[12 June 2008]
PopMatters Features Editor
Fifteen and the newest member of a preppy suburban high school where I would endure the next three years, life was hell. The lunchroom conversation consisted of the coming baseball and cheerleader tryouts. Half asleep, switched to an autopilot that had taken decades to perfect, teachers scribbled boring sentences on blackboards with coffee-induced zombie moans. Cruising past the houses of boyish crushes was the evening thrill of most, light years from my idea of a model night out. Starting over as a teenager in a new neighborhood was difficult enough, without the added bonus of upper-middle class suburbia, which only magnified the hormonal adolescent angst that was already bubbling inside me. Like all naive teenagers, I entertained the juvenile idea of suicide more than once.
Not that my previous neighborhood was much different. Before the move, my family made home in Hammond, a town teetering on the border of East Chicago and Gary, a place surrounded by industry and smog. But at least Hammond teemed with its share of diversity and felt the faint gravitational pull of Chicago, my friends becoming full-blooded punks and goths. Griffith, however, was the quintessential bourgeois township that offered little in the regard of cultural development, and simply recycled its citizens. The echoing reputation of parents who had attended that same high school 20 years earlier and gotten knocked up too early to escape decided the popular standing of the younger generation. Football star fathers produced football prodigies. Once head-cheerleader mothers birthed future cheerleading daughters. In other words, Griffith was a skipping record, doomed to replay the sorry existence of small time necessity.
This was 1997 mind you, the same year Gregg Araki’s film Nowhere appeared on the shelf of Citizen Video, the hole-in-the-wall rental store where I squandered countless afternoons, camped out in the horror section, surrounded by an igloo of VHS cassette tapes. The back of the box read:
Nowhere is the final chapter in acclaimed director Gregg Araki’s (The Doom Generation, The Living End) stunning, and through-provoking “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy.” Nowhere follows a day in the life of Dark (James Duval), an 18-year-old trying to weave his way through the psychedelic, drug-addicted, sex crazed world that is life in L.A. Along the way, he encounters dozens of angst-ridden characters played by some of pop culture’s most recognized stars, including Shannen Doherty, Christina Applegate, Traci Lords, John Ritter, Kathleen Robertson and many more. But at its core, Nowhere is an overtly sexual, achingly real story about a sensitive kid struggling with a quest for eternal love in a fractured world.
Little did I know, however, as I read the blurb and weighed the tape in my hand that this single film would change the very trajectory of my life. Nor would I understand what exactly new queer cinema or gender bending entailed until a whole semester into my freshmen year of college. But smack in the middle of Griffith, the idea of an apocalypse geared solely toward teenagers mildly appealed to me, so I paid the two dollar rental fee, tucked the movie in my backpack, and headed home.
Eight at night, textbooks sprawled opened on my bed as I pecked away at the homework due the next day, I pressed play on the remote and waited. Not a minute into the movie—watching the opening scene when the camera pans down as the shoegazer band Slowdive plays and you find Dark set against a mystical white backdrop, masturbating in a steamy shower, fantasizing about men, women, and a dominatrix couple decked out in full vinyl regale—I was completely hypnotized. Never before had I glimpsed a movie moment so hideously honest and authentic, a moment that captured the teenage desperation I felt bottled within me.
Come on—who hasn’t been Dark at some point in early life, bored and still uncovering the mysteries of their bodies and dreams, terrified by norms and morals? And just as Dark was interrupted by his mother, jokerized with lime-colored skin cream, I had already closed my books, set adrift in Araki’s confusing world of sad, raging teenagers.
Described as Beverly Hills 90210 on acid, Nowhere isn’t just another teenage angst movie though. Araki is smart to the clichés that makes for terrible cinema, and he transcends the absurdity of pop culture, specifically the L.A. punk subculture of the late ‘90s.
Granted, Griffith is far from Los Angeles, but Araki’s Nowhere possesses a futuristic mood that dismantles the normal conventions of setting and era. As you watch, you’ll notice the characters all speak in a lyrical bastardization of English and slang that only a lost generation would employ, the squandered youth of a dying planet, futureless. Meanwhile, exoskeletoned aliens only Dark cares to notice are invading, stealing beers from the fridge and abducting clueless teenagers, including the stuttering, angelic man named Montgomery who may be Dark’s only chance at happiness.
