Gregg Araki, Kaboom

The Queer World of Gregg Araki’s Films

Campy, surreal, and even “trauma”-inducing, the queer world of Gregg Araki’s smart, challenging, and colorfully eccentric films seduce.

“What is up with these kids today?” Parents and artists seemed to have a renewed interest in this question once the 1990s rolled around. Gen X emanated a detached sense of nihilism. Paradoxically, DIY music and rave culture ushered in a borderline resurgence in colorful, almost hippie-adjacent expression. Y2K was coming, and the world was coming to an end.

“Whatever, who cares,” was the dreamy, dazed mantra reply. Meanwhile, gay and lesbian culture was growing and finding footholds in underground and mainstream culture. A new sense of possibility came with a paradoxical sense of dread about the future. What was going on with these kids?

Artists and filmmakers were prepared to dive into the world of the young generation, sometimes making cases for its merit and other times (debatably with Larry Clark’s 1991 film, Kids) having raunchier, borderline exploitive aims, as if to prove the parents were right – the kids were indeed out of control. Filmmaker Gregg Araki, who came up amongst a crop of filmmakers that were later referred to as “the queer new wave”, seemed like the perfect alternative, a young filmmaker who undeniably had his finger on the zeitgeist of not just gay life but of Gen X youth culture in general. His visions were unflinchingly queer, sexually explicit, and not at all afraid of indulging the nihilism of the time.

However, Araki’s world of youthful rebellion and expression never felt like exploitation. Even though it often indulged in the darkness of the time (AIDS, inequality, disillusionment) a sense of dreamy optimism was almost always present. His worlds bust forth with blasts of color and euphoric music. Yes, music. It seems to be an inseparable ingredient in Araki’s daydream visions, oftentimes coming from rock subgenres like Dream Pop and Shoegaze using noisy feedback and layers of guitar effects that can be beautifully poppy and dissonantly off-putting. His characters are often similarly tough and dangerous on the surface, attempting to shock the audience at first but later revealing themselves to be soft and romantic as the story unfolds. 

When you’re young, you are, of course, starting at zero. It can be daunting and discouraging when you realize that the world is a dark place that may have no inherent meaning. Araki wants to tell us that life does not end in disillusionment; that’s where it begins. From the darkness, his characters go forth to create meaning and reason for living. This aspect makes Araki so much more than just a director who makes “gay movies”. He remains one of the most underrated artists of his generation. Queerness, as far as Gregg is concerned, seems to be less about who we go to bed with and more about the idea that there are no set rules for loving and living. Our lives are ours to create. 

“Or whatever…”

Below is a ranking of most of Araki’s filmography. His films would polarize some audiences due to his choice of content or his sometimes over-the-top nature, but if you like just one Araki film, you’re part of the cult. 

Mysterious Skin (2004)

Mysterious Skin is a devastatingly beautiful story where two lives intersect, diverge, and then meet again. Neil is a dreamy, chaotic, gay hustler (played by Joseph Gordon Levit), and Brian (Brady Corbet) is a nervous young man suffering from the aftermath of what may or may not have been an alien abduction experience. They are tied together through an event that will forever shape them.

In many ways, Mysterious Skin is the best of all things Gregg Araki. Based on Scott Heim’s wonderful novel of the same name, this project shows a debatably more mature side to Araki’s filmmaking, working with a story set in the real world instead of the heightened camp world of his early films. That said, Araki’s surreal side can’t help but shine through. While there are no pop art sets or giant exploding bugs in Mysterious Skin, Araki perfectly communicates the dreamy recollections of our two protagonists and how their ideas about their pasts, at times, can clash with what is shown.

Mysterious Skin contains some intense sequences involving abuse and its traumatic aftermath, and it has gained a reputation as a heavy, tragic bummer. There is so much more here, waiting for those who dare to dive in. Trauma can certainly shape a life’s trajectory, but Araki is right in communicating that trauma is only one of many things in a survivor’s life; there is also joy, love, and beauty.

As always, Araki’s music choices help tell the story. The shimmering guitar and piano explorations of Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie and ambient legend Harold Budd help create a nostalgic mood of looking back and create an atmosphere that makes Mysterious Skin as much a “vibe” as it is a dramatic character study. Looking back on childhood, regardless of how idyllic or chaotic it may have been for you, can be a haunting, ghostly experience, and few films capture that collision of memories and ability to feel both familiar and unknowable than Mysterious Skin. It also must be said that Joseph Gordon Levit’s role in this film could most likely turn even the straightest, all-American boy as queer as a $3 bill. 

The Doom Generation (1995)

The Doom Generation is like the goth kid who always looked like they hated you until you finally hung out with them and realized they were a total sweetheart. This might be the most Gen X movie of all time. Cartoonish, over-the-top violence amongst vapid nihilistic characters abounds in The Doom Generation. While most of the Gregg Araki world exists in a Slowdive, shoegaze dream, this one takes place in a Nine Inch Nails nightmare.

