling around these circumstances. The majority of his characters are realistic and relatable, even if all their choices are not. But it is the blending of real and unreal that makes Araki’s films so striking. TIFF Cinematheque is shining the spotlight on Araki with a full retrospective of his work: Kaboom! The Films of Gregg Araki.

Over a career spanning 20 years, Araki has endured as an unconventional, unpredictable voice of independent cinema – and is now less bound to the New Queer Cinema label that originally accompanied his work. His depictions of romantic love and teenage angst against backdrops of violence and prejudice with a post-punk soundtrack and Valley girl-dialogue are incomprehensible contradictions that meld into captivating cinema. Having started making movies straight out of film school, it’s easy to spot Araki’s fascination with the style of Jean-Luc Goddard; but also his rebelliousness against the prescribed norms of filmmaking and society. He indulges in tight shots that are not framed “correctly” and includes sections of scenes that would normally be cut to excellent effect (taking a page from Andy Warhol’s belief in throwaway moments).

Watching Araki’s films in chronological order in preparation of writing this article plainly illustrated his evolution as a filmmaker. The murky, documentary style gives way to vibrant, erratic images; the camera takes in more while still capturing the intimacy and tone of a situation; and he begins to apply his unique voice to other people’s words. Araki’s films are populated with B-list-or-below actors and a few others that had yet to make their mark (see Joseph Gordon-Levitt). However, the movies are never grasping for talent as the casts repeatedly exceed expectations. It’s also not unusual to see actors appear in more than one of the director’s pictures; though they are often portraying vastly different characters (see Johnathon Schaech). All the narratives are unapologetically set in Southern California as Araki revels in local idiosyncrasies and specific urban landscapes.

Araki’s non-traditional portrayals of homosexuality have been both applauded and scoffed. He shows a gay community connected by more than just sex, however much of the sex traces back to some degree of violence. Araki’s depiction of sexuality and gender in general is fluid and explicit. However, for some, his representations are too stark and extreme to earn their acceptance.

The Living End (1992) is to some extent Araki’s personal response to the AIDS crisis. Its two protagonists (Craig Gilmore and Mike Dytri) are HIV positive; as one ponders his death sentence, the other views it as a license to kill – although his victims are not wholly innocent either. Together, the couple are carefree, forming a bond during a road trip that teeters between romantic and deranged. The narrative climaxes with an unexpected conclusion, which leaves audiences with an ambiguous ending.

Disenchanted youths drive Totally F***ked Up (1993) as society’s neglect and indifference pushes the outcasts further to the fringes. The title refers to a statement made by one character to the camera, although he’s no more messed up than a lot of teens – just isolated. The film is structured in 15 separately titled sections that continue in some indeterminate near-future, much like several of Godard’s films. Also similar to Godard are the strange exchanges and commentary occurring in the background of the main action. One of Araki’s finest and most lauded features, the film also introduced his frequent muse, James Duval, as the makeshift adoptive family’s leader.

These two films, along with Araki’s first two efforts, Three Bewildered People in the Night (1987) and The Long Weekend (o’ Despair) (1989), share a muted tone and focus on the relationships of gay teens and twenty-somethings. In addition to the usual issues of peer pressure, politics, pregnancy, infidelity and dating, they must deal with AIDS, homophobia, gay bashing and suicide. From these more sensitive, sober pictures, Araki turns towards an ultra-violent, aggressive style.

The Doom Generation (1995) is a hyper-stylized, gory picture and unexpected follow-up to the melancholic alienation of Totally F***ked Up. It’s sensational, sexy and surprisingly centred around a highly sexualized female character (Rose McGowan). As the threesome (McGowan, Duval and Schaech) rip through the city, condemning convenience stores and committing hotel debauchery, the film spews quantities of blood usually more at home in ‘80s slasher flicks. Araki is clearly experimenting with a new style, but the themes that infuse his work continue to play out here even though they are presented in new packaging. The narrative races towards the appropriate apocalyptic end, but makes numerous graphic stops along the way.