It doesn’t end there either. Take Araki’s sledgehammer symbols that he peppers throughout the film. Like a bus stop bench that simply reads GOD SAVE ME. Or the single word HOPE stitched into the white towel Dark fetches only minutes after his friend tried to drown himself. Or the televangelist program hosted by John Ritter flashing the number 1-800-GO-JE$U$ as two suicidal teens chant “We believe. We believe.” And let’s not forget the tomato soup can—an obvious reference to Andy Warhol’s consumerism—that’s used to beat a dope fiend named Handjob to death.
Just imagine a crumbling, crummy world where nothing is sacred and the only thing your self-destructive friends hope for is a gruesome, flashy death that will finally release them for their fucked-up planet. Picture, if you can, the Atari gang downing vodka, polishing their semi-automatics while driving a stolen Toyota, chanting the fight song, “I’m full of hate. I want to die. I’m full of hate. I want to die.”
All this and more warps the fabric of the universe and reveals a personal apocalypse, an all out teargas assault on the very nature of the superficial mascara surface. Araki masterfully strips away the onion layers of all we hold dear—our schedules, our hangouts, our loved ones, our fear of death and dying—until we’re choking on the exhaust fumes of our pointless lives, headed nowhere. To what exactly would the homework I was neglecting lead? How absurd was it that I should worry about making the basketball cuts when we’re doomed? And then Dark finally asks the question of his promiscuous bisexual girlfriend, “Can’t we just leave this whole planet behind and forget everybody and everything and just, like, be in love and stuff?”
Being 15, I of course sweated over the normal questions teenagers asked in bad poetry. Was I gay? Straight? Bi? Did I matter? Was I meant for this world? Was my existence and everyone’s a cosmic mistake, God’s accidental sneeze after the big bang had kicked up the dust? Was I wearing the right clothes or Nikes that year? Was there a meaning to life other than wasting time at video stores and arcades?
But as I watched Nowhere that first night, all these childish worries evaporated. My sexuality dissolved. My gender dissolved. My silly sci-fi fantasies of alien saviors landing and welcoming me with bony open arms dissolved. Even the loneliness I blamed on acne dissolved. I felt weightless for hours afterwards. The constricting suit of pop culture had suddenly sluffed off my skin, and I was naked again, like a newborn. All that remained behind was the human heart, a neon vacancy sign buzzing, waiting for the one person—man, woman, alien—who could endure the violence and hardship of the world beside me.
Now, some may argue that Nowhere, like Araki’s previous teen angst incarnation The Doom Generation, ends on a particularly bleak note. Hell, if you can get much bleaker than a giant alien cockroach exploding from Montgomery’s convulsing naked body just as Dark takes his true love into his arms for the first time. But it’s this movie moment that finally killed the ever-nagging Joan Rivers on my shoulder.
Maybe I was doomed, but so was everyone around me. What mattered was under the jeans, deeper than the skin and slang, beyond the dark high school questions, the thing that burned blindly beneath the surface, the essential me. And for a director to recognize that feeling, for Dark to yearn for that mysterious, caring individual, I no longer felt alone in the universe. True, Araki’s ending resonates with a distinctive sense of futility, but within that same empty plant pot called life blooms a new hope, the dream that there’s still one thing we can all share: our suffering.
Life became easier after Nowhere. I soon joined up with a gaggle of pseudo-punks and started migrating to Chicago for ska shows at the Fireside Bowl. On weekends, I wandered around museums or random city blocks, wherever I could become anonymous for a few hours, wherever I might bump into that person who, despite all our petty knowledge and shitty apparel, might look beneath the surface.
Twenty-six and still looking, I reflect on my teenage angst as a natural phase in my development, one that perhaps gave way to maturity. I can look back now and comment somewhat objectively. Griffith was never as terrible as I made it out to be. The trials of suburbia have always been the same as those that are happening behind the dim apartment windows of the city.
Nonetheless, many tattoos and many flings later, I still carry that same undying urge for companionship that Dark carried. Perhaps we’re all fated to witness the end of everything, as Dark himself suggests in his video diary. Just maybe, though, I can watch the end with, as Montgomery says, snuggling in Dark’s arms just minutes before he explodes, ” ...one person on this awful scary planet who I can love and who loves me for what I am.”