Nationality: American. Education: Attended college in Santa Barbara, California. Career: Made first feature film, Three Bewildered People in the Night, for $5,000 in 1987. Address: Lives in Los Angeles.
Films as Director:
Three Bewildered People in the Night
Long Weekend (o' Despair)
The Living End (+ ed, sc, cine)
Totally F***ed Up (+ ed, sc, pr, cine)
The Doom Generation (+ed, sc, pr)
Nowhere (+ed, sc, pr)
Splendor (+ed, sc, pr)
By ARAKI: articles—
"Absorbing Alternative," an interview with Chris Chang, in FilmComment (New York), September/October 1994.
"The (Not So) Totally F***ked up Gregg Araki," in Suspect Culture (Toronto), Fall 1994.
"Young, Beautiful, and F***ed," an interview with Matthew L. Severson, in Bright Lights (Cincinnati), vol. 15, 1995.
Interview with Bérénice Reynaud, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1995.
On ARAKI: articles—
Ansen, David, "The Living End," in Newsweek, 31 August 1992.
Ehrenstein, David, "Gay Film's Bad Boy," in Advocate, 8 September 1992.
Minkowitz, Donna, "A Milieu of Misogyny," in Advocate, 3 November 1992.
Maslin, Janet, "Totally F***ed Up," in New York Times, 14 October 1993.
Yutani, Kimberly, "Gregg Araki and the Queer New Wave," in
Amerasia Journal, Winter 1994.
Corliss, Richard, "The Doom Generation," in Time, 6 November 1995.
Moran, James M., "Gregg Araki: Guerrilla Film-maker for a Queer Generation," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1996.
Kuznecov, S., "Tri cveta pokolenija sudnogo djja," in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), January 1997.
* * *
Of the heterogeneous group of young gay filmmakers currently lumped together under the term "New Queer Cinema," Gregg Araki is arguably the most challenging and audacious. The very titles of the three films that have received a limited theatrical release and secured him a reputation (The Living End, Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation) suggest the impulses that drive his work: anger, desperation, a sense of imminent apocalypse, a passionate and reckless romanticism. A possible motto for his work might be the famous line "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." The films have been labeled "nihilistic." To anyone truly alive to the realities of contemporary life (not only gay life), they might equally be found inspirational. Nihilism means a belief in nothing; it should never be confused with pessimism. Araki's passionate commitment to his characters ("totally f***ed up" as their lives may be) is anything but nihilistic.
Araki's aesthetic allegiances are clear already in The Living End: its subtitle, "An Irresponsible Movie," refers (if somewhat esoterically) to Hawks's Bringing up Baby, but the most obvious influence is Godard—the early, anarchic Godard of Breathless, who also lost no opportunity (as both critic and filmmaker) to express his commitment to the more subversive of the Hollywood genres. The film also introduces the themes ("radical" in every sense of the word) that propel Araki's work: gay life in the age of AIDS, human life at the end of western civilization. The question, What can one still find to live for in a world in which there really is "nothing left to lose"?, generates the extraordinary fury, intensity, and desperate humor of this film and its successors.
Just as The Living End can be seen as a loose remake of (or gay variant on) Breathless, so Totally F***ed Up (the asterisks are Araki's, not imposed by censorship) relates structurally to Masculin, Féminin. But Araki's characters are no longer "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola": they inhabit the desolate landscape of America in the 1990s, where Marx is not available, consumerism has overwhelmed the culture, concepts no longer apply, and the only fragile hope lies in the precarious and elusive possibility of an ever-more-vulnerable human contact.
The Doom Generation (subtitled "A Heterosexual Movie," it could only have been made by a gay director) is Araki's most fully achieved statement to date. Because he does not make overt political statements, one should not assume that his films have no political meaning. Apocalypse is expressed in The Doom Generation not only in the running gag of every storekeeper charging $6.66, or in the "Welcome to Hell" of the opening. It is there in the fleeting landscapes through which the characters pass: the clouds of smoke, the graveyard of wrecked cars—the destructiveness and detritus of Capitalism. Araki himself has drawn a comparison (favorable, and quite rightly) between his film and Kids. Larry Clark's kids are mainly treated as passive objects for his gaze, the gaze expressing simultaneous desire and repugnance. Araki identifies with his kids up to the hilt, without ever glamorizing or idealizing them. He knows and they know that they are living near the endpoint of the decline of western civilization, that they have no viable future and nowhere to go (his next film is titled Nowhere), but he loves them, believes in their impulses, and allows them authentically to find each other, while Clark's kids just meanly manipulate.
Araki himself has insisted that the film is not nihilistic. Nihilism is what Capitalism has brought us to, and a stand against it is becoming increasingly problematic, but Araki (the true rebel, unlike, say, Lynch and Tarantino, whose alleged "audacities" merely reinforce contemporary alienation) is exempt from it. The Doom Generation actually achieves, immediately before the climactic bloodbath, the realization of a utopian sexuality: the three characters, having progressively cast off all the bourgeois constraints and inhibitions (including, importantly, squeamishness about bodily functions), have by the end of the film not only all fallen in love with each other but are able to accept the fact, without jealousy or possessiveness. The essentially obsolete patriarchal notion that fidelity can or should be judged in terms of sex finally disintegrates.
The culminating bloodbath (the most terrifying I have ever seen, perhaps deriving from, but outdoing, the murder at the end of Looking for Mr. Goodbar), whatever the narrative motivation, seems precipitated by the image of the three having sex together, two males, one female, each loving the other two: the image of the not-to-betolerated. The bloodbath itself juxtaposes two images of "America." As a prelude to the castration and murder of Jordan/James Duval (one of the sweetest and most touching characters in modern cinema), the gang of healthy all-American boys displays the American flag and plays "Stars and Stripes Forever" on a ghetto-blaster; these are presented as mere empty signifiers, long ago drained of all substance, relics of an always dubious patriotism that has lost whatever meaning it once had, reduced to a pretext for malicious violence, the mindless crushing out of any sign of new life, of the possible future toward which the film has moved. Against this is set Araki's America, exemplified in the essential purity of his three transgressive characters: Xavier Red, Jordan White, Amy Blue—a possible future the past is committed to stamping out, an America that might have been.
The Doom Generation was clearly a hard act to follow, its ending marking a terrible finality. Araki's work since has been, so far, perhaps inevitably, disappointing. Nowhere is precisely where his next film takes us: extremely complicated beside the pared-down directness of the previous films, relentlessly inventive in its multi-character plot and its elaborate set design and color-schemes, the impression it leaves is of emptiness, as if all the passion and rage of the early films had been spent, leaving only a kind of decorative doodling. The Doom Generation created its own world, but that world existed in relation to the actualities of contemporary so-called civilization; the world of Nowhere is determinedly hermetic, all outside reality excluded. Splendor marks a return to the three-character film, but, despite its amiable actors and its efforts to be disarming, it is ultimately even more discouraging. Explicitly based on classic screwball comedy (remaking Design for Living but drawing more widely on screwball conventions, such as the heroine rescued at the altar from the "wrong" marriage), its relation to its sources is essentially parasitic. Where The Living End and The Doom Generation used Bringing up Baby creatively, as a source of inspiration, Splendor merely reuses conventions that have lost their force. But most artists go through relatively arid stretches; the early works have lost none of their resonance with time, and their achievement gives one faith in Araki's capacity for renewal.