Sunday, August 13, 2006

Almost Blue

Day Six of Being Boring's Gregg Araki Blogathon.

There's an incredibly artificial animated UFO in the opening minutes of Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin. It washes the sky with a sumptuous blue hue, illuminating everything beneath it with its radiance. The ovular lights pour over the 8 year old Brian. Gazing up into that light, a maternal arm wrapped around one shoulder, he finds a foreign subject which he may use to displace the very real psychological traumas which he has endured. The UFO, which ultimately proves but metaphorically important, allows him to rewrite his troubled past with a more benign narrative. He was molested, we realize very early on. The alien obsession which would derive from his need to ease the emotional impact of an unrelated incident can be traced right back to that blue wash.

Though color has always been a very integral part of Araki's filmmaking, never before has it reached the methaphoric level at which Mysterious Skin arrives. In prior films, lighting design would typically derive from a brazen need for vibrancy and causticity, but the use of lighting in Mysterious Skin has more to do with the function of memory, how it may inform a scene. Blue, it would turn out, is the true signifier of "the event" in the film. Over every shoulder, blue pours through the windows, from the T.V. Ethereal blue demanding notice in this effervescent world. Even though we're in Kansas (Mysterious Skin marks Araki's first non-L.A. film, it is worthy of mention) every bar, library and bedroom, though hopelessly mundane, carries with it a saturation. As the film progresses, it is as though this saturation is ebbing from our protagonists. That, like that blue light, there is so much walled up within them that it can do nothing but spill out.

The film, as a whole, however, is far from perfect. Part of Mysterious Skin's weakness lies in Araki's representation of the rebellious and hostile youths which once proved his calling card. Here it has become a hollow reflex. Casting a delicious crew of recognizable names, none exude the spunk or charisma which made his earlier films so effective. The listless Michelle Trachtenberg being the low point, both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet lack any inner complexity which has previously been arrived at more fruitfully when Araki casts non-actors to play on their personalities. Excruciatingly affected moments like Gordon-Levitt's "I'm so sick and tired of this sticking buttcrack of a town," come off canned, while those which Gordon-Levitt seems at a loss to understand play off decently, as he has no knowledge as to how his schtick could be of use here. But there's a third act sequence which turns Gordon-Levitt's know-it-all Neil into a meek and understanding human being. He rises to the occasion, fortunately. It is from here on out that the film becomes an impeccable study of grief.

When it comes to the adults, Mysterious Skin's fascinatingly daring complexity comes into play. Indie wildcard Bill Sage plays the child molesting coach with such a commendable empathetic air. Unlike most films which represent such figures as mere sexual predators, Mysterious Skin meditates on the fact that the coach is a man with desires. He does not make a flesh eating monster out of him, but merely renders him in all of his wiley, yet neurotically covert sexuality. It is a performance which rivals Dylan Baker's pedophile in Solondz's Happiness in its willfulness to surpass judgment and play him as a man, not merely a villain. The camera eerily views him as any child would. In most of the shots, his face fills the frame - an approach which holds both physical and metaphorical significance.

Elizabeth Shue's performance as Neil's slutty mother is a quietly complicated one. On first viewing I wrote her off as doing her best Jennifer Jason Leigh, yet her intricate relationship as the immature mother of the too-mature Neil is fascinating to behold. They stare past the television, in one scene, more veterans than family members. They trade off the same cigarette as Shue boasts potential dates with men who frequent her lane at the local grocery store. When he leaves for New York, you actually feel the resentment mixed with sadness which builds in her eyes.

Ultimately, the flaws add up. I cannot consider it Araki's best work. Yet Mysterious Skin is an interesting development in his ouvre. The need to be fashionable which marred Splendor is gone, and you get the sense that Araki made this film because he really wanted to. You can feel that in it, certainly. It is a very transcendent film in many ways - the ending serving as one of the films greatest attributes. Most importantly, it proves Araki's certainty as a director; that he's matured, but in many cases, stuck with his initial impulses. It's a lot more like his earlier work than the frenetic, frenzied LA scenes for which he would most become famous (or if not, at least dubious) and he's all the better for it.

Friday, August 11, 2006

In Name Only

Day Five of Being Boring's Gregg Araki Blogathon.

