Gregg Araki is George Bush’s worst nightmare. In Araki’s parallel cinematic universes, the mainstream is subverted, what the right wing would label “deviant” is normalized, and outcasts and outsiders dominate, calling the shots from the center. His films’ usual thematic mix includes teenagers coming of age, gay sex, violence, drugs, and space aliens. Araki intends neither to indict nor explain these subjects and subcultures, but to legitimize them by not even admitting they’re controversial. “I’m not out with any of my movies to shock people or outrage people or push people’s buttons,” he says. But some people do find his vision shocking, enough so that one blogger accused Araki’s work of having “no moral center.” Araki couldn’t disagree more.
“As the person that makes these movies, I feel they have a very strong moral center,” he says. “They’re presented as a story of grays and not black and whites. Not a TV movie.” His goal is to tell new stories, not to rehash the same tired plots we’ve all seen before. “That [don’t] give the audience any credit for being intelligent or creative,” he says.
After eight films, the 45-year-old Araki has a cult following, an audience that is certain to widen with his latest film, Mysterious Skin, released this month from Tartan Films. He seems to have created a genre all his own, though it’s hard to know what to call it. Beach party flick meets Troma Brothers meets Godard meets gay subculture? Araki himself described his 1993 film Totally F***ed Up as “a rag-tag story of the fag-and-dyke teen underground…A kind of cross between avant-garde experimental cinema and a queer John Hughes flick.”
Yes, there’s a sci-fi element, and there’s sex and violence, with the line between them often blurring. But there’s another theme, too—one that becomes obvious if you take in his full oeuvre. Each of his films, really, is about the quest for true love and acceptance and for a place to feel at home. And what Araki offers the characters in his films, people who might otherwise be looked upon as “freaks” by the mainstream, is a safe haven, albeit a cinematic one.
“My movies are often misinterpreted as being nihilistic and dark,” Araki says. “My movies at their core are extremely romantic in that they’re sort of about this idealized search for love in a world of chaos and confusion.”
Araki was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Santa Barbara. As a child, he spent hours drawing, and by 9 years old he had created his own series of comic books. “I’ve always been kind of an artistic spirit,” he says. As an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Araki studied film history, and it was then that he began to take cinema seriously, to funnel all of his artistic energy into film. He went on to receive a master’s of fine arts in film production at the University of Southern California, and he credits his formal film education with helping to define his cinematic sensibility.
“I was exposed at a young age to the breadth of film history and a pantheon of auteurs,” he says. He feels this is what separates him from the next generation of independent filmmakers—those who are attempting to emulate recent film sensations rather than studying the masters. He calls them “Sundance-y kind of directors” and “Quentin Tarantino wannabes,” pointing out that Tarantino learned by studying the films of everyone from Ozu to Truffaut, not from Hollywood hits that came out three years ago. “They don’t have a sense of any kind of tradition. They’ve never really gone to the original source.”
You can spot the influence of these movie masters if you look closely into Araki’s work: He calls Totally F***ed Up his own Masculine, Feminine (1966): “I wanted to make this film about these gay teenagers the way Godard used Masculine, Feminine as an examination of French society at a certain time,” Araki says. In The Doom Generation (1995), the second in Araki’s “teen apocalypse trilogy,” you can find cinematic quotations from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). And in Splendor (1999), he recreates Annie Leibovitz’s famous shot of John Lennon curling himself around Yoko Ono, and there are several Busby Berkeley-style overhead shots, as well.
But as much as Araki has been inspired by cinematic greats like Vertov or Kurosawa, two genres of American movies predominantly influenced him: what he calls the “couple-on-the-run” movies and screwball comedies. “They’re both about the romantic notion of pure love in an impure and violent and dangerous world,” he says.
Along with his overall love of cinema, add one more ingredient and you begin to understand more completely the Araki mindset. That last ingredient is punk. “We were so hugely influenced by the whole punk rock movement of the 70s and 80s, that philosophy of that kind of D-I-Y, garage band, do-what-you-want-and-be-true-to-yourself,” Araki says. “That sensibility was so important to me.”
Araki’s “marching to your own drum” value system and his cinematic education are what make up the Araki vision—stories that, until Mysterious Skin, were rooted in Los Angeles. Although often, his films take place in an LA with none of the iconic landscapes—no Hollywood sign, no Hollywood and Vine, no Melrose Avenue; that’s not the part of LA that interests Araki. “I’ve always had a very tight relationship with Los Angeles,” he says. “There is really an element in everyday life in LA of the surreal and unexpected and the strange mixing in with the ordinary and the mundane…. You can see aliens walking down the street, and you just don’t really blink.” Indeed, in 1977’s Nowhere (the third “teen apocalypse trilogy” film), an extraterrestrial follows a band of teenagers, who are unfazed by his recurrence. It’s nearly impossible to tell whether he’s an actual menace or an ineffectual poser in a costume. And in the end, no one around the creature seems to care.
That’s not necessarily indifference, but a kind of tolerance. “Los Angeles is so big and sprawling, and there’s a really kind of laissez-faire attitude towards people,” Araki says. “It’s not a big deal that somebody is gay or straight or bisexual or has purple hair or is black or Asian. Everybody just sort of does their thing and people don’t really pay that much attention to you. I really appreciate that about living here.”
