The nineties was an interesting time. Fear, like that of the fifties, was a mere memory. There wasn’t too much to fight for like there was in the sixties; it wasn’t the age of rock-and-roll like the seventies, or the age of excess like the good old eighties. So what exactly did the nineties stand for?
Many call it Generation X, some even go as far as to call it the "Lost Generation," but I think there is one filmmaker who truly had his fingers on the beating pulse of that seemingly undefinable generation. And that would be the ever brilliant and talented Grag Araki.
With ten quality, if somewhat offbeat, films under his belt, Araki has worked with many of the great actors of the nineties, and he continues to make meaningful films today. What sets Araki apart from other auteurs is his keen ability to tap into the subconscious of a very interesting generation.
The Living End (1992) focuses on two HIV positive nihilists; Luke, the gay hustler, and Jon, the eccentric film critic. With props that will make you want to redecorate your room and pretend to be fifteen again, and performances so real it is almost haunting, The Living End takes Luke and Jon, as well as the viewer, on a hedonistic and extremely dangerous journey. Their motto: F*** The World, as is the theme of many of Araki’s films. Charming, no? But very relevant to the times.
Now, you’ll love this title of another of his flicks, Totally F***ed Up (1993) focuses on the truly sucky lives of a group of gay and lesbian teenagers living in Los Angeles. Having been thrown out of their houses by their fed up parents, always broke and even worse, bored, having their lovers cheat on them only adds insult to injury. And to spread a little icing on the already bitter cake, they are also harassed by gay bashers. With the state of things, perhaps suicide isn’t such a bad idea, proclaims Andy, our protagonist, who gives the film its title by describing his life and his generation as, well, you get the picture.
The Doom Generation, perhaps Araki’s most well-known and well-loved film, focuses on Jordan White and Amy Blue, two troubled teens who pick up an adolescent drifter named Xavier Red. Together, the new threesome embark on a sex and violence-filled journey through an America of psychos, Quickie Marts and yes, even castration. A must see, but perhaps not for the WHOLE family.
Another brilliant film, and perhaps Araki’s most surrealistic interpretation of the nineties, Nowhere (1997) chronicles a day in the lives of a group of twenty or more alienated Los Angeles teenagers in their personal lives of despair, alienation, failing relationships and so much more. The character names alone make this film worth watching, not to mention that every set is as surreal as a Salvador Dali painting, and every actor in the film was, is, or went on to become a huge star, including Ryan Phillipe, Christina Applegate, James Duval, Heather Graham, Shannon Doherty, Rose McGowen and even John Ritter.
Centering on eighteen-year-old Dark, the alienated UCLA film student, his bisexual African-American girlfriend Mel; her purple-haired, acid-tongued lesbian girlfriend Lucifer; Dark’s homosexual classmate Montgomery and Montgomery’s poetess friend Alyssa; other characters include Dark’s friend; a queer industrial rock star named Cowboy; his drug-addicted lover and band mate Bart; the local drug dealer Handjob and his live-in S&M girls Kris and Kozzy; the metal-mouthed, wise-cracking intellectual Dingbat; her older brother Duckey, the bulemic Egg; Alyssa’s self-destructive twin brother Shad and his girlfriend Lilith; Mel’s little brother Zero and his blond girlfriend Zoe, plus a Teen Idol so famous that no one needs utter his name, a trio of Atari gang members, nattering Valley girls, scary drag queens, a pragmatic party and a mysterious alien from outer space that only Dark sees.
This group of teenagers try to sort out their lives and emotions while bizarre experiences happen to each one, including alien abductions, bad acid trips, bisexual experiences, suicides, bizarre deaths and a rape by a TV star. All of this happens before "the greatest party of the year." But the final scene will leave you with your jaw to the floor.
This film, like the party, is not to be missed. Trust me, it will make you question the meaning of life, every relationship you hold dear, and just what was going through Araki’s head when he came up with this synopsis and these characters. Genius or madman, Araki will keep you wanting more.
And that leads me to my personal favorite of Araki’s films, Mysterious Skin (2004) starring the super talented and oh so gorgeous Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Third Rock From The Sun). In 1981, in Hutchinson, Kansas eight-year-old Neil McCormick (Gordon-Levitt) is sexually abused by his pedophile baseball coach while his deranged and promiscuous mother pays absolutely no mind. Meanwhile, the also eight year old Brian Lackey awakes from a brief amnesia of four hours with a bleeding nose, but his negligent father does not pay attention to the event. Brian grows up believing he had been abducted by aliens. The gay Neil grows-up to become a gay male prostitute. When Brian is eighteen years old, he finds Neil, who discloses the dark secrets of their past. The theme? We are all merely products of what has happened to us in our innocent years. Brilliant!
There are more films by Araki that are also worth seeing, but if I were you, I would keep my eyes peeled for Smiley Face, the newest of Araki’s films. All I have been able to find out about the film is that it focuses on a young actress who unknowingly eats a batch of her roommate’s pot cupcakes, thereby turning a would-be ordinary day into a series of hilarious misadventures.
Taboo, offensive, but genuinely from the heart, Greg Araki truly understands that generation which left many of us wondering what would happen next since it has all already been done. Well, fret not, dear readers, Araki is still alive and kicking, producing brilliant, nihilistic, hilarious, ridiculous and piercing films that will leave you in a state of nostalgia, reminiscing on the bizarre and undefinable generation we all love and miss so much.
Be sure to buy or rent these films locally at Outloud! on Church Street.