The Gay Gen-X Film: Exploring Gregg Araki’s Totally F***ed Up
and everybody thinks i’m high and i am and everybody thinks i’m high and i am and everybody thinks i’m high and i am and everybody thinks i’m high and i am and everybody thinks i’m
Yes, yes, I know I said I would tackle this bad gay boy last spring. I must confess I underestimated this film and its artistic implications. Life for the GSM community in the Early ’90s isn’t as simple as reruns of Golden Girls and endless bottles of Fruitopia. Or maybe I overthought everything and didn’t swiftly process my jumbled reflections. Yeah, the latter sounds right.
Because I truly believe this film is important not just to the GSM community, or even Araki’s rainbow-hued, disenfranchised oeuvre, but of a particular community I didn’t expect would play into this discussion.
And for those who got the MLWTTKK reference, excellent. Fifty points for Gryffindor.
So №2 in the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy discussion is the 1993 bitter-infused, obvious-love-letter-to-Warhol-and-Goddard Totally F***ed Up. From a technological, structural standpoint, it’s the strongest of the bunch, and while I do cherish and appreciate the zany, whip-smart complexion of the characters, the intimate glance in these troubled, adolescent protagonists, even with all the ingredients of my ideal film recipe, it’s not my favorite film. For two reasons, which I will explain later.
Let’s first tackle an inportant question. What is the plot of Totally F***ed Up?
Well, there isn’t a plot, at least not a conventional, linear one.
For those with a passing knowledge of Andy Warhol or Jean-Luc Goddard, these artists employed nonlinear narratives in their more renowned work (i.e. Breathless, Weekend, Chelsea Girls). Sure, the films contain “plots”, but as the name implies, they don’t adhere to the typical procession of a Hollywood film. Flashbacks and flashforwards or extensive fantasy/surrealist sequences (a al Luis Bunuel) are just a few examples. Though I’d argue Warhol and Goddard aren’t Godfathers of the Nonlinear Narrative (personally, I would hand that scepter to Alain Resnais, Federico Fellini, or even Bernado Bertolucci), the three listed films are important in shaping, or subverting, the audience’s perspective on film making and storytelling. Additionally, while not outright forerunners of this nonlinear technique, Goddard and Warhol are undeniably influential in Araki’s work, the pacing of his sequential cuts, the surreal style of his cinematography, and the detours into the characters’ recreational drug use. These stylistic techniques are meant to challenge our (the audience’s) expectation of film. Not necessarily just who’s telling the story but how it’s told and the unfurling of the narrative’s sequence. In Totally F***ed Up, it’s a subculture within a subculture: queer folk who don’t even fit in with the queer folk, how they interact with a blissfully uncaring world, and how they exist within their own generation, a totally f***ed up generation.
With that in mind, the story follows a group of six gay friends: four gay males (Andy, Tommy, Derek, and Steven) and two lesbians (Michele and Patricia). Michele and Patricia are a couple, as are Derek and Steven, Tommy is the promiscuous one, meandering from hookup to hookup (reminiscent of Janeane Garofalo’s Vickie Miner from Reality Bites), and Andy is the meek, pessimistic rain-cloud who grapples with internalized homophobia (…again, weirdly reminiscent of Steve Zahn’s Sammy Gray from Reality Bites). Each protagonist is designated their own subplot, and they are as follows:
- Michele and Patricia yearn to have a baby and devise a plan to inseminate Patricia with their male friends’ combined sperm using a turkey baster.
- Derek and Steven experience a “beige” patch in their relationship; they attempt to salvage their love with unfortunate results, with Steven cheating on Derek and Derek falling victim to a random gay bashing.
- Tommy’s gay, Don Juan-ian escapades are eventually uncovered by his parents when they find his hidden porn stash in his bedroom; he is kicked out, rendered homeless, and takes shelter at Derek’s place.
- Lastly, perhaps the closest to a standard plot what with the amount of screen time, Andy falls for a college student and tentatively starts a relationship, causing him to reevaluate his rigid, despondent viewpoint of love.