The Doom Generation is the second film in Greggs’s thematically linked Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy. Despite its sometimes very (very) rough edges, the film gives viewers Greggs’ most loveable characters. James Duvall, often seen as Araki’s muse, brings a dreamy-eyed, sometimes ditsy, bisexual energy to the character Jordan White, who is like a lovingly exaggerated version of Kanu Reeves.

Jordan and his girlfriend, the gothy and impossibly cool Alice White, played by then up-and-coming Rose Mcgowen, cross paths with an extreme (to say the least) punk rocker known as “X” (Jonathan Schaech) who involves the couple in a hilariously over the top violent rampage. Together, the threesome go on the run, doing their best to escape law enforcement and Alice’s often murderous ex-boyfriends.

The real meat in The Doom Generation comes from the various humorous and undeniably sexy interactions between the three very horny main characters as they explore and navigate jealousy, honesty, and sexual experimentation while out on the road. A running trend in Araki’s filmography is his desire to have the audience feel like they have experienced extremes when watching his movies.

Indeed, in The Doom Generation, there is extreme violence, nihilism, and darkness, but his work almost always has an equal amount of childlike optimism, love, and joy. In this way, Araki, even at his most outrageous and hyperbolic, strikes a balance that seems something like the truth.

Smiley Face (2007)

In many ways, Smiley Face is the outlier in Gregg Araki’s filmography. This foray into the stoner genre is among the most underrated in Araki’s catalog and among the most underrated comedies of its era. Smiley Face plays like a much sillier version of the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.

Comparing Smiley Face to a Thomas Pynchon adaptation might seem hyperbolic until you pause the film at its midpoint and try to map out the whirlwind of happenstance and misadventure that caused the plot to go from point A to point Z. In many ways, it feels true to life. Even the most ordinary day is full of misdirection, information overload, and a need to improvise when things don’t go as planned.

Anna Ferris as Jane F. shines, creating a believable, ditzy, and loveable stoner you will happily follow along with even when she’s making questionable judgments that will get her over her head into trouble. Araki directed but did not write Smiley Face. Despite his obvious talent as a writer, turning the job over to Dylan Haggerty elevates this project. Haggerty remains relatively unsung (he doesn’t even have a Wiki page!) with only a few notable writing credits. It can be easy to take Smiley Face‘s crazy plot for granted until you take a moment to think about what went into the creation of the genuinely witty dialogue and surprisingly intricate chain of events. 

What begins as a simple romp evolves and gets tangled up into something  that makes you wonder, “Wait, how the hell did Jane F. go from accidentally eating pot cupcakes to talking to god on top of a Ferris wheel while holding an original copy of the Communist Manifesto?” It’s a great question. You’ll want to grab another cupcake and Smiley Face again. 

Nowhere (1997)

Nowhere is the purest example of Gregg Arakis’ earlier, more cartoonishly, chaotic, and downright pop art phase of his career. It is the final entry in the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, and you can tell that Araki is pushing his campy style to some outrageous, queer, grand finalé.

Nowhere is set in a colorful world that feels sculpted from the zeitgeist of all things “late ’90s” where everything is rushing toward doom and the coming of Y2K switch to a new century. Here, we follow an ensemble of characters whose youthful bedrooms are outrageously impressionistic sets where words are projected on the walls, and lighting can change at the utterance of a single word.

Nowhere also has giant insects and laser gun-wielding lizard people. Sure, it’s over the top, like a youthful tantrum. For some, that might be annoying. For adventurous viewers, however, Nowhere is a film you must see to believe. By its end, your eyes may be burning from the vivid colors, and you might feel as if you’ve been eating sour candies for the last two hours – a sugar rush with an odd aftertaste. This is Nowhere

Totally Fucked Up (1993)

“Another homo movie by Gregg Araki” flashes on the screen at the beginning of Totally Fucked Up. You can’t say Araki isn’t self-aware. I many ways, self-awareness, and self-consciousness are the central preoccupations of the characters in Totally Fucked Up.

Here, scenes of teenage misadventure, often centered around finding love, sex, or any relief from everyday frustrations, are punctuated with shaky cam interview confessions with the main characters, most of whom identify as gay or lesbian. From go, the teens in Totally Fucked Up set a trend, often opening with the most over-the-top, dramatic stance they can take and saying things like: “I’m totally fucked up and I uhh don’t have any friends…” Such scenes are followed by timid backtracking or a scene where we cut back to the film’s events to show the narrator’s unreliability.

