When I first watched Gregg Araki’s Totally Fu***ed Up, I was taken by a sense of relief that here, finally, was a film about gay youngsters whose main scope was not a coming out story. Likewise, when I saw The Living End, I thought it was refreshing to see a gay-themed film in which the protagonists’ sexuality, while being just as central to their identity as it would have been in any Hollywood crowdpleaser, was finally used to carve out a real outsider position, instead of simply becoming yet another film about self-loathing gays desperately trying to conform to heteronormativity.
But suddenly it struck me to which background both these films were made (here, I’m deeply indebted to Glyn Davies’ excellent essay on Gregg Araki in Michelle Aaron’s New Queer Cinema. A Critical Reader., 2004) You don’t have to be a fundamentalist follower of historical materialism to concede that the the gay experience of the early 1990’s is to some extent reflected in them. Fearing it would stand in the way of the sprawling creativity of his films, I’m pretty sure Gregg Araki would hate to be labeled a political filmmaker, and because of the connotations of propaganda, I suspect activist filmmaker wouldn’t please him either, but still; it’s tempting to assume that these two films steered clear of individualist introspection mainly because they were conceived at a time when more pressing issues where on the agenda, or rather were slipping from the agenda, but should be highlighted anew.
Like, say, survival. In the early nineties, when American film critic B. Ruby Rich summarized the recent wave of self-aware and uncompromising new gay-themed films under the term New Queer Cinema, a void was about to be filled with regard to updating the cinematic depiction of the gay experience in America. If gays appeared in mainstream movies at all, they often were one-dimensional, resigned AIDS victims, constructed primarily to make the presumably straight audience feel good about themselves for even caring. When the proponents of NQC to some extent seemed to relish the marginal outsider position offered them by the mainstream, it was only because it gave them a chance to re-evaluate queerness on their own terms. Today, when queer aesthetics could be said to have been effectively co-opted by the mainstream, Gregg Araki’s early works and other essential NQC films might seem insular or even hostile to the point of being counterproductive in their uncompromising rejection of mainstream, heteronormative society. But understanding the social context in which they were conceived, to me takes little away from their qualities.
In her chapter on AIDS in Michelle Aaron’s (ed.) 2004 anthology New Queer Cinema. A Critical Reader, Monica Pearl persuasively argues that this is one of the constituting issues of this cinematic tendency, and although they are touched upon only briefly by her, both The Living End and Totally Fu***ed Up could make telling examples of the multiple approaches contained within it, and even within the corpus of one director. First, consider The Living End, an aggressively told road movie about two HIV infected men. Ever the provocateur, Araki here comes close to arguing that the terminality of AIDS can in some ways result in a make the most of it moment. Sensing that their lives have already reached the point of no return, and seemingly relishing the liberating potential of being outcasts, Mike and Jon embark on a journey of accidental violence in which the ordinary consequences seem to have caved in to the interminable nature of their quest. Through obvious provocations (do no rules apply to the terminally ill?), an aggressive visual style and a narrative abound with absurd dead-ends and bad taste elements – principal among them some truly terrible acting – it’s easy to see why The Living End is considered one of the most important works of NQC. However concious about its political potential, its also never afraid to be entertaining; and however (intentionally) morally dubious, it showed that if gays where to go down in doom and gloom, it was to be on their own terms. As a movie, The Living End is a complete mess, and high tolerance for cynicism is advised, but taken in its very specific social context, and possibly as a precursor of better things to come from Gregg Araki, The Living End is still worth watching.
