For the uninitiated, Araki is the California-based enfant terrible of the "New Queer Cinema," an artist who possesses neither the unnerving subtlety of Todd Haynes nor the warped lyricism of Tom Kalin--two gay filmmakers who entered the national spotlight at roughly the same time as Araki.
Araki distinguished himself among his more talented peers by taking a self-professed guerrilla approach to filmmaking. In many ways, Araki is always the star of his own films--he has frequently employed actors who read dialogue with the artistry of talking fence posts. But oozing from behind the camera and out of every frame is a manic energy and enthusiasm that recalls the early days of John Waters. There is a kind of innocence behind the decadence that Araki records, and your opinion of his work will stand or fall not so much on the quality of the films themselves (The Living End, his Thelma and Louise-like tale of HIV-positive fugitives, was excruciatingly bad) as the motives behind them.
The Doom Generation is the second in Araki's "Teenaged Apocalypse" trilogy, and the first in his career to be shot on 35mm with a full production crew. Fans and detractors alike can rest assured that Araki has shed none of his junky visual sensibilities for a bigger budget. Indeed, the first of his movies to display anything approaching a production design winds up looking cheesier and even more self-consciously kitschy than his previous efforts. The rampant use of colored lights and chaotic set designs intensifies as the film progresses toward its horrendously violent climax, with the final confrontation filmed as a rapidly intercut, strobe-lit series of shots à la the infamous finale of Richard Brooks' Looking For Mr. Goodbar.
The three principal characters--a pretty-boy bimbo named Jordan White (James Duval); his sarcastic, crystal meth-stoked girlfriend Amy Blue (Rose McGowan, who appears to have stolen Uma Thurman's wig from Pulp Fiction); and a handsome, ambisexual psycho named Xavier Red (Johnathon Schaech) who stumbles into their lives after being beaten senseless by skinheads--don't seem to like each other very much, although they are each sufficiently sexually intrigued by the others to continue hanging together even after Xavier instigates a bloody shoot-out at a convenience store.
Araki has subtitled his film "a heterosexual movie," with much accompanying bluster about striving to achieve a gay sensibility. Movie fans can argue circles as to whether such a thing exists, but in the case of The Doom Generation, it's a wasted effort. The equation Araki makes in this film--homosexuality equals subversion equals whatever's gonna piss off the Religious Right and other contemporary arbiters of morality--isn't particularly insightful. One can make a much stronger case that Todd Haynes' brilliant Safe, with no overt mention of gay sexuality but a startlingly incisive critique of what might be called "the heterosexual lifestyle," possessed the revelatory perspective of a true sexual outlaw.
Still, this is not to say that The Doom Generation is without its own warped, puerile pleasures. Araki nicely orchestrates the sexual tension between Jordan and Xavier, particularly in funny flirtation scenes like the one in which Xavier invites ripe-for-the-picking Jordan to play with his belt buckle (it sports a hologram of a bucking bronco). And there is something charming about Araki's sincere devotion to the concept of artist as rabble-rouser. How long he can sustain this energy is anyone's guess, but for now, Araki is like the little kid down the street who really wants to show you the cool bug he's just dissected.
The Doom Generation. Trimark. James Duval, Rose McGowan, Johnathon Schaech. Written and directed by Greg Araki. Opens December 15.