The Trials of Adolescence: Gregg Araki’s “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy”

11 December, 2016

As one of many contributors to the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s, Gregg Araki fashioned a group of films now commonly referred to as the ‘Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy’. The trilogy, consisting of