All narratives are framed by Steven, the filmmaker of the bunch. To paraphrase his opening statement, he wants to capture the everyday lives of queers without the glitz and gleam of corporate influence or the squeaky-clean filter of Hollywood (I’m curious if the group of friends would’ve hated the glut of cookie-cutter coming-of-age queer storylines of Love, Simon or Glee). As its format suggests and entails, it’s a peculiar docudrama, a thought-provoking, biting portrayal of a marginalized sect which sneers at the masses, challenging its audience to confront the neglect and complicity they reserve for these jaded queers. The nonlinear framing device of Steven’s home video project accentuates his, as well as director Gregg Araki’s, thesis — there is no happy ending for the doomed queers. Life goes on in haphazard snippets and silent, grainy footage of LA, and the potential outcome of the intangible future depends on a listening audience.
This is Gregg Araki’s true reckoning. It’s a film I want to sit all my friends down and say, “Shut up and watch”, a film that isn’t concerned with sparing straight folk’s feelings. A film that actually has something to say and says it loud and proud. So why isn’t this on the top of my Teenage Apocalypse rung?
As previously stated, two reasons.
1). It’s a buzzkill.
Stellar as this film is, it’s not one I can watch every day. I can’t sit and think, “Hmmm, I’m in the mood for a depressing glimpse into the angst and trauma of six queer individuals who navigate in a world that internally despising them.” I deal with these insecurities constantly, and I’m not sure if I want to watch them embodied in painfully authentic detail for seventy-five minutes. It’s too real. The pathos is fairly strong. You can grasp the melancholic mundane. You can taste the dissatisfaction. This was a troubling time for all gender-sexual minorities. Each viewing makes me curious how I would survive in 1993, with most of my rights and support drastically dwindled.
It is certainly one of Araki’s more political works. He’s not here to talk about his straight allies who learn a lesson about tolerance. He’s here to wake everyone out of their feel-good social-justice-induced comas. Conversely, from my recent screenings, perhaps he’s rudely reminding the nostalgic-pining masses how unforgiving 1993 was for the GSM community. They were still searching for a successful protease inhibitor to stem the death count for the AIDS crisis. If you weren’t a man, straight, white, cis, and rich, you were pretty much f***ed.
2). This film doesn’t seem like it was made for me.
This is tough to articulate, yet it’s potentially the true heart of why I love this trilogy (and specifically this film). Again, I’ll try to elaborate.
I’ve stated before that the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy reserves a bleak resentment to the Republican, indifferent conservative majority of the ‘90s. New Queer Cinema, in general, reserved political grievances against the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, to varying subtle degrees. Perhaps the most popular (by that I mean bitter) grievance was the mishandling of the AIDS plague. By 1993, the damage was irreparable; though the infection rate had peaked, thousands of lives were lost. In this perspective, the movement may be a response itself, an indictment of a government that, once again, failed its people. This trilogy, in particular, obviously discards any subtext of disdain. I mean, for God’s sake, it’s called the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy. Totally F***ed Up, however, really cranks it up. Araki wants you to know he’s angry. You could say…angry as f***.
I wanted to do right by Araki’s filmography; as stated in previous posts, the man has greatly influenced my writing and queer perspective. I wanted to be as well-informed as possible, so I delved into the film and literature of the time. Two specific novels that jarred me were Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture and Sarah Schulman’s People in Trouble. Reading these works, however, gave me the sobering revelation that I was exploring unfamiliar terrain. As anticipated, these narratives grapple with themes which generally transcend generational gaps. Schulman’s grim, desperate novel People in Trouble tackles class struggle, poverty and homelessness, gentrification, sexual identity and politics, the AIDS plague, and the conflict of the artist as a selfish, consuming entity as opposed to a genuine human being who utilizes their talents for a greater purpose. Coupland’s equally listless Generation X deals with disillusionment from past generations, paranoia surrounding the environment and one’s carbon footprint, class disillusionment, and lack of motivation to ascend the workforce hierarchy. As I sifted through my misgivings, I suppose my alienation comes from an obvious source: the generational gap.