That laissez-faire attitude towards sex and sexuality, race and religion is what sets Araki’s films apart. They are films for what might be called the post-preference generation—kids who are not concerned with categories of sexuality. (It’s a term used by magazines like Details that cater to both sides of the gay/straight line or don’t even distinguish between them.) And Araki extends that acceptance beyond sexuality, to race and creed—even to other-than-human species.
Something else you’ll notice about Araki’s films is that he manages to get fairly big stars to participate in them, along with near-forgotten teen idols, faded beauties, and rising stars. Folks like Lauren Tewes (that’s Julie, your cruise director from “The Love Boat”), and Jan and Peter (from “The Brady Bunch”) Eve Plumb and Christopher Knight have made cameos in Araki movies. The cast lists tend to look like a catalog of Hollywood then, now, and later: Christina Applegate, Shannen Doherty, Ryan Phillipe, Heather Graham, Mena Suvari, Charlotte Rae (Mrs. G!), Margaret Cho, Perry Farrell, Heidi Fleiss, Beverly D’Angelo, Traci Lords, John Ritter… Araki manages to cull actors from all ranks of the Hollywood social structure. “I’ve been so lucky in getting people to go on this ride with me, and everybody doing it for the right reason, for the artistic rewards involved,” Araki says.
Based on a novel by Scott Heim, Mysterious Skin is a departure from many of his earlier projects, in what may be a new level of artistic reward for both the cast and the audience. Here, he leaves behind much of the irony, sarcasm, and gore that categorized his previous work and trades in the comic book look of earlier works for something more stylized, ethereal, and dream-like that, like a spoonful of sugar, helps us ingest the difficult subject matter of the movie. It’s also his first film to take place outside of Los Angeles, along the flat planes of Kansas, with some scenes in New York City.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the former young star of television’s “Third Rock from the Sun”) stars as Neil, a teenage hustler, and Brady Corbet plays Brian, a disturbingly non-sexual teenage boy who believes he’s been abducted by aliens. “Scott’s idea to link the idea of alien abduction and being violated and taken out of your own body is such an incredibly beautiful metaphor for what happens to young Brian,” Araki says.
In the film, the two boys share a traumatic childhood incident that some might say influences Neil’s choice to become a hustler, but lies dormant in the mind of Brian. The film is not an indictment of the abuser or a finger-pointing after-school special. It is more of an examination of how the experience manifests in two separate people—a character study of two boys, portrayed with brave vulnerability by the two lead actors. “Nobody’s presented as this cardboard cutout of the bad guy and the good guy,” Araki says. In other words, the goal here is empathy: to enter the minds of the characters, and understand the way in which they view their world. “It sheds a light and makes you go through that experience, and you really sort of understand it in a way that I don’t think is possible if it didn’t happen to you.”
That very lack of moral condemnation or preaching is what opens the film and allows one to enter inside. “The most shocking thing about Mysterious Skin is how not shocking it is,” Araki says. “The book is this dark and unsettling story told in this poetic and beautiful language. We wanted to translate the beauty of the prose into cinematic beauty, something that was visually lush.”
Viewing the deeply unsettling, visually striking, gorgeously shot, and powerfully acted film is a bit of a roller coaster ride. “I didn’t want it to be a dark, gritty, hand-held DV movie—this jarring thing to watch,” Araki says. “There’s a weird kind of dreamy quality to it that makes it almost the opposite of a Larry Clark movie. Mysterious Skin is really oddly very welcoming and almost soothing to watch.”
Well, not exactly soothing. Watching Gordon-Levitt’s fierce portrayal of Neil, the young hustler who submits himself to one dangerous situation after another, is not easy. In one particularly violent sexual encounter, Neil is repeatedly hit over the head with a bottle of Johnson’s baby shampoo before being sodomized. But this is, in some ways, typical Araki—in your face, rough to watch, and then that strange flash of irreverent humor.
Mysterious Skin is Araki’s first adapted screenplay (all others were original), and yet it contains that usual Araki lineup of characters and ideas—the gay youth, the science fiction, the sex, and the violence. But it’s all handled with delicacy, a much more serious, internal, character-driven drama than we’ve seen from him before—more mature and nuanced, and one that will probably appeal to a wider audience. “Particularly older women are responding really strongly to the movie,” Araki says. “I think it’s this maternal instinct with regard to the two boys.” Oscar-nominated actress Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas, 1995) gives a notable performance in the film as Neil’s mother.
You might not know it from the words in his films’ titles—“nowhere” and “f***ed up”—all having to do with doom and despair and the world ending, but Araki is essentially an optimist. He remains undeterred by the bumps and snags along his filmmaking journey (seven times during our conversation he repeated, “I’m incredibly lucky”) as he does about America’s current political atmosphere.
“It’s easy to be super gloomy and pessimistic about the current administration and culture,” he says. “But the world of Nowhere really is becoming so true. It’s proving kind of prophetic. Nowhere lives in a world where sexuality and race is not a big deal.” Until we live in a world like this—in which tolerance is a given—Araki will continue to create them on film. In the end, his vision transforms him into a makeshift patriot.
“Is that such a controversial idea, the idea of tolerance?” he asks. “There are people out there that want to tell other people how to live. It’s really so un-American. That’s what America is founded upon—the freedom to be yourself.”