Gregg Araki's first "adult" post-teen-apocalypse film, Splendor, reads like one of those fashionable summer novels with the zippy neon covers. The latter is a piece of work which was never really good to begin with, but, either because of impeccable marketing campaigns or insane word of mouth, scales the New York Times best seller list despite its mediocrity. Everyone has read it, all the while acknowledging its frivolousness. Splendor takes this approach to heart, hoping that the summer crowds might have found it a flimsy gem, allowing it ascension from its indie trappings. It fails for a great many reasons. Confused as to how to render adults in cinema, Splendor's attempt at adultness (from a filmmaker hot off the heels of 3 teen romps) hopes to create maturity by merely numbing Araki's typically youthful vitality. Gone is Araki's vivacious soundtrack, having been replaced by an easier, cooler lite-remixed roster of notables. The colors come more from Noxzema than methamphetamines. From the film's very first moments, it is clear that something is missing. Nothing quite makes the sense that Araki's prior absurdist films do.

Part of the problem is Robertson, who lacks the personality to hold a viewer's attention, much less elicit emotional response. Even more detrimental to her casual performance is her insanely laborious make-up designs which, more often than not do the acting for her. Kelly MacDonald, of Trainspotting fame provides the only respite, yet it's a sad one, reminding us of better times and characters in Araki narratives. Araki finds himself at a crippling crossroads. Having (in his personal life) recently started a relationship with Robertson, and therefore countering the potent sexuality of his prior cinematic exercises, he teeters between showing her as sex object and aspiration. 'Does he want to fuck her or be her?' the viewer must constantly ask oneself.

In a way, the film is a rather interesting artifact: Gregg Araki comes of age. This slightly interesting idea, however, only holds our attention for short spurts. For the rest of the film, Araki flouders about, aimlessly doing what he thinks that it is straight adults do. Not that I would know any better, but I don't think it's this bland. And with a taboo to boot.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Day Four of Being Boring's Gregg Araki Blogathon!

For all of the criticisms that The Doom Generation garnered, nothing could parallel the exorbitant schizophrenia of his follow up feature, Nowhere. Truly a symptom of an MTV dictated culture, the film finds the director both fascinated and equivocally repelled by a bustling generation of clean and taut youths. It's all about surface, glinting and glittery. Where prior teens have stretched out listening to Babyland on potable tape players, smoking and strumming their guitars, these teens go rollerblading on the Venice boardwalk or binge on obscene desserts, only to exude them in some fashionable bathroom stall. All of the lurking shadows of The Doom Generation have given way to an electric candy-colored phosphorescence which glosses over the abundant characters who populate this confused community of degenerates.

Doom, to this band of outsiders is not a possibility but a likelihood. In this barely alternate, frenetic reality of shortened attention spans, vanity conquers all - pleasure is the ultimate goal. Flitting between star-struck, subjugated and totally fucked up on God-knows-what, this seemingly endless roster of teenagers are slaves to their libidos. But empty consumption, Araki warns us, merely results in ruin. Egg strolls along the idyllic Silverlake reservoir with the unnamed Baywatch star, idealistically wooed by his flirtatious demeanor. Her gullibility results in a later scene of rape and battery. As she flees the affront, she weaves between a procession of uncaring automobiles. Stepping onto the curb, she is framed against a superficially serene billboard, not unlike the setting of the reservoir. Only here, isolated, among the grime of the bustling Los Angeles streets, the scene is gaudy and fake. Alyssa, too, takes Elvis as a lover because of his obscene masculinity. She is perpetually shown incapable of divorcing her romantic tendencies in the presence of this brute, but her subjugational desires backfire as she watches Elvis murder of a drug dealer he claims has duped him, cracking his head open with a can of Campbell's soup.

Nowhere is Araki's most internal film. All of the action orbits around Dark (James Duval), the film's teenage protagonist. It could be claimed that the film's entire goings-on occur solely in his mind. But that would take all of the fun out of it. In the opening sequence he is shown masturbating in the shower. His erotic fantasy shifts rapidly. At first, we see him in bed with Mel, his pansexual "girlfriend" who believes that humans are made for sex and should seek as many partners as possible before "we're old and ugly and no one wants to touch us anymore." Then Montgomery, a sheepish boy so conflicted that even his genetics could not commit to matching irises. Finally, he envisions himself in the throes of polar dominatrixes Kris and Kozy. This rapid, episodic fluctuation is not merely indicative of the contemporary aesthetic approach the film will assume (and Araki does hand over his initial Neo-realist style camera work for a super fast MTV like editing style) but of the culture which the film depicts. No longer capable of setting on just one thing, this frenzied searching for the the perfect fantasy will prove the foil to all of our teenagers, as, in the fractured focus of their search they become unable to fulfill any desire. The camera, too, in its perpetual state of movement, ends any sort of human connection to its subjects.