In Totally Fu***ed Up, then, the AIDS issue is more intricately woven into the story. Still told in a rough, almost sketchy manner, the film’s scope is nevertheless broader than was The Living End. Through the use of the visual techniques of the documentary, and heavy on the dry humor of sloganeering, it takes episodic dives into different aspects of the contemporary, young gay experience. Sure, at times it feels like Araki is so afraid that what is in the end a story of all the things mainstream society doesn’t allow young people to cope with, or much less voice public concern about, should be taken too seriously, that his style threatens to undermine it. Most of the time though, Totally Fu***ed Up, combines the anarchic feel of its immediate predecessor with a more ambitious attempt to chart the murky waters gay youth have to navigate. But just to hammer home the point that Totally Fu***ed Up, like The Living End has preciously little in common with dreaded awareness movies, I’d like to give a shout-out to a scene that situates the movie definitively in its time. In it, the main characters discuss gay celebrity fantasies, and the names of contemporary stars like Matt Dillon and River Phoenix are tossed around. Those were the days, eh?
One of B. Ruby Rich’s criteria for NQC movies were that they should be fun, and in both Totally Fu***ed Up and his next film, The Doom Generation (whose nihilism draws a line back to The Living End), he took his time to nod self-deprecatingly to the tradition he had now been written into, labeling TFU and Doom ‘another homo movie’ and ‘a heterosexual movie’, respectively. Doom Generation of course refuses to be categorized in this way, containing a prominent (and quite stimulating) homoerotic subtext in the relationship between Araki regular James Duval’s (who looks like what you might get from pairing a young Johnny Depp with a young Keanu Reeves, which is to say not bad at all, but whose acting skills are closer to Reeves’, which is very bad thing, indeed) and Jonathan Schaech’s characters, and the label should therefore be seen as an ironic comment on the constant need to pre-package our understanding of his movies.
That said, if we are to return to were we started off, my somewhat naive initial understanding of Totally Fu***ed Up would be quite understandable if I was to judge from the way the film was presented in its DVD release as “[a] self-conciously cool story of the gay teen underground (…) New Queer Cinema at its edgiest“. In the light of these words, at the same time pitching the movie as chronicling “the messed up lives of six gay LA teenagers, as they try to keep it together in the face of AIDS, homophobia, queerbashing and infidelity“, sounds oddly non-commital. Likewise, Nowhere (1997), while not explicitly NQC in scope, is promoted thusly: “Hip, hilarious and visually stunning, Nowhere is a pretty cool place to be“. Brimming with mostly meaningless buzzwords (is there a more overused word in the dictionary of commercial English than edgy? Hip? Cool? As in ‘self-conciously cool’?! Oh, please.), the films are drained of any subversive potential, and instead of saying something even remotely meaningful about the films themselves, it offers up an utterly empty set of adjectives meant to ensure that the average viever know to focus more on what kind of cultural capital she can extract from them, than on their wider cultural or political implications.
Even if there are no eternally authoritative readings of a movie, I think we’ve established that my initial reaction to the two early Araki films discussed here, was borderline naive. Still, I suspect my perspective on them would have changed for the better had I read Time Machine (reprinted with permission) beforehand, a poem by my friend Bryan over at Shake, striking a balance between self-awareness and historical awareness that resemble the films themselves:
“We almost feel cheated, my generation. Our sexual revolutions
were broadcast with a two-second delay, streamed live but muted.
We’ve never seen glory holes, those Swiss bank accounts of gay passion.
Our lovers were never hung like disco balls,
there were never only dark rooms, back alleys, winding trails,
bathroom stalls for two, some warehouse turned nightclub,
back when we always took him home, took him somewhere,
took him in with a welcome mat of wicked raw skin,
before death rode into bloodstreams like a horse into Troy,
before the world was smothered in spermicide and latex,
when we could still snort lines of strangers’ sweat,
when we had to work for it, for everything,
when connections were made on the strength of a glance
not the invisible muscle of manic wireless signals,
before fevered afterglow was replaced by a sickening regret,
before red ribbons there was red-hot and dirty love, baby,
when the only question to be asked
was hey man, top or bottom?
when we were cultured but not pop culture,
when we were corner-bar cowards or front-page courageous,
when we weren’t blowjob bulimics,
when we swallowed and didn’t count anything, calories or t-cells.”
With these words churning in your head, you should do two things: First, you should head over to Bryan’s to read everything he’s ever posted. Then you should give Gregg Araki a shot.