The Man Who Represented Me: How I Fell In Love With Gregg Araki
Where do I start? I heard The Beginning is a great place.
It’s amusing how time jump-starts perspective. When National Coming Out Day came and went on the eleventh of last month, I was tempted to write a heartfelt reflection on my coming-out process and the years that followed. The more I reflected, however, I was figuratively speechless. I don’t have a definitive statement to summarize that surreal event. Even now, I can’t explain why I decided to call my parents on the night of February 5th, 2012 after attending a Superbowl party. I’m open to any theories about my internal saturation of disdain against the heteronormative tradition specifically evoked by the Superbowl (not really, but hey, I enjoy an outlandish hypothesis as much as the next person). But I digress. If I were to give a summary of that time, I would say it was scary. I spent the next day in bed, unsure how to view myself as anything but straight while convincing my roommate Cullen that no, I didn’t have the flu, I was just down with an imaginary cold. With one phone call, I officially dispelled any hopes of settling down with a woman. As my fellow gay friend, Zach, had put it once, my parents’ version of me, a straight man, the straight man who liked Simon and Garfunkel, the straight man who liked to write, read, and watch films, was put to death. In that sense, I became dead to my parents, and like them, I didn’t know what to do or where to go.
At one point, during those paranoid months, I stumbled across an eccentric, dark, comedic road film: The Doom Generation, directed by none other than Gregg Araki, and boy howdy, I didn’t expect to find an underrated gem of a director. Not only that, but I found a director that finally empathized with me and who I truly was. He spoke to a part of me that I fought so hard to suppress and helped me learn to embrace that suppressed part.
The Doom Generation was the most graphic and disturbing film I had seen at that point, long before I was introduced to A Serbian Film and Antichrist. Filled with gore, sex, truancy, urban decay, surreal landscapes, and zany catchphrases, mostly from Rose McGowan’s character Amy Blue, it struck a chord with me. Underneath the blatant social commentary and grim atmosphere, foreshadowing the surprisingly depressing end, it was the first movie that resonated with me as a queer person. It helps that Gregg Araki is himself queer, almost like a punk-version of Ryan Murphy. Finally, a surreal, homoerotic-bisexual threesome that wasn’t contrite, preachy, or romantic. It was mundane, listless, hopeless, instinctual even (due to the fact they become outlaws). Granted, it was still a predominantly-heteronormative story, but I’ll get to that in a later entry. In short, the film’s themes reflected my outlook as a gay college student. I was on the cusp of transitioning from high school graduate to scholar, a prosperous future, yet even in the early stages of my college career, a dread washed over me. No matter how hard I tried to act and look pretty, speak properly, and assimilate a decorum, I couldn’t truly be who I was. Not until I came out.
Gregg Araki established his film career in the early ’90s. He propelled, alongside the likes of Gus Van Sant and Derek Jarman, the New Queer Cinema movement, a group of independent films focused on minimizing the heteronormative narratives in favor of mainly queer protagonists and their experiences. Unfortunately, most of the storylines dealt with living on the outskirts of society, mainly dealing with the stigma of either being gay and the Reagan and Bush Senior administration. Ho boy, they sure hated Reagan and Bush Senior. It’s a far cry from our current roster (i.e. Love, Simon, Alex Strangelove), and Araki’s films can seem alienating. They’re from a different time period. They’re hokey. They don’t take themselves too seriously, just enough to articulate the angst. They’re products of their time.
And I think that’s point. Because with all that stated, they are NOT irrelevant.
These films are meant for the queer population to relate, and for the straight population to observe.
That may sound hypocritical since The Doom Generation isn’t a great example of minimizing the straight narrative. The Living End (1992), Totally Fucked Up (1993), Nowhere (1997), and Kaboom (2010) are more appropriate flicks. Still, The Doom Generation offers a homoerotic element that distinguishes itself from Natural Born Killers. Well, that and the fact Rose McGowan is less annoying and insufferable than Juliette Lewis. If there’s one thing I can expect from an Araki film, it’s his unflinching perspective of the world he knew, the stigma embedded in the queer population’s abuse and neglect. He’s unapologetic. He’s imploring everyone to give the queers their undivided attention, to shut up and listen. This sentiment is perhaps best exemplified in Totally Fucked Up, the first of what is colloquially deemed as his Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, which, in my opinion, succeeds where RENT fails — representing the unrepresented, giving the marginalized the spotlight for a change. The straight characters, the heteronormativity for that matter, is nearly absent; it serves as a backdrop, a prop. Moreover, there’s a rawness, an inner desperation, Araki embodies in his narratives, a portrayal of the queer experience that is sadly absent in Love, Simon or Alex Strangelove. Granted, I’m not saying the latter films needed to be anted up to R-rated status. There’s a time and place for everything (yes, even for RENT), and Araki’s filmography delivers an excellent prism to the debate circle. That’s essentially the purpose of my comparison. To instantly dispel Araki’s films as relics of the past is, well, stupid, and for a group of films released two decades prior, it’s easy to shrug them off in favor of recent releases.
I suppose I should elaborate on the term Teenage Apocalypse. So, get ready for my insightful take on why the most vital trilogy of New Queer Cinema is named so. Because —
I don’t know.
No, really. I’m stumped. I’ve watched, re-watched, and examined these three films, which, in case I hadn’t inferred earlier, are Totally Fucked Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), and Nowhere (1997). At this point, I can’t give a definite opinion on why they’re called the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy. All I can really say about them is they were released in the mid-90s, and they feature James Duval in leading roles. Whether these films contain apocalyptic undertones and motifs, I’ll save that for future posts. Plus, c’mon. Watch the films yourself. You might be surprised. If any of you are craving some nostalgia, I’m confident you’ll enjoy them through that lens. That’s not to say you need to shut off your brain, but I’ve accepted the fact these films aren’t for everyone. Heck, the term Teenage Apocalypse might ward off interest. The angst is also at critical mass in each of the films, so look elsewhere if you hate Reality Bites or Singles. And the soundtracks, good gravy. I would give anything to own all three of the film soundtracks, though I don’t think Totally Fucked Up has one officially issued. Additionally, the intricate, extensive playlist is perhaps the reason why Nowhere has yet to receive a wide DVD remastering. Somebody hop on that. Create a Kickstarter or a GoFundMe page. Preserve some cinematic history, people.
The point of this post, thanks for sticking through it by the way, is a self-reflection on my fixation of these films after coming out. Lately, I’ve been pondering my taste in films, why my favorite films are, well, my favorite, and how these films/narratives influence my writing. Of all my literary and artistic inspirations, I will always cherish Gregg Araki. At the end of the day, concise storytelling and innovative techniques only go so far. By representing a voiceless demographic, Araki ran the extra mile. He was the outlet I needed. His narratives, in spite of their depressing themes and outcomes, gave me hope, an inexplicable reassurance that I wasn’t alone, that someone like me could vocalize my feelings, that I could provide a perspective worth somebody else’s time.
Morbid, down-to-earth, relatable. Gregg Araki is my Liz Phair when everyone else is listening to Paula Abdul (no intentional shade, because Paula is also a badass). Again, there’s a time and place for everything. There are days I want Paula Abdul, and then there are days I want Liz Phair.
Just kidding. I want Jonathan Groff.
Stay safe, friends.