For this is the MTV generation, Araki is a tad too quick to remind us. Nowhere marks the first Araki film to physically depict the guardians of our teenage protagonists. Here they are cast with flash-back figures of television sitcoms. The Love Boat, The Brady Bunch, The Facts of Life, Empty Nest and, well, Beverly D'Angelo play the parents and authority figures. Television having a greater affect on the brood than genealogy ever could. Our protagonists themselves are a veritable who's who of Nineties film. Ryan Phillipe, Heather Graham, Scott Caan, Mena Suvari and Christina Applegate make up but a small portion of our immense cast. Even mere passers by are super-Celebs like Denise Richards and Tracy Lords. Yet, in addition to playing the "Oh, its so and so" game ('cause rest assured, you do) this insanely exhaustive casting endows the film with an eerie meta-reality, as though, this is in fact what occurs when the cameras stop rolling.

Throughout the film, Dark begins to witness the alien abduction of the city's errant souls. Beginning with the val chicks (Tracy Lords, Shanon Daugherty, and Rose McGowan) who sit on a bus bench inanely chattering about their social circle, Dark witnesses an alien walk up to the girls, raise his gun and blast them into oblivion. Later, the alien will return to claim Dark's ill fated paramour, Montgomery. This literal alienation serves as Dark's great foil. His inability to shed the morbid romanticisms of past generations results in his abject isolation.

For all of its sexy and sumptuous veneer, Nowhere is a rather simplistic venture. Figures like John Ritter's maniacal Mo$e$ Helper are too obvious of jabs for Araki's cinema, which more often than not contains deceptively complex metaphors and juxtapositions. What's more, merely following the set style of a generation and using that vehicle as a means by which to destroy does not ultimately prove to be a satisfying means subverting. Nowhere ultimately feels as though Araki is succumbing to the system than critiquing it. But he's still there. There's a scene towards the film's close where someone spots Bob, the hermaphrodite porn star. In Nowhere's reality, this would be a revelation. As the ultimate aim is gratification, and not fulfillment, alienation is the only possibility and the quest for the ultimate pleasure inevitably leads nowhere.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

"Little Miss Gloom and Doom"

Day Three of Being Boring's Araki Blogathon

Gregg Araki's The Doom Generation has got to be one of the most misunderstood films ever made. Appearing on video store rental shelves in the mid 90's aside mediocre Z-list actor driven on-the-road-to-self-discovery straight to video movies, The Doom Generation presents through its thickly lacquered surface, an ambivalent revelry in gloom and doom destruction. Littered with nightmarish has-been cameos and set in a seemingly post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, its three morally defunct teenage protagonists go on a free wielding crime spree, blowing the heads, arms and dicks off of those who stand in their way. They're hardly portrayed as malevolent, however, and this is perhaps one of the many traits which has lead critics and audience's alike to view the film as a viscously fashionable exercise in masanthropy. As I've stated in previous pages, I too believed the film to be a lewd manifesto of MTV nihilism. Having seen the film more times than any rational person would care to admit, it is one which I can recite verbatim, in synch with its actors.

But how closely does one watch what they perceive to be a feature length angstily raucous music video? Sitting down this afternoon to regard the film a tad more closely, I was intensely surprised at my discovery. Now, I had since come to recognize the film as an indictment of those things I initially thought it to revel in. When Amy Blue (Rose McGowan) opens the film with "Fuck!" it's not in earnest, not an affront to all things decent. (Of course, on some level, it is this, but when approaching these films a little more generously, you'll find Araki never to be as simplistic as he seems) Instead it is a parodic anthem for a culture which, through the course of the film, Araki will examine with a suspectly scrutinous eye and eventually open up, causing this protagonist to come to a responsible realization of her misdirected subcultural indoctrination. She's lost her skull lighter. "I swear, if it's gone, I'll slit my wrists." He nelly boyfriend, Jordan White (James Duval) emerges from a hardcore slamdance floor and drapes his arm around her. "Yuck," she bitches, "you're all sweaty."

They go to "Heaven," an abandoned drive in movie theater where thugs lurk about in the background doing thugish things. We see their car shaking. They're fucking, or so we think. The Jesus head glued to the rear-view nods in bewilderment. But they're not fucking. Jordan's "afraid of catching AIDS." Enter Xavier(Jonathan Schaech) - thrown upon their windshield as a gang of goons(Skinny Puppy) fagbash him. They make a getaway, Xavier bleeding in the back seat. Insert narrative here.

The Doom Generation's subtitle is "A Heterosexual Film by Gregg Araki." The film is, however, heterosexual in namesake only. Xavier, though it is never explicitly stated is "straight," sort of. He begins fucking Amy the first evening when awakes to find him straddling the bed upon which she and Jordan sleep. After having a brief discussion of the picture of Jesus he has tattooed on his dick, they escape to her car to consummate their sexual desires. And so proceeds the film. Having killed on Quickie Mart proprietor(whose wife is played by comedienne Margaret Cho), they sever their ties to that world of respectability which never truly embraced them in the first place, to instead aimlessly venture of the deserted freeways of a California here represented as industrial chic infringing upon Mad Max terrain.

