Choose Death: Gregg Araki’s Apocalyptic 90s

Gregg Araki Essay - Nowhere Movie Film

This Gregg Araki essay contains spoilers for the American director’s filmography. Check out VV reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.


As the latest cultural silo structure begins to disintegrate, it’s important to remember that there has always been a way out. Before the Web colonized public discourse, cultural flow was moderated by a handful of media conglomerates. These entities carefully curated the contours of public life, and upheld the clear delineation between creator and consumer, upholding a one-way system of exchange (which it could be argued that the streamer paradigm is reinstituting), creating distinct classes of artist and fan, producer and patron. But there were alternatives. In the analog realm, it was easier to say no, to seek the solace of scenes which placed themselves defiantly on the fringes. Nobody was keen to be co-opted, and there was little impetus to sprinkle some diversity onto the mainstream menu, which created islands of thought and practice where the most outré preoccupations could be pored over, picked apart and placed on their own shadowy mantle. Pockets of culture were free to develop without any expectation of breaking through the walls of corporate hegemony. To be marginal was a virtue, a personal victory. The levee began to crack in the 90s, presenting pathways for movements like the New Queer Cinema, bringing queer voices and perspectives within reach of a mass audience. But for all the critical praise heaped on Derek Jarman, Cheryl Dunye and Gus Van Sant, it was Gregg Araki who best encapsulated the rage and frustration of those on the fringes, and he did so in a playfully provocative idiom which presented a gateway into different ways of thinking.

The end in Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992) is a personal and societal apocalypse; its characters struggle to find meaning in the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution and the ascendancy of the new Moral Majority. The film follows Jon (Craig Gilmore) and Luke (Mike Dytri), two gay men who have recently been diagnosed as HIV-positive. Jon is a sensitive film writer who is struggling to complete his latest piece on “the death of cinema,” while Luke is a rudderless hustler bouncing between bedrooms and hitching rides. Equally condemned by their diagnosis, Jon and Luke set off on a doomed road trip toward a darkening horizon. The Living End speaks to the status of the gay community in the wake of the AIDS epidemic; the cultural tide had turned against alternative lifestyles — they were regarded with fear and suspicion by a resurgent right wing. In this climate of conformity, bodies become weapons capable of dispensing death; intimacy is fraught with peril, and one’s impulses must be kept in check. Gregg Araki’s thesis is to embrace condemnation, taking up John Waters’ injunction to be as objectionable as possible (Araki brands The Living End  as “an irresponsible movie”). The film’s characters set out to deface an edifice that has shut them out; they choose death over acceptance, seeking to keep alive the dying embers of a cultural autonomy that flourished before the indie rock career path, rainbow capitalism and a hyper-financialized playground in which all consumers are considered equal.

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Gregg Araki Essay - The Living End Movie Film

Writer and hustler become one in The Living End, they are equally what Luke describes as “victims of the Sexual Revolution,” uneasy allies against the “neo-Nazi Republican Final Solution.” Jon and Luke are placed at odds against a turbulent stew of symbols, prompts and promises, a disorienting jumble in which Jean-Luc Godard and Godzilla, along with Andy Warhol and Barbie, become equivalent signifiers. Gregg Araki sets out to queer genre conventions in a high-camp splatter pattern, taking on the road movie and the screwball comedy with equally destructive gusto. There is little refinement to Araki’s methods, the aesthetic is gleefully unlovely, filtered through a tide of auditory glut and trash sensibility. The supremacy of advertising and redemptive violence become an endlessly unfurling circus of death; the “hackneyed romantic fantasy” is shown to be a suicide pact. Passing through their own private Siberia, the vibrancy of life comes back into focus for Jon and Luke, in the face of its waning; they are free from all previous constraints — Luke declares: “Fuck work, fuck the system, fuck everything.” For Jon, Luke becomes an alluring portent of the end, a sexy siren of psychic chaos and physical dissolution. The metropolitan values they represent are cast into the wilderness, and The Living End ends with the protagonist seeking solace in a shared oblivion, huddled against a setting sun. Araki posits that our lives only have meaning in their most extreme moments; we only truly become ourselves when we rise above the torpor of baseline existence and tread the razor’s edge of orgasm and death.

The Living End set the tone of dread, anxiety and alienation for Gregg Araki’s next three films, which would come to be known as his “Apocalypse Trilogy.” The movies offer concentrated doses of angst and vitriol while betraying Araki’s development as a storyteller and visual stylist. Totally F***ed Up (1993) is “another homo movie” which begins with a shot of a newspaper article about the high suicide rate among gay teens. The film captures the lives of six L.A. youths as they contend with all that life has to offer in the epicenter of illusion. By prefacing Totally F***ed Up with this snippet of reportage, Araki positions his movie as a twisted take on the “message film” of the 1950s, bringing a social issue to light in its own acerbic way, a well-intentioned attempt at consciousness raising that is infused with the spirit of the scene. Again, there is a sense among Araki’s characters of being besieged by the forces of reaction, a counterrevolution which has set out to upend the free sexuality and self-discovery which reached its apotheosis in the 70s. In one of the addresses to camera that pepper Totally F***ed Up, Steven (Gilbert Luna) informs the audience: “What’s in: bigotry, sexism, Jesus, homophobia, stupidity, violence, spiritual bullshit, making money.” The fear of the body that was explored in The Living End is extended here; the era of “safe sex” instills an aversion to intimacy, a desire to uphold physical control. AIDS is described as “government-sponsored genocide,” a willful negligence designed to extirpate those who fall beyond the bounds of the “born-again, Nazi, Republican” dreamland.

