Nostalgia, with a Side of Clunky Social Commentary, Please: Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation
Allow me, if you will, to reiterate how uncomfortable I am at reviewing films. I’m not a film student. I’m not well-versed in film academia. I’m just a consumer of media, and sure, I can be a snob as much as the next Rainer Werner Fassbinder fan (NAME DROP). I only feel compelled to review this trilogy because it was integral in the formation of who I am today and who I’m striving to become. In the words of Queer As Folk protagonist Brian Kinney, I want to be the best gay man I can be. I can honestly say these films, Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere, left a delightfully morbid and heartfelt impression on me. In short, they helped shaped me into the gay man I am now.
With that said, how ‘bout I start with my least favorite of the trilogy, and yes, it’s because it’s not gay enough.
So, the gist of the film: Jordan White (James Duval), Amy Blue (Rose McGowan), and Xavier Red (Jonathan Schaech) are the film’s teenage protagonists. In the midst of a clunky conversation about romance and the wasteland called L.A., Jordan and Amy are interrupted by Xavier warding off a gang of thugs. Saving his life, they instantly drop him at the side of the road and pick up some food at a convenient store. The cashier holds them at gun point when they can’t provide payment but are saved when, who else, Xavier rescues them by shooting the cashier’s head off. From there, the trio is thrown into a surreal smorgasbord of misunderstanding, more murder, homo-eroticism, sex, ummm more sex, listless wandering through Californian desert landscapes, and a soundtrack consisting of bands and artists you probably haven’t heard of but your parents or older siblings have.
Where to begin.
My initial reaction to this film was disgust. I watched this in college, my pre-Serbian Film days, and I was mortified that a film could be this graphic and nihilistic. Yet, as I stated in my previous entry, it resonated with me. Perhaps it’s the road-film element. I mean, who hasn’t yearned to hop in a car and drive recklessly and aimlessly to God-knows-where? It’s a rite of passage to become rebellious, assume you know more than your parents know about the world, wanting to hitchhike, find a grungy apartment in New York, start a band, become a star, something that shakes the monotony called Your Life. The Doom Generation certainly embodies that immaturity, and despite criticism against the film’s flow and dialogue, I think it works. Araki creates a desolate universe through the lens of the protagonists, a world devoid of genuine kindness or affection, a world in which they refuse to accept but can’t bring themselves to change. Or in Xavier’s case, he doesn’t want to.
The one theme that gripped me on the first viewing, still grips me, was alienation. All three protagonists are withdrawn misfits, and the setting isn’t high school. It’s an infinite stretch of burning hot asphalt and desert. Gregg Araki has been favorably deemed the queer John Hughes, and for good reason. These spiritually-starved teenagers are aimlessly discovering who they are and how they fit into society, or in this case, how they don’t fit into society. Murder, sex, violence, and mortality are additional themes the trio must contemplate, but I get the impression that they don’t truly care to explore said themes. At least they can’t fully comprehend them, which is understandable since being a teenage, at one point or another, is perceived as the end all be all of each person’s existence. On the contrary, while these stressful musings ebb and flow, for these adolescent protagonists, it constantly flows. It doesn’t get better. It gets worse, and just when they think life can’t get more surreal or hopeless, they’re plunged into another morbid scenario, be it a murder or…a murder, another murder…
Again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, as a queer person, I’ve dealt with the general theme of alienation. I still do. Frankly, we all have, in some form, felt like we don’t belong, we were born in the wrong generation, that our own generation is one rung below the apocalypse, the end of everything genuine and decent.
Buuuuuut, Araki’s The Doom Generation can be a bit, well, off-putting for some. And by that, I mean some may overlook the attention and associate this film with trashier, less eloquent cinema.
I’m referring specifically to this piece of garbage.
The Doom Generation has been compared, according to anonymous sources, to Oliver Stone’s controversial road film Natural Born Killers released a year prior. And sure, they share an inherent contempt towards mid-90s America, and both plots involve underage teenagers engaged in sexual and/or homicidal acts. However, I still think this is an unfair comparison. I can’t bring myself to like Natural Born Killers. One important reason is the female protagonist in both films. Rose McGowan’s Amy Blue is, to me, more human. She’s foul-mouthed and insecure, and she intentionally detaches herself from her environment because of her insecurity. She acts like a teenager. She’s horrified at the fact she and her boyfriend are accomplices to an unhinged convict, yet she says nothing because she doesn’t know what to do or where to go.