There is a surprisingly great deal of details contained within the film. The impeccable visual stylings (deserved applause to Michael Krantz and Jennifer M. Gentile) and horrific flashback cameos (we're talking regulars from 21 Jump Street, The Love Boat, Beverly Hills 90210, The Brady Bunch, V, Married... With Children, Ironside, a few porn stars, a Hollywood Madam, Perry Farrell and the inimitable Miss Parker Posey) are wonderfully orchestrated elements (not to mention the sensational soundtrack) but in many ways distract from the more poignant purposes which the film assumes. As our protagonists mope about listing off an endless dialogue of quotables, we begin to shift in our perception of them.

Xavier, who they have taken to calling X ("I'm not sure I can say all of that."), initially represents an ideal of outsiderness which Amy and Jordan so desperately wish to be a part. He's dangerous and edgy. He's the gay straight man - gay in a generation which does not embrace homosexuality, yet straight enough to pose as a romantic possibility for the oblivious Jordan (who's cluelessly heterosexual, in this narrative). He is pure id, at one point exclaiming, "guilt is for married, old people." He kills without remorse, never truly comprehending the consequences of his actions. Yet the story unfolds and as Amy begins to shift in fidelity towards this hubristic drifter, Jordan emerges as the true outsider - embodying a past, romantic ideal of subculture. In a sense, Jordan is the embodiment of Araki's previous cinematic endeavors; The Doom Generation serving as both farewell to the old (the ideals of Araki's prior works and New Queer Cinema, at large) and a ringing in of the new. (Araki's critical embrace of the more MTV styled aesthetic and of generations removed from his own, those which do not whole-heartedly embrace Queerness as a subversive act, but as a weakness which should be repressed - hence, "A Heterosexual Film" by a homosexual filmmaker.)

The film is, despite my prior assumptions and that import placed on Queerness, in fact, Amy's story. (Perhaps a more apt subtitle might have been "A Women's Film by Gregg Araki.) Hers is the character who throughout the film's proceedings proves the greatest level of dynamism, changing her personal perspective from start to finish. She is seduced by this nihilistically callous drifter, idealizes the counterculture she so desperately clings to: kill tattooed on her fingers, the skull lighter, morbid paraphernalia covering every empty inch of her car. In one scene, she hold the boxset for the atmospheric goth band This Mortal Coil and claims, "I wish I could just crawl in here and disappear forever." When her past sexual proclivities come back to haunt her, first she shrugs them off in denial. Yet, at the end of the film, when Amy meets the death and destruction which fashion would have her appreciate, she finally assumes a (albeit violent) sort of responsibility as she horrifically murders the gang of Nazi skinheads who have cut short Jordan's life. They say, as they are about to deliver the fatal blow, "you're going to watch me help your fairy boy toy shuffle off this mortal coil." The multitude of ironies here begin with Jordan's misrecognition as a homosexual and ends with that phrase which to Amy's connotes bliss being brought into its true context. The morbid languishness of This Mortal Coil makes depression and death an appealing and fashionable, yet brought into a real context, her affectations and desires not only haunt her, but bring about the death of that person most dear to her. She slays the Nazi's with that same implement which robbed her idyllic lover of his life and assumes a more active and understanding role in culture at large, and denies the escapist comfort of an abstracted counter culture ruled by commodified fads.

In the alarmingly redemptative final sequence, the irony free remaining duo drive silently. A cigarette, whose pack we have noticed throughout the film to be adorned with a skull and cross bones, dangles from her lips. Xavier brings the skull lighter, which was found a few scenes prior, to the cig and ignites the flame. Amy regards the lighter, its morbid casualness. We recognize that it no longer amuses her as she hesitantly brings the tip of her cigarette to the flame. An unchanged Xavier opens a bag of chips. "You want a Dorito." Cut to an exterior shot of the car, the roof of which we see, for the first time, is tagged with a smiley face. Assuredly in its creation, this icon was meant as an ironic gesture, but now, not only does it have a more ominous feel, but conversely it allows us a little hope. Perhaps this assumption of responsibility, a coming of age, as it were, will allow for some integrity, however horribly it has been reached. And, as it reads in the film's shooting script, "The ROARING WHOOSH of the Torino suddenly passing by is followed by the car slowly, inevitably receding, becoming tiny and dotlike, a greenish-blue speck under the immense, sprawling horizon. Its total insignificance in the vast, indifferent scheme of things is heartrendingly apparent. slow final fade to BLACK"

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Decline of Stupid Fucking Western Civilization

Day Two of Being Boring's Araki Blogathon!