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Gregg Araki Essay - Totally F***ed Up Movie Film

Gregg Araki’s approach has echoes of Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization series of documentaries; the talking heads become emblematic of the cultural sect being catalogued. This group of teens speak for the lassitude, anomie, anhedonia and indecision of their whole peer group; they are less characters than an assemblage of recognizable traits. In the eyes of Araki’s teenagers, L.A. is “the alienation capital of the world,” a cardboard Camelot where the object of fantasy is manufactured, where the cultural subject finds themself captured in the lights of the video screens, twisting and twirling under the billboards. Araki sets himself in opposition to this, elevating groups over protagonists, scenes over heroes. The flickering bars of the VHS-grade images create a sense of intimacy but equally a feeling of distance; the low-fi aesthetic lends a further layer of artifice to scenes which offer the first glimpse of a world in which a public self is being constructed from self-produced images, the rise of an all-encompassing subjectivity; the teens are building their own profile through their own lens. Araki is adept at using music to heighten a scene. Before Quentin Tarantino popularized the practice, Araki was a master of curating tracks. The hum of industrial metal fills the air, and the effect is similar to that of one of the director’s favorite bands, The Jesus and Mary Chain — dissonant but oddly affecting. Araki structures the film to replicate the restless perceptions of its characters; it flits between vignettes, loses interest, then moves on to the next attraction, until that becomes insufficient to satiate their boredom. It is the viewpoint of those weaned on the pop culture pantheon, the endless switching between channels: from music videos to sitcoms to the Budd Dwyer video.

The Doom Generation (1995) fell afoul of the censor, with Gregg Araki having to lose 10 minutes in order to obtain an R rating. But even in its compromised theatrical form, the director’s second installment in the Apocalypse Trilogy burns with a more aggressive energy. Araki brands The Doom Generation as “a heterosexual movie,” and it is clear that it is intended as a direct assault, lifting its main characters, Jordan (James Duval) and Amy (Rose McGowan), from a purgatory of lacerating light and studied nihilism into the dark heart of American resentment. Araki takes a stylistic leap, striving for an atmospheric, mainstream sheen rather than the willfully indie aesthetic of his previous films, lunging between the lurid and the lugubrious in an attempt to match his characters’ skewed perceptions. The effect is something akin to a Ralph Steadman drawing, stretching and contorting the veneer of reality into grotesque configurations. Araki’s compositions are more audaciously staged, while the production design realizes the stylized world of garish retail spaces and great, flat expanses through which Jordan and Amy pass as their lives are thrown into turmoil by Xavier (Jonathon Schaech), a charismatic drifter who Amy brands a “demon from hell” as he ushers them into his chaotic world. When a gun-toting convenience store clerk (Dustin Nguyen) is accidentally killed, the threesome leaves behind the city that Amy says is “sucking away at my soul” and finds an America steeling itself for the great collapse — signs proliferate like “The Rapture Is Coming” and “Prepare for the Apocalypse,” offering a glimpse of the foreboding and paranoia that stalks them as they flee the crime scene. 

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Gregg Araki Essay - The Doom Generation Movie Film

Xavier (referred to as “X”) is the manifestation of a turbulent, hedonistic spirit which overtakes Jordan and Amy in the course of their journey; they are guided down different pathways where the old designations and expectations dissipate; they fall into the logic of the hallucinatory terrain which has been revealed to them; they are seduced into the darkest depths. The Doom Generation suffered from coming out so soon after Natural Born Killers (1994), but where Olivier Stone’s film uses its visual excess to condemn the mainstream media, Gregg Araki envisages the final decade of the century as a rampant forest fire of kitsch and catastrophe; consuming all existing terms, forms and customs, leaving behind a charred wasteland. Araki details the ways in which his characters struggle to lend the lapping flames a cheerful glow: devising distractions, plotting routes, probing preoccupations; their disaffection is grounded in confusion, of being unable to adjust to the limitations imposed on the post-historical subject. But Araki is no less concerned than Stone with the ways in which social narratives take shape — Jordan, Amy and X are branded as “a paramilitary brigade” by the powers that be, another Weather Underground taking up arms against the venerable pillars of American capitalism, the latest in a lineage of “homosexuals, satanists and members of other dangerous cult groups” to haunt the dreams of the majority. The journey ends in the revenge of the wounded patriarchal soul — Jordan is gaybashed by three naked assailants with swastikas painted on their chests; the national anthem plays and the pledge of allegiance is recited as the victim is castrated. Amy is left with the devil on her shoulder, who chomps on Doritos as they speed away down a stretch of cracked asphalt. The spirit of American revenge rears its ugly head, and all that remains is to keep on fleeing.