Juliette Lewis’ Mallory Knox, on the other hand…good God, I wanted her to bite it in the end. I felt like Oliver Stone, amidst the depravity and bloodshed, was begging for me to feel for Mallory, to connect with her, to view her as a heroine instead of a tragic, cautionary figure whose only outlet is to reek havoc on random bystanders.
Sorry, Ollie. No. I don’t care how flawed I am, and I don’t care if I inherit the same monstrous traits as Charles Manson. That’s not an adequate reason for me to connect with Mickey and Mallory Knox. There’s nothing exhilarating about slicing someone’s throat. There’s nothing liberating about kidnapping and raping random people on the street. Secondly, I didn’t want to tell The Doom Generation to shut up. Natural Born Killers is just unpleasant noise and nauseating camerawork trying to pass off as an insightful look into, what else, natural born killers (ugh). Seriously, Ollie, what the hell were you thinking, deeming that final cut as profound commentary?
The Doom Generation is by no means a perfect film. In fact, Araki implements his own commentary on modern American society through symbolism and set design, and — yeah, most of it misses the mark, too. I suppose senseless bloodshed requires heavyhanded insight on morality and finger-pointing. For my money, and this is a note to writers and directors alike, if you’re going to comment on society, government, injustice, or whatever twists your panties, you had better damn well commit to your thesis. You can’t just throw your musings on top of copious amounts of murder and violence and call that commentary. It’s too contrived. It’s bordering on manipulative, especially if your target audience is impressionable adolescents. Be subtle, yet don’t be mean-spirited. Again, The Doom Generation tries and fails, but at least not as heinously as Natural Born Killers. Furthermore, The Doom Generation is more committed to its characters and plot than Natural Born Killers is with Mickey and Mallory. The Doom Generation isn’t trying to be commentary, at least not at the forefront. It’s just a story about a couple who gets dragged into unfortunate circumstances with deadly results.
Which brings me to my main grievance with the film. There’s not enough gay in it.
Amy and Xavier begin an affair at the beginning of their death-ridden odyssey, and the triangle subplot is somewhat resolved in a third-act threeway but nothing overtly gay. The film settles with weak homoerotic conversations between Xavier and Jordan and voyeuristic peepshows where Xavier and Jordan jerk off to each other sleeping with Amy. It might sound like an unusual pet-peeve of mine, but at this point, I’m jaded from the seemingly straight-washed plots, those bromances that do all they can to enforce the notion that they’re just close friends. NO HOMO, DID YOU HEAR ME I SAID NO HOMO. Well, I want all of the homo, as much homo as you can give me. I’ve sat through countless straight sex scenes; why can’t we have an intense gay sex scene? Apparently, that’s too much to ask, even from a queer artist. Perhaps Araki was required to tone down the homoeroticism to make the film marketable and accessible to teenage and young adult audiences alike. Not sure. From the few interviews of his I’ve seen and read, there’s not much talk about this film. Not that it’s unimpressionable, just, well, again it’s not my favorite.
IT NEEDED MORE GAY, DAMMIT.
I would say The Doom Generation is also my least favorite for its bleak outlook, but in all fairness, Nowhere and Totally Fucked Up are equally bleak. Furthermore, I have plenty of cherished films in my library that revolve around emotionally-unhinged protagonists navigating through a cruel, unforgiving reality, so perhaps I’ve been too harsh on The Doom Generation. It truly is an insightful glimpse of a queer individual’s spiritual anguish and alienation, a sentiment not exclusive to Generation X. Overall, it’s not the sloppiest of Araki’s films; honestly, his most recent film, White Bird in a Blizzard, is his worst simply because it’s his dullest. And frankly, I prefer camp and stale commentary over slow and lame.
So, yeah. The Doom Generation. Come for the nostalgia. Sift through the awkward social commentary, and then stay for the bizarre imagery and teenage angst. Check it out for yourself. It’s certainly a far cry from Empire Records.