There's an exchange of dialogue in the middle of Gregg Araki's sophomore picture, Totally F***ed Up, that, in a rather concise way, sums up a great deal of the film. Patricia and Michele are laying out at night and staring up into the stars.

Patricia - I like to just close my eyes, shut them really tight - and pretend, no matter where it is I happen to be, that I'm in paradise...

Michele - Don't you bump into stuff?

For the teens of Totally F***ed Up are an apathetic array of rich kids, burdened by all that which real life requires of them. Told in 15 "random" celluloid fragments, the film takes the shape of an experimental narrative video assemblage orchestrated by Steven, one of our 6 rebellious clan of friends. Intermittently interrupting the flow of the video (which is a rather shoddy imitation of those dynamic works of early 90's experimental found footage films, see Greta Snider or Luther Price) are the filmed goings on of our band of aimless youths as they fuck, cheat, drink, smoke, and do all of those glorious things privileged youths do to overcompensate for the position they were born into. The celluloid fragments are not, as Araki claims in his intro, random in any way, though an appreciatively aimless 25 minute introductory segment solely gives import to character study and posits very little narrative drive, ending finally when an intertitle announces "Insert Narrative Here."

At this point we are introduced to new characters who will set about a cataclysmic course of events for our world weary band of protagonists. This is, afterall, the first installment in Araki's "Teen Apocalypse Trilogy," and though the apocalypse for this motley crew is not literal, as it would later be enacted by space aliens and neo-Nazis, the queer bashing and suicides are enough to obliterate the pseudo-jaded world in which our teens inhabit. Because, really, for teenagers, and especially Araki's, each person is his own universe - the slightest irritation disrupting the entire balance of their self-absorbed stratosphere. That is not to say that you don't feel for these kids. True, Araki does have an early-Cronenbergian knack for discovering the most emotionally deficit actors to fill his parts, yet through it all, James Duval's depressive shrugs still work their way into your heart and you are crushed when, in his words, "I got burned. My poor little fuckin' heart got broken. B. F. D."

The loneliness of the film is unparalleled in Araki's ouvre. Most shots, when the gang is not gathered together before indicative signs which read things like "End," locate them in isolation - in bed or in a corner of the room, huddled on the floor. By contrast, the lesbians are almost perpetually together; their role in the film, more maternal than sororital. It is also in Totally F***ed Up that we find the only (to use a term from the previous post) mad eyed screamer in isolation. Immediately after the "Insert Narrative Here" sign, a stranger approaches Andy (James Duval) on the street and begins to flirt. They walk away together and, just when things are beginning to look promising, a hysterical woman placed below a gaudy billboard for Excalibur: Hotel and Casino hollers "Come back here, you asshole! Come back!" Her plaintive wails are juxtaposed with King Arthur's insanely jovial face. The pair walk past here, unfazed. And yet you know that nothing good will come of this. She is a striking premonition of what is to come. A modern Sibyl, lamenting an ill fated future.

Totally F***ed Up ultimately functions fantastically as a slice of life for the early 90's. It reminds of a time where rebellion and status quo defiancy could be a reality in a very large sub-cultural way. As a cinematic endeavor, however, it lacks complexity and depth. Araki's sharp aphorisms are in full form, and you find yourself repeating the phrases with many a snicker. Taking most of its formal cues from Araki's previous ventures, the film is, at times, as aimless as its protagonists. It deploys both the confessional video structure of Three Bewildered People in the Night and tries for the post-modern neo-realism which made The Living End such a vital work. Both affectations come off as rather ill conceived, but as the film rests within the context of the New Queer Cinema, it is certainly an essential title. Bad bad acting aside (and James Duval is certainly a Good bad actor), Totally F***ed Up certainly deserves the unusually pristine treatment it got in its DVD release from Strand last year. The film and its characters are a bit aloof for such a melodramatic title, but then, what does a yuppie teenager really know about being totally fucked up?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Fuck The World

Day one of Being Boring's Araki Blogathon.

What proved to be the first proper theatrical exposure to the cinema of Gregg Araki, The Living End, heralded the phrase "Fuck the World." Tagging a cement wall with a heavy industrial KMFDM track on his headphones, a leather jacket clad Luke, the id in our pair of protagonists, dances back in his Jesus & Mary Chain sleeveless and twirls about to the tune. A very polluted and industrial Los Angeles provides his backdrop. Jon, very much our superego, drives on a crowded LA freeway listening to something industrial, though decidedly more faggy. He is understandably shattered after receiving his first, positive HIV test from an dispassionate doctor. Both are HIV positive, we eventually learn. That the two will eventually meet is rather apparent. That they have much to offer one another - even more so.