I can romanticize the early ’90s as a hotbed of innovation in fashion, television, music, especially film, and a surreal time sandwiched between the Soviet Union collapse and 9/11. Nostalgia goggles truly blind us to the End of the Millennium’s shortcomings, and reading Coupland and Schulman’s works was a rude awakening. Hell, I can’t imagine writing this post in 1990, perhaps on a word processor or a typewriter. Being gay then would be astoundingly different, and it’s simple to sidestep the ACT UP demonstrations and the various GSM hate crimes just to dance the Macarena with Rachel Green and Monica Geller.
It was a different time. The early ’90s was a different world compared to 2020, and if I were to embrace Totally F***ed Up as the best of the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, it’s because the film hits my nostalgic sweet spot. I’d fantasize of donning a worn black leather jacket, a Cocteau Twins t-shirt, ripped jeans, and muddy Doc Martens.
And as appealing as that is, honestly, I’d rather stay in 2020, grateful I don’t have to worry about rampant anti-gay legislation and discrimination or “Senator No” Jesse Helms’ beet-red face on TV .
In short (too late), in case my rambling didn’t make sense, I never fully connect with these protagonists. They feel like an entirely different kind of queer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I probably sound like a millennial picking a fight with Gen-Xer Becky, but that’s not the source of my hesitation. It’s the fact that this queer camaraderie exists in an entirely different universe. Nearly thirty years have passed. Matthew Shephard, The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, The Trevor Project, Glee, the legalization of same-sex marriage, so much has happened. The generational gap is strong with this one. It’s a product of its time, and in some respects, that’s the film’s true flaw.
Well, to be fair, every film in each decade is a product of its time (i.e. The Graduate, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Breakfast Club, Titanic, Silver Livings Playbook, etc.). Even superhero films, which I’m certain are still considered low rung on the Oscar hierarchy, provide brief glimpses into the culture of our present time. As is the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, though as I stated before, Totally F***ed Up is a bit more on the nose with its commentary on the estrangement of the GSM community and the pitfalls of living as a social outcast.
Furthermore, this isn’t to say Totally F***ed Up is the only film dealing with similar issues. Reality Bites, Singles, Slacker, Clerks, RENT, Trainspotting, hell Aladdin, all deal with social discontent, estrangement from societal norms, living within the fringes of normalcy, romanticizing poverty (ugh), the thirst to transcend above said rigid boundaries or lack thereof, frustration with class and socioeconomic structures, and mainly rebellion against the preceding generations’ disdain and “prejudice” against Generation X, parents who perceive them as unmotivated and childish. And yes, glancing at a timeline of the early ’90s, there is merit to these resentments. The HIV/AIDS death toll was climbing. Carbon footprint was a laughable concept. The Berlin Wall was gone. Grunge conquered the radio. The Serbian conflicts were reaching a boiling point, as was the Northern Ireland peace process. Pee Wee Herman got caught wanking in a porno theater. There was plenty to despair over. Naturally, one film couldn’t possibly harness every Gen-Xer’s concerns. Totally F***ed Up, however, differentiates itself from the aforementioned list with one important facet: the film has the balls to stick it to straight society. A John Hughes flick if Molly Ringwald ached and yearned for Kristy Swanson and Jon Cryer courted Andrew McCarthy.
“I believe in love. I mean, there’s gotta be something for people to cling to besides TV, right?” — Michele
From the start, Totally F***ed Up reels you in on how desperate and grim 1993 is for queer folk. The opening shot is of a newspaper headline about suicide rampant among the GSM community, specifically two gay teenagers who made and exacted a suicide pact because of their parents’ reaction to their sexuality. From there, the film sequences itself in “15 celluloid fragments”. Though the fragments are consecutive, the narrative is structured as such, a fragmented glimpse of six queer protagonists. It’s an unconventional framing device, albeit one that is now beaten to death by nostalgia, yet it’s apparent this film knows how to frame its winter of discontent far better than Reality Bites. The videotaped portions provide detours into the protagonists’ personalities and worldviews, giving each character an equal footing, instead of favoring privileged individuals and validating their listless rebellion against their parents (seriously Troy Dyer, go dryhump a cactus)
If I haven’t made myself clear, I’m constantly drawing comparisons to Reality Bites, a film which has been hailed as a quintessential Gen-X film. Additionally, I’m not subtle in my disdain for that subpar excuse of a cinematic experience. Even RENT, a Broadway-hit musical that has reserved a special place in my heart, has glaring contrivances and flaws undermining an important moment in GSM history.
