Relatable and Rebellious, Araki's Queer Films Upset the Standard

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Gregg Araki & Kaboom

Max Siegel and Ryan Lattanzio discuss Gregg Araki, his latest film "Kaboom," and the filmmaker's place in contemporary cinema.

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FUCK THE WORLD," spray-painted in blood-red on a concrete block. That's the first image in Gregg Araki's "The Living End." A young man in shades finishes spraying, spins around like a discus thrower and tosses his spent can off a cliff, with downtown Los Angeles looming in the distance. This is classic Araki: an attractive young man, played by an attractive, unknown actor, aggressively expressing his independence from the mainstream. The guy may as well be aiming that can directly at Hollywood.

As one of the most audacious filmmakers in queer cinema, Araki has spent the last two decades making movies that push boundaries. His latest film, "Kaboom," which is part college-age sex romp, part cult-paranoia thriller, is, like his other work, never predictable; it keeps you entertained and on your toes.

"Like 99 percent of the time, I know exactly where (a) movie's going before it gets there," Araki says. "It's so boring for me to wait for a movie to catch up with what I know is going to happen." That desire to reject the road most traveled is evident in the range of Araki's characters who live on the fringes, from the pair of HIV-positive renegades in "The Living End" to the pathetically humorous pothead in "Smiley Face." His most well-known film, "Mysterious Skin," stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a sexually abused child turned male prostitute, and treats victims in an unflinching yet sensitive light.

Araki attributes his empathy toward outsiders to his upbringing, which was fueled by a passion for alternative music and cultural scenes. "It was the place to be, outside of the boring mainstream, same old shit that everybody else liked," Araki says. "It was exciting to be on the edge."

Despite his rebellious attitude, Araki describes himself as reserved and camera shy. These qualities weren't mollified when an article by the San Francisco Chronicle on the local premiere of "Mysterious Skin" published a color photograph of him with an infected eye ("I looked like fucking Quasimodo"). But as soon as he starts talking about his own films, Araki's eyes light up, and he seems possessed by an onset of logorrhea.

"The audience just went apeshit," Araki says of the previous night's premiere of "Kaboom" at the Roxie Theater. Like Smith, the movie's horny film-studies protagonist, Araki worries about the future of cinema. He likes the fact that anybody can shoot a film on the cheap and edit on a laptop; however, the ubiquity of digital media has its downsides. "It's just in this information age, with everything being faster, more convenient ... there's the question of, 'Are people going to have time to go to the movies?'"

Araki didn't seem to care much about egalitarianism in the beginning of his career. His '90s films, including "The Doom Generation" and "The Living End," were ahead of their time and featured an abrasive us-versus-them attitude that is sometimes difficult to watch. One of the men in "The Living End" ruthlessly murders any homophobe who dares to bully him. "It was a time of ACT UP, and a lot of despair and anger and frustration about the AIDS crisis and the government and how nobody cared," Araki recalls. "So many people were dying and people were dropping dead at 25."

Araki has since mellowed, but his films still push what viewers can expect from queer cinema. Contemporary gay movies are often hindered by a victimization trope that ultimately stagnates the genre. People may keep coming out, a la the clumsy, Mormon-o-rific "Latter Days," but what happens to them afterward? "The most boring movie in the world to me is the coming out movie," Araki says, laughing. "I will never make one ... It's been done, and you can only tell a story so many times."

Genres like the "coming out" movie are part of what Araki describes as the "ghettoizing" of gay films. "There (are) certain sort of 'gay films' that are so like, gay, in the gay ghetto," Araki said, tracing a circle across the tabletop with his fingertips. Such films, he feels, don't carry any universal appeal beyond the Castro: "They don't really translate to anybody else."

Araki's films tackle more universal concerns about sex, with an eye toward the ambiguous nature of sexuality. In "Kaboom," which Araki based on his experiences as an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara, the protagonist sleeps with anyone or anything that moves. "I don't really even remember what I learned in like, calculus class," Araki says of college. "But I do remember what my relationships were, and how those experiences are really so much a part of growing up." Araki's characters have moved far beyond the coming out stage, but they still have a lot of growing up to do.


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