Taking its place in the "lovers on the lam" genre, a comparison to films like Bonnie and Clyde is not undeserved. Only, that reviled society of sheriffs and bank tellers which the latter couple opposed, here, in a rather deft move of contemporary poignancy, manifest internally. That is, rather than making the enemy that society which Luke so readily blames, it is located within himself, in the blood. In Luke's case, it debilitates him with the fear of his physical condition. Tough and gruff, Luke counters every obstacle which stands before him with a bombastic rebelliousness desperately ebbing with insecurity. Jon, ever the pragmatist, is philosophically crippled, though he sloughs it off claiming, "I've just got to lay off the Joy Division records."

It's comments like these that bring most of Araki's detractors to find his films shallow or unoriginal. Cataloging cultural referents is a huge part of Araki's ouvre, though not in any detrimental way. His are regional period pieces, succinctly embodying the film's era as much as it's southern California terrain. Entering Jon's apartment, posters adorn the walls for Goddard's Made in the USA and The Films of Andy Warhol. Depeche Mode and New Order CD's litter his floor while messages on his answering machine talk of the Revolting Cocks, Nitzer Ebb and performance art. The lesbians who try to shoot Luke at the film's opening (one of them, factory maven Mary Woronov, playing a delicious parody of herself; the other, 80's performance artist Johanna Went) only have tapes by K.D. Lang. Am Pm, Ralph's, 7/11, Circus Liquor set the scene. All of this adding up to a frenzied summation of urban pastiche - and here it is far more damning one than those hip locales of Araki's later fare.

Here, the neon lights which line the vacant parking lots of the Ralph's cast a morbid hue over the errant souls which inhabit them. The signs replace the moon. When it comes to Araki's use of billboards and (to appropriately use a Siouxsie song title) mad eyed screamers, however, the alienating critical scrutiny of Araki's cinema comes into full form. Never do our protagonists seem so lost as when they appear beside the countless crazies that flow in and out of the most unlikely of places(as is true of the real Los Angeles). Two S/M couples pass our protagonists at random moments, leading their submissive by a leash. Their appearance assures Luke's comment that the world is a random fucked up place.

What I had not been prepared for, was the film's emotional complexity. True, later Araki works assumed the guise of the MTV video(where it became an act of subversion, but more on that later), The Living End shines with a neo-realist exploration of character. The characters are, in many ways, more generalized tropes tropes of queer cinema (see Thomas Waugh's "The Third Body"), but my remembrance of the film had fixed the characters as vaguely developed reactionaries, when in fact, upon more recent inspection, they are very vulnerable and emotionally faceted. Jon, with his Smiths records and Derek Jarman readers, is your more typical depressive intellectual (and assuredly more autobiographical, particularly when considering his ties to cinema). Luke, on the other hand, proves a fantastic figure of trembling denial, hiding his feelings with a pistol, glossing over his trepidation with boisterous retorts and violence. And this, it turns out, robs him of all conviction. In the end, it his is dishonest affronts that foil his selfish plans for denouement. And still, as far from the trail as Luke has taken him, Jon realizes that it has not all been for naught. They are brethren, of a sort. Blood brothers. But lovers, too. Through this voyage, not only has Jon come to love Luke(in some way, at least), but he realizes what Luke does not. It is through an understanding of both his (Jon/Superego) and Luke's (id) approaches to life that will give them the wherewithal to rationally comprehend what they've been dealt. Luke lead him to distract him from a devastating blow, now it is Jon's turn to do the leading.

Opening Words For an Araki Blogathon

Before writing about The Living End, which I am using as the starting off point for my exploration of the cinema of Gregg Araki (I'm thinking about wrapping it all up with his as-of-yet-unreleased Three Bewildered People in the Night which technically precedes The Living End, time wise), I figured I should begin with some starting comments. Araki, to me, is one of the most misunderstood filmmakers of the Nineties. His films have been met with disdain, revolt, disregard and animosity. Often dealing with rebelliously idiotic teenagers, his films are typically a mixture of sympathy and parody - believing in something while acknowledging its ridiculousness. This paradox is something widely misconstrued as a fashionable ambivalence, taking the absurd parts literally, or merely making a case of the films' decorative facade. What lies within this colorful body of work, however, is a wonderfully critical and honest portrayal of a disenfranchised culture of youths, coming to adulthood in a time of commercialism, AIDS, sexual promiscuity, media, mix tapes, post-punk idealism, gratuitous TV violence, apathy, freeways, CDs, cheap smokes, pay phones, 7/11s, antiseptic pornography, grunge... you get the idea. Like a collage artist, or perhaps social documentarian, Araki's films incorporate all of these referents in a dizzying, attention deficit world of careless depravity. It is initially, like his obvious idols, exacted in a neo-realist fashion - at least as far as neo-realism pertains to the MTV generation. Though, as his films developed, their linkage to Goddard and Truffaut became a tad more despondent, their adoption of a more pop culture aesthetic does not discredit them. Far from it, as the primary motive is the representation of a generation, the farther the protagnists grow from that of Araki's, the faster and more confused they become. Or, in a word, doomed.