The conclusion to the Apocalypse Trilogy is a prelude to “the Big One” – the final cataclysm that will bring everything to an end. In Nowhere (1997), L.A. becomes the epicenter of the retreat into a dulled acceptance. The rage of Gregg Araki’s earlier work has given way to distance, an internal struggle which separates the city’s denizens from the world. The characters in Nowhere dive into the abyss, in preparation for “Armageddon Day.” It is the cinematic equivalent of shoegaze music — dreamy and disorienting in equal measure, evincing a disquieting sensuality filled with stark close-ups, disconcerting angles and fractured editing. The space and the self are fused through Patti Podesta’s heightened production design, until the floating souls become subservient to the “vast, generic wasteland” which promises abundance and promulgates isolation. The characters in Nowhere speak in abrasive, contentious tones, a caustic tenor that takes scattergun Wilderian badinage and filters it through the languorous snark of the valley girl and the scornful cynicism of the slacker. In Nowhere, Araki raises the pitch to the point of self-parody; the performances verge on the grotesque, and Araki’s distaste for his subjects is palpable; they are framed, lit and written to epitomize a state of sun-bleached blankness, a hideous abandon that drags viewers into their dejection. There was nowhere left for Araki to turn but a bilious brand of surrealism. For the characters in Nowhere, perception is no longer a reliable guide — Dingbat (Christina Applegate) asks incredulously at one point: “Are we still in reality?’

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Gregg Araki Essay - Nowhere Movie Film

These distressed teens revel in their depersonalization; they are willing to be reduced to objects, seeking new routes into stimulation without the sting of guilt or the pull of attachment, erecting barriers to their vulnerability. Multiple screens blast out hypnotic walls of static; the medium and the message become increasingly meaningless; communication only engenders a further layer of unease. Dark (James Duval) and Montgomery (Nathan Bexton) are stalked by demons who take on the form of cinematic monsters, rubberized nightmares, confected specters from the dream factory that surrounds them; these are the monsters that we conjure to soothe our febrile psyches, leant recognizable form to stand for some incomprehensible terror. The teens find themselves reaching out for a guiding force, screaming for “mommy” and “daddy” in the throes of sexual ecstasy, straining to salvage a grain of hope from whoever will tell them that “everything’s going to be okay,” seeking salvation from “Je$u$” via TV evangelist Moses Helper (John Ritter), who asks his audience: “Doesn’t it make you feel better?” The trilogy ends with a party, an apocalyptic carnival where L.A.’s various cultural clans converge for the descent of history’s arc, to see the American Century swirl into a vortex of perpetual distraction and the accumulation of affects; a mass purging of any grasp on control or comprehension. The party begins with communal euphoria, and degenerates into cartoonish violence. In his video diary, Dark says that “our generation is going to witness the end of everything,” that we are “totally doomed.” Dark finally grasps that we can luxuriate in the security blanket of sensuality, but the body is fickle, endlessly militating against whatever we imagine the soul to be. We will find it increasingly necessary to leave the flow of time and history, to craft our own nowhere.

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Gregg Araki Essay - Splendor Movie Film

Gregg Araki’s 90s films feel like prophecies of a cataclysm that never happened. But in the end, the downfall was merely delayed. Araki tapped into a growing mood of dread that built as the post-Cold War glow faded and the ennui at the End of History kicked in. It was a presentiment that was first felt by those on the margins but would slowly come into focus as the wider culture registered a steadily mounting disaffection. Splendor (1999) is a case of what happens when prophecy fails; Araki’s final film of the decade feels like a retreat from all the angst and turmoil; a slicker, softer variant on the formula that had fueled the Apocalypse Trilogy. Splendor has all the usual sexual transgression you’d expect from Araki, but it is aligned to a more conventional dramatic model — its goofy exuberance has an almost Hawksian flavor, and its premise is taken directly from Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933). Its story of a “starving actor,” Veronica (Kathleen Robertson), juggling multiple relationships at the same time resembles an edgy romantic comedy, a knowing deconstruction of genre archetypes. But for all its self-awareness, Splendor finds Araki tip-toing on the edge of respectability. L.A. is no longer the antagonist; the oppressive city has receded into the background, and all that Veronica can do is complain about the traffic and hope for her big break. There is a tension at play between what Araki had been and what he could become; Splendor has the feel of an attempt to assimilate into a new consciousness, one built on shifting sand. It would prove to be a false dawn, a brief interregnum between global upheavals. Gregg Araki took another tonal shift with Mysterious Skin (2004), connecting with a new generation of damaged, doom-laden teens. No-one was better equipped to capture the mood of youth coming to terms with a post-9/11 reality.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.

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