Alright, alright, I’m sorry. Let me make myself clear, It’s impartial to compare this film with Reality Bites and RENT. Still, it’s tempting.
All three works contain the integral ‘90s rebellion device called VHS; furthermore, it’s used as an expression of distaste for corporate USA and the vapid glut of consumerism conformity, a new medium or an encapsulation of an inner discomfort. Either way, these protagonists want you to know they’re angry and hate the world for being too damn cruel, uncaring, and commodity-obsessed. Yet, of all three, Totally F***ed Up has an authenticity to support its medium; mainly because Reality Bites and RENT, despite featuring significant queer supporting roles, aren’t terribly concerned about the queer flight. The queer best friends are mere window-dressing. Up to 1993, the GSM community had plenty of incentive to lash at the world. There’s bite to Totally F***ed Up’s bark. Tommy is kicked out of home after his parents discovered his gay porn stash under his mattress. Derek falls victim to a random gay bashing. Patricia mentions her mother wanting to send her to a psychiatrist to convert her from being a lesbian. Andy, throughout the film, struggles with gay loneliness and isolation, even from his friends. Totally Fucked Up actually portrays the common struggles and fears of living as a queer individual in the early ‘90s and doesn’t pussyfoot around the implications of being overwhelmed by a predominantly-hetero-normative society.
With all this talk of “not-fit-for-my-Millennial-eyes”, you’d think I wasn’t a fan of Totally F***ed Up. F*** no.
This film truly spoke to me. Coming out was a poignant, confusing time in my life, and I took comfort in knowing there was a fictional group of friends who experienced more or less what I experienced. Yes, this film is political, it’s experimental, but it’s so worth the watch. The Museum of Modern Art quotes Gregg Araki in the film’s online synopsis:
“Araki went on to describe his inspiration for the film as ‘the desire to portray a way of life, a sub-subculture which is totally ignored by both the mainstream and conventional gay media — to represent the unrepresented, I would venture to say that queer teenagers — with all their lovable confusions and complexities — have never before been depicted as they are in this movie. There is a tendency to sanitize, to gloss over, to moralize when dealing with the subject of young gays which I consciously avoided with the development of this project.’”
Representing the unrepresented. Portraying, onscreen, a sub-subculture ignored by a socioeconomic climate only concerned with paying lip service to the GSM community, ignoring the abuse and discrimination from the same climate. This is what draws me to Gregg Araki. He didn’t exploit a dying trend just to make a buck. He didn’t exploit a marginalized group to make his project “real” or “authentic”. He had a mission. He had a story to tell. And thank God he didn’t completely rely on clunky social commentary to tell that story.
Totally F***ed Up is a film about a queer rag-tag bunch who struggle to exist and internally question why they exist. It’s a surreal glimpse in an era that is filtered through nostalgic lens, a film that is overlooked for the likes of safer, more privilege-validating narratives like Reality Bites. It’s an affirmation of the “bored and disenfranchised” Generation X that moreover challenges fellow Gen-Xers what that name implies, by portraying unabashed queer folk dealing with alienation solely based on their sexual identity. Filmed and detailed by a director whose focus is the excluded, the “homeless” subset, a group of friends whose outlook reflects that of their creator: bleak and lonely, yet vaguely optimistic, hopeful of a brighter, friendlier future.
As of writing this post, the Criterion Channel comprised a special package of three Gregg Araki films: The Living End (1992), Totally F***ed Up (1993), and Mysterious Skin (2004). I recommend all of them, each idiosyncratic and eclectic in their own way. The Channel has a free 14-day trial. Sign up and give Totally F***ed Up a screening. It won’t be as palatable a watch as Reality Bites or RENT, but if you’re searching for a thought-provoking queer film, it won’t disappoint.
And now the Gay Winds in the West are calling me. Stay safe, take care of each other, and remember: our work will never be done. Keep fighting.