We see a loyal friend group of gay kids who support and love each other. It can be easy to call these teens out for being self-absorbed, dramatic, and even hypocritical, but anyone who is close with a teen or remembers what it’s like to be that age knows that such inconsistencies in character are essential and are to be expected in adolescence.

Totally Fucked Up could be dismissed as a collage of episodic meanderings, but it is simply to the film’s credit, and in line with its spirit, that Araki didn’t feel the need to introduce some obvious, climactic moment or some artificial gun-wielding pay off. Sorry to spoil that fact about Totally Fucked Up. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters…right?”

The Living End (1992)

Gay Bonnie and Clyde? On the run for shooting a homophobic cop? Who could resist that? Your republican mom? Well, she wasn’t invited in the first place! Yes, in The Living End, we have two gay men on the run. One is a neurotic film critic, and the other is a trigger-happy drifter.

In addition to being tied together because of the whole dead cop thing, they both have recently been diagnosed with AIDS and know that neither of them has long to live. “Fuck it!” This is the mantra of this fast-paced, micro-budget cry of anger in an age when gay men were dying, and the world didn’t seem to care.

The Living End introduces the dawn of Gregg Araki’s campy sense of art direction. He pulls no punches, letting this road movie be a platform for communicating the pain that comes from being “bothered”, and being among the dying. The Living End has a rough, homemade quality that helps hammer home its nature as a passion project.  

The Living End is considered by many to be Araki’s feature film debut, but he made two additional movies before this one. Three Bewildered People in the Night (1987) and The Long Weekend (1989) precede The Living End, but getting quality copies seems impossible. From what little I can gather about them, it seems they served as “practice runs” for Araki anyway. Does that make me an “Araki poser”?

Splendor (1999)

Splendor is a perfect bubble gum pop song-like tribute to nontraditional couplings. This is the story of a threesome and the hilarity, stress, and beauty that ensues as the characters try their damndest to make it all work. It is most certainly set in Gregg Araki’s world of campy, colorful sets that are filled with new-millennium glitz and glam.

Splendor‘s characters are like sexy versions of Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, but Araki infuses their struggles with an empathetically emotional (if a little hyperbolic) believability. It comes from a place of genuine experience with and affection for “unorthodox” relationships.

Araki has often identified himself as a gay man who has dated women throughout his career, for which he has caught flack from some fans. This happens with queer folks who are held up to be “examples” for their community.

Splendor proves that even in a film that some might consider a “lesser work”, Araki is consistent in his goal of breaking down barriers rather than building them. With Splendor he argues, if you will, that our relationship with love and sex is not fixed but an ever-changing process. Why have less, Splendor says, when you can have more?  

Kaboom (2010)

I wish we had more Gregg Araki films in this world. Even a “lesser” film in his collection is still head and shoulders more interesting than half the stuff coming out these days.

The aptly titled Kaboom is beloved by many but feels like a collection of ideas left over from the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy that didn’t make it into the first three films. It is, however, absolutely worth it to see Araki return to the pop art camp of his earlier style, this time with a bigger budget.

Kaboom‘s characters are adorable, wacky queers who are trying to traverse their relationships and explore their identities. The plot is somewhat episodic and comes complete with a nuclear bomb-toting cult full of animal mask-wearing zealots. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

Maybe I need to give Kaboom another watch, like right now. It’s always worth escaping the boredom of everyday life to jump back into the rainbow that is Araki’s world. 

White Bird in a Blizzard (2014)

A film of this caliber last on this list further proves that Gregg Araki has no duds in his oeuvre. White Bird in a Blizzard also proves that despite Araki’s eccentric style, he can work well on mainstream projects, too.

The millennial era ushered in a more mainstream, less edgy, and more “approachable”, version of teenage and queer media (as seen in the period’s rise of young adult fiction, for example). Araki eagerly transitioned into the millennial age with surprising elegance.

In many ways, White Bird in a Blizzard‘s plot is like a John Green murder mystery aimed specifically at YA fiction fans who are allowed to watch rated R movies. Still, Araki’s signature style cannot be hidden regardless of the nature of the project he’s working on. While White Bird in a Blizzard is far more tame than Totally Fucked Up, youthful sexuality is not shied away from here and is handled with his patented permissive sense of joy toward sexual expression, even when it is expressed in less-than-ideal situations.

Araki and Shailene Woodley (Secret Life of The American Teenager), who plays the young hero, are an effective team. Woodley pushes herself and grows in her profession in this film. As with all Araki films, the soundtrack plays an essential role in making the earnest musings and ghostly feel to this film work.

Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd, who helped create the nostalgic atmosphere for Mysterious Skin, return with a gorgeous ambient score that elevates and emphasizes the moody world of White Bird in a Blizzard. White Bird in a Blizzard at least shows that his visions can fit right in – or at least be wedged in – to the mainstream film industry if he wants.