I first encountered Gregg Araki through The Doom Generation. (And here I will display my absolute youthfulness) I was having a slumber party and it seemed an apt film to rent, given the yellow stickie tag affixed by the rental store, which read, "You must be 18 years or older to rent this movie!" I was but a wee middle schooler who found validation in Nine Inch Nails. I think I can honestly say I had no idea what to make of the movie upon my first viewing. Fucked up on something or other (or at least pretending to be, I don't really recall), I believe I thought it dreadful - what with the stilted acting and plodding plotline. It was too early on for irony to take full effect. And so, without a grain of salt, I took the film as true declaration. Oh dear. Again, with the home video release of Nowhere, all earnestness in tact, I sat in abject horror as the proceedings of the would-be misanthropic film played out before my insolent and rebellious eyes. Nowhere, perhaps better than The Doom Generation was part of my generation. To watch them kill themselves for crazy televangelists and get abducted by a man in a space alien suit was somewhat catastrophic without a parodic context established. The Living End and Totally F***ed Up followed suit. I glowed with anticipation when Splendor was to open. It was to be my first theatrical experience with a Gregg Araki film. I sat in the frigid A.C. resenting every misdirected moment of it. And then came the dry spell. In the five years between Splendor and last year's Mysterious Skin, with a more matured sense of cinema, I reassessed those films which, to me had embodied generational Fuck You's to the higher powers that be.

To my surprise I found dynamic and layered comedies, parodic tragedies, cynical theories on cinema and culture. The fuck you's that I thought to be directed at "the man" (whomever that may be?) were instead directed towards capitalism, conservativism and inward, as a malevolently laced introspection. I guess those are good opening words for this little blogging crusade. In closing, though I have begun with rather personal annecdotes about my experiences with Araki's cinema, and though I know that one can never truly divorce themselves from their personal affectations, this week will not be a fanatic rant but rather a critical investigation (as unbiased as is humanly possible) of the works of Gregg Araki as it would seem that now is a good time to look back at a surprisingly diverse and intensive body of works. Perhaps this could elicit others to join me. Because, like or not, most people my age have seen a film by Gregg Araki, however irresponsible or hetero it was.

Water Drops on Polished Rocks

So, I have never really cared for the cinema of Patrice Chereau. He's the sort of figure I should love, in theory - Marianne Faithull and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, graphic sex, a queer film before Queer cinema existed (at least on a large scale), soundtracks peppered with Tindersticks, Massive Attack, Nina Simone and P. J. Harvey. All of this is music to my ears. And yet, every film leaves me cold. I want to like L'homme Blesse, but I just don't. I could barely make it through Intimacy - and I'm a total sucker for Marianne Faithfull! Every film, that is, except his latest offering, Gabrielle. The film is about as French, mannered and artfully melodramatic as a film can get. A perpetually restrained Isabelle Huppert plays the eponymous character who leaves her painfully respectable husband Jean (Pascal Greggory), only to change her mind and return to find him having already read her letter of adieu. What follows is a game of will bashing and power plays. Though Chereau does not divorce himself from his signature stagnant pacing, the inner conflicts here (as reserved as they certainly are) are supply sufficient tension to find oneself pulled along in the purely dialogue driven narrative.

Though it is my attempt here to celebrate the film, there are certain key bits of historical information which I find necessary to understand before arriving at the conclusion that Gabrielle is an effective work of cinema. Before I attended the screening yesterday afternoon, I read Phillipe Lopate's review in Film Comment where he cited The Earrings of Madame de... as the root of the film's genealogy. So, before heading off to the Sunset 5, I rented an old VHS of Madame de.... It would not be unwarranted to make a double feature, before seeing Gabrielle, of both that film and R.W. Fassbinder's Effie Briest to make clear the strengths of Chereau's film. In both of these previous period melodramas, we find the historical trappings of femininity as preordained in a regimentilly mannered society. Both of our female protagonists are creatures of whimsy, not unlike Ibsen's Nora Helmer (a character which Fassbinder would later visit in a television film), whose frugal carelessness and disregard for societal codes bring about the downfall(either literally or metaphorically) of their spouse. Yet both are also conscious of the hypocrisy of this judgment. Madame's proclivities are not the only factors involved in these situations, yet it is hers which is met with the harshest of reprimands.

