Friday, January 28, 2011

Back in the High life, again.

I was sitting at BAM last night for the New York premier of Gregg Araki's new film Kaboom realizing that I was never quite the age bracket that Araki's most coveted films depict. Happening upon The Doom Generation in my way-early teens, I was drawn like a moth to the flame by a post-it on the vhs rental box that read: You must be 18 years or older to rent this! I knew the store crew, who had already rented Pink Flamingos to me out of their porn section, so I didn't and watched it at my rather impressionable age (12 or 13?). Nowhere, too, came out when I was in junior high, the mess that predates all of Araki's characters' college-year crises. More a hormonal soup than an identity blitzkrieg. Then he dropped out of that mission for a while with the threesome movie that coincided with his surprising affair with star, Kathleen Robertson and, after the failure of his unaired MTV pilot, This Is How The World Ends, nothing materialized until 2004's Mysterious Skin. My prime teen years faced a dearth of new teen traumas from the harbringer of the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy. Where was Gregg when I needed him?

Watching Kaboom last night made me realize there's no teenage neo-realism, here. My teen cultural moment was never documented by Araki, but then, I don't think any really is. Even though Kaboom sports Lady Gaga references, his new teen dream is more like his depiction of Los Angeles: a moribund place of technicolor limitlessness and impending doom. Araki's teens are a total fantasy state, serving up the best of the best (sex) and the worst or the worst (death).

Kaboom is being heralded as a return to his roots, it's a teenage Twin Peaks sex fantasy that takes a lot from the format that Araki found his greatest success in - straight-to-video 90s releases. Movies with loose ended plots, sexy children, familiar scenarios and neon VHS box covers. Smith, an *ahem* 19-year-old film studies major, hops from boy bed to girl bed and in between somewhere witnesses a horrible murder by animal-masked men. Unable to recall specific details of the night before (he'd inadvertently consumed a laced star-shaped cookie), Smith searches for the red haired girl who was knifed and evades the dangerous figures who lurk behind every open door. Oh, he has loads of sex too. With Kaboom, Araki reminds of his reputation as an adept cinephile. It's a terrifically fun watch and completely aware of all of its generic referents and stolen formulae. It's also a terribly beautiful film, awash in the rich candy hues for which Araki is well know. Now, though, as Dennis Lim suggested in his recent NY Times article, "Young and the Restless Never Get Old", the warmer tones reflect a more optimistic sensibility, in contrast to the acidic pop tones of his nihilistic yesteryear. Of course, underneath The Doom Generation and Nowhere beat a loving and endearing pulse, clued in to more than the sardonic dismissiveness critics frequently mistook his cinema for. It's been luscious pinks and blues since Mysterious Skin and that suits the filmmaker.

He's always been a closet romantic. James Duvall's Dark yearns for love in Nowhere with a kind of fundamental innocence that can't help but infect the overstimulated spectator. Here, there are similar moments. Araki was making movies before the commercial onslaught of coming-out films of the late nineties and it was particularly heartwarming to see teen gay affections rendered on VHS. My heart warmed to find that Kaboom still finds room for this kind of glee. A cutie named Oliver that Smith spied at a party shoots him a flirtatious email video message and the smitten smirk that crawls across the recipient's face is totally believable. It captures the ecstatic potential of youthful flirtations, a kind of fairytale longing that is less existential than Araki's former incarnations. And on the upside he no longer feels the need to make the lover explode into a giant bug nor does he shear him of his manhood. They oggle one another and grin across the interweb, locked into this sexual current that seems to pulse through the air of Araki's campus life.

Kaboom is definitely independent and it showcases this frugality in its slim cast. But while endless cameos were his way around budgetary restraints of yore, it's nice that Araki trusts in the good dozen actors cast in lead roles. Kaboom came out of Araki's attempt to pen an MTV series. A pilot was shot for This Is How The World Ends, but it was way to reiterative of Nowhere, replaying jokes, scenarios and characters from that far more successful venture. So, like David Lynch with Mulholland Drive, Araki got a check from the French (bless 'em!) to turn this serial into Kaboom. That probably explains the presence of Catherine Breillat veteran Roxanne Mesquida, who plays a crazy lesbian girlfriend with occult powers. It also explains the abandon with which Araki hurls into comic book situations. He explained in a q&A after the screening that, since the French were footing the bill, he didn't conform the narrative to a appealing American product, but top-loaded the text with everything that he would want to see in a movie. There's loads of CGI on display here and wild plot turns display an assured what-the-fuckness that is really awesome (prepare yourself for an exhilliratingly wooden and high-octane exchange between James Duvall, who plays a stoner RA, and the quirky lesbian best friend, Stella [Haley Bennett] in the final minutes of the film - a scene so ecstatic in its b-movie timing that I audibly convulsed with pleasure, startling cinemagoers in my adjacent seats).

There's kind of a bad ending, but there's ultimately nowhere for the movie to really go. It's a retread, a reinvention, an explosion of Araki's past that's both dazzling and meta. Not that you need to know his prior work to enjoy it. This is what Araki's done best all along. Hopefully some ignorant tween will find this on thepiratebay (or some more egalitarian screening site) and revel in the contours of its sugary angst over stolen midnight viewings. Hopefully this blast of jouissance and outsider freedom will clue them into the alternative lifestyle options that Araki's cinema has always championed.


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