I first saw Gregg Araki’s film The Living End on one of my first trips to New York, in 1993 I think. I was living in Bermuda at that time – a pleasant place obviously, but something of a cultural wasteland, and I got into the habit of going to New York and cramming in plays and movies. Everything I went to see on these trips had a heightened magic to it; movies that might have seemed innocuous elsewhere drew added electricity from everything about New York that exceeded my grasp – the pace, the textures, the resonances, the resources. The Living End , about two HIV-positive men on a road trip, would never have seemed innocuous anywhere, but given my heightened state, it was just about my emblematic viewing experience of the period – way beyond anything I’d lived or been educated in, and seeing it in New York made me feel kinetically relevant.
That was Araki’s first movie to gain significant attention, and I stuck with him for a while after that: one of the first reviews I ever wrote in this paper, in 1997 (truly, it’s been that long) was of his Nowhere. I no longer have any direct memory of the film, but my review records the prominent role of a “tacky-looking green lizard-like monster that turns up here and there and apparently zaps various characters into oblivion.” Despite this possible handicap, I liked the movie overall, saying it “has the feeling of a crazed prophet you don’t quite want to ignore.” Araki’s subsequent work toned down a bit on the “crazed prophet” angle, and he hadn’t occupied much of a place in my mind over most of the last decade.
But then I realized that without consciously planning it, I’d watched five of his films (that’s half of them) in the last couple of years, which amounts to more time than I’ve spent on some of my official favourite filmmakers. This included revisiting The Living End, which remains an amazing spectacle, insisting on the possibility – indeed, the necessity - of giving appropriate weight to AIDS as a death sentence while still asserting and expressing one’s sexuality. The film still feels gloriously risky – Araki labels it as an “irresponsible film” – and despite all the progress made since then toward the popular acceptance of gay images, it still stirs you toward action, almost convincing you of the need to reset the whole conversation.
His next film The Doom Generation was another road movie, this time with a girl and two guys, and announced itself as a “heterosexual film,” but it was hardly as simple a contrast as that suggests. It’s a heterosexuality that keeps pushing boundaries, veering dangerously between tenderness and contempt, its natural desire toward experimentation (including dissolving the homo/hetero boundary) thwarted by the world’s violence and general crappiness (junk food plays a prominent role in the film). In the last scene, it’s down to a girl and one guy – the desired happy outcome of many genre movies of course, but seeming here like a total, numbing defeat. It’s a terrifically feisty little movie, but unashamedly forged out of that crappiness I mentioned, and thus all but inviting the unwary to confuse the medium and the message – a recurring limitation on the serious acceptance of Araki’s work.
Despite what I said about dissolving the boundary, it was a bit of a surprise that Araki had a relationship in the late 90’s with Canadian actress Kathleen Robertson; during that period she starred in his romantic comedy Splendor, one of his most disposable efforts (since they broke up, according to Wikipedia, he’s “mainly dated men”). He lost several years after that to a failed TV pilot, before making Mysterious Skin in 2004, contrasting an unapologetic young gay hustler with another boy from the same town who believes his life to have been thrown off course through an alien abduction; the film gradually works its way to a revelation about their shared formative experiences. Roger Ebert called it “at once the most harrowing and, strangely, the most touching film I have seen about child abuse,” and Araki forces us into chillingly contradictory responses, daring for instance to present the hustler’s memories of the baseball coach who abused him as all but magical (the film’s title perfectly captures the squirmy kind of bliss that runs through it).
He then made Smiley Face, an amiable comedy with Anna Faris as a hopeless stoner drifting through a day of inadvertent larceny and property destruction (including an original copy of Das Kapital). The character’s inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality dictates the film’s course – it’s serenely, almost supernaturally non-judgmental, but ultimately seems to glorify in merely having been a “weird ride” in no particular direction. Looked at conventionally, it’s a step backward, but why would Araki have endorsed, let alone embodied, the conventional trajectory?
His most recent film, Kaboom, seems at first like a relatively straightforward teenage sex comedy (although with an infinitely gayer sensibility than the norm) then extends ever-outward until it’s ultimately about nothing less than the end of the world. It’s rather impressive how everything in the film turns out to have a precise explanation – there’s always been a distinct old-fashioned streak, albeit pretty well-hidden, to the director’s meticulousness about structure – and if all the sex talk initially seems a bit juvenile, this again comes to seem strategic, as a challenge to the willful blindness that constitutes the “mature” governing ideology. On the other hand, yet again, a lot of the film might potentially seem juvenile, cartoonish, too amiable to be taken seriously. But on the other other hand, would an immature artistic sensibility take such a tender approach to the all-powerful cult leader who may have ended up destroying everything, seeing him less as an evil genius than the all-time screw-up, a sad figure who ran out on his family, lost touch, created a personal myth and infrastructure that doesn’t meet anyone’s needs, and then colossally lost control?
The Bell Lightbox showed all his films last year, noting in the program that “his films have never really been embraced by the majority of the gay and lesbian community…(but at the same time) critics have been little better, if not worse.” Araki is in his early fifties now, and it doesn’t show a bit, unless you think the peppiness of Smiley Face and Kaboom constitutes too strenuous an insistence of youth. It’s hard to imagine him ever attaining conventional respectability, and difficult to decide how comfortable he’d be with it. You might fleetingly wish he’d take straighter aim at a major topical subject, but at the same time you’re aware that would only simplify his ongoing ideological critique. He’s generated one of the most constructively provocative bodies of work in American cinema, and you don’t need to go to New York to feel the truth of that.