Chereau's film revisits these situations - of the swooning, whimsical female - and endows her with far greater authority than she has previously known. It was not possible for the period female of the fifties(in France, at least) to bear a callous knowledge of her situation, what's more to hold a calculating understanding of her actions. She was still Helmer's "little bird." Even in Fassbinder's film, he uses the absurd frailty of the period female to critique stereotypes perpetually associated with femininity. Chereau, from the very moment the camera lands upon Huppert, dispels that feminine ideal with that of the sternly composed and educated woman. Pas lady. The material associations are there. (There's a brilliant moment where, in reaction to the consequences at hand, Huppert shakes her head, and, in the resilient sound design by Olivier Do Huu, the jangle of her bijoux resound, moments after the action which instigated it.)

Of course, this is the could be expanded to include the film at large. The consequences of Huppert's action never mend themselves - tearing their world apart. There are a great many formal devices deployed in Gabrielle, most of them superfluous. I understand what Chereau is getting at with his catastrophic music and it frequently works - though when it doesn't it is rather crippling. The stock switches from color to black and white sans purpose. There are some dreadful intertitles which do little but refute the poignancy of filmic adaptation (Gabrielle is based on Joseph Conrad's The Return). Chereau's now-regular cameraman, Eric Gautier, however graces every moment with the glowing consideration given to a Danish still life or Spanish portrait. In the first of the two party sequences, his exhilarating, drunken camerawork visually parallels the dizzying social scene which hums with a beautiful composure. Huppert knows her place in French cinema and wields this knowledge with great aptitude. No one has greater facial control than she. Maudlin moments are heightened by her ability to control every facial muscle imaginable. Greggory's self-important Jean requires precious little of him, but just enough to expose his charisma as an actor. And as a meditation on the masculine gaze (which is literally discussed at one point) the film is truly dire. Though to some, I could see it being a dirge. I guess I would say, without a greater knowledge of historical melodrama, proceed with caution.

Friday, August 04, 2006

A case in point where diamonds are not a girl's best friend.

In preparation for Patrice Chereau's Gabrielle, I screened a little seminal gem known as The Earrings of Madame de... or, more succinctly, Madame de.... It's a tawdry little tale quite similar to Fontaine's Effie Briest, though more materialistically involved than the innocent Effie. Unfolding like the love child of early Sirk and von Sternberg, the melodrama follows a (un)certain Madame who hocks a pair of earrings given to her on her honeymoon to pay off a "gambling debt." So vast is her jewelbox (hmmm...) that she mistakes the jewels for a pair she acquired for herself. The jeweler, to whom she sells them, resells them to Madame's husband as, to account for the errant bijoux, she claimed them to be stolen at the opera the prior evening. And, as an act d'amour, Monsieur de... gives them to his courtesan as a parting gift. Again, to repay a gambling debt, she must hock them in Constantinople where they are bought by Vittorio De Sica who, in turn, falls madly in love with Madame de... As you can imagine, he bestows the treasure onto his new paramour - the jewels' initial owner.

And this, my friends, is the first 45 minutes. What follows is a masochistic game of wills, as the earrings slide from hand to hand, endowing greater meaning by the moment. Monsieur is a malevolent and unfathomably cruel man, but Madame is equally contemptible in her foolish ignorance of social codes. Her overzealous lust for De Sica's Donati does not allow for the (if nothing else) discretion which extra-marital affairs necessitate. When she first meets Donati, rather than recalling physical features or personal interactions, Madame describes each accessory which adorned the gentleman, right down to the horse head cuff links. The melodrama, for the period, is overplayed, much like the brutality of their actions. I was frankly shocked by both her harlotry and his emotional cruelty, in equal measure. In quite theatrical gestures, those betrothed are locked in a frenzy of one-upmanship. And, as you may suspected, the final result is a duel between the conflicting hommes. The entire time, however, you are aware that, whomever is wounded, the victim will be Madame de... It was her frivolousness that resulted in all of this. Not a very feminist stance, but at least Monsieur is also implicated - hardly resisting extra marital temptations. Theirs is a political and kinly union, as they ascertain in one of the films few startlingly frank discussions of their non-romantic union. It is remarkably sober and admirable at these moments. That the visuals are pure sumptuousness is merely icing on the cake.