Araki aptly describes Nowhere (1997) as “Beverly Hills 90210 on acid.” Exposing the strange and extravagant lives of a group of L.A. high school kids, the film’s cast is a collection of has-beens and yet-to-bes including, Duval, McGowan, Shannen Doherty, Traci Lords, Ryan Phillipe, Heather Graham, Mena Suvari, Christina Applegate, John Ritter and Beverly D’Angelo. The quest for a party is complicated and derailed by S&M, mutilation, murder, suicide and alien abduction.

After the nihilism of his last two pictures, Araki makes an abrupt detour and dives headfirst into a romantic, screwball comedy. Splendor (1999) is the story of Veronica (Araki’s then girlfriend Kathleen Robertson), whose previous idle love life is restored when she begins to date two guys (Schaech and Matt Keesler) at once. Eventually, the threesome moves in together, pushing the sexual tension between them to the breaking point. However, it ultimately wraps up with an unexpected happy ending. This is Araki’s first “mainstream” feature – it looks somewhat glossier than his previous pictures, the cinematography is friendlier and any signs of experimentation are virtually non-existent. It’s also the first narrative that’s actually predictable to some extent.

Mysterious Skin (2004), based on the novel by Scott Heim, is Araki’s first film to receive widespread acclaim. Roger Ebert said, “[Mysterious Skin] is at once the most harrowing and, strangely, the most touching film I have seen about child abuse. . . . It is not a message picture, doesn’t push its agenda; [it’s] about discovery, not accusation.” This is an incredibly fitting response to the film about two teenage boys that were molested by their little league coach a decade earlier. The abuse put them on two completely different paths: Brian (Brady Corbet) is a shy introvert obsessed by his own possible UFO abduction who has blocked out any memory of the abuse; Neil (Gordon-Levitt), his perception of sex cruelly warped, has become a highly sexualized hustler headed for the big-city gay underworld. Although it’s not the first time Araki deals with a serious issue on screen, it’s by far the culmination of all he learned in realistically and poignantly portraying trauma.

Separating the contradictory elements of his earlier films with Mysterious Skin, Araki balances his offerings by emerging from the other end of the spectrum with the stoner comedy Smiley Face (2007). The film is the lesser told story of the slacker female, Jane F (Anna Faris). When one morning she inadvertently devours an entire batch of her roommate’s “special” cupcakes, she embarks on a goofy odyssey across L.A. that somehow lands the original manuscript for Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto into her impaired hands. Araki’s capacity for comedy behind the camera is equally matched by his talent for unconventional drama. Moreover, Faris’ ability for slapstick physical comedy knows no limits.

And we arrive at Araki’s tenth and most recent feature, Kaboom (2010), which launches the retrospective and repositions the filmmaker in the centre of his non-tranditional spectrum. The director revives his familiar crew of frequently stoned, sexually fluid teens with a twist – they’re facing bizarre forces of the supernatural, conspiracy and apocalypse. It’s a return to the unapologetically lustful and hilarious narrative that dominated the first half of Araki’s career; however, he’s replaced more serious threats to the characters’ well-being with fantastical ones, such as witches, prophetic dreams and murderous men in animal masks. This film is a strange, but rewarding, ride.

Araki’s first four films had a combined budget of $50,000; although he’s advanced beyond those meagre beginnings, his invaluable unpredictability remains intact.

He’ll be at TIFF Bell Lightbox for In Conversation… with Gregg Araki Saturday, April 9th at 7 pm. Araki will be joined on stage by Noah Cowen (artistic director for TIFF Bell Lightbox) to discuss his eventful career.

  1. moviegeek says:

    I was quite looking forward to this, so now that I have seen it my disappointment is even bigger!
    this is a completely pointless, wit-less film. It’s un-funny, not scary, and not even the sex scenes managed to be sexy.
    Very disappointing and a waste of Thomas Dekker who has actually a very interesting face and he could be rather good in a better film…
    I’ll give Araki one last chance then I’ll begin to think that “Mysterious Skin” was just a lucky mistake in an otherwise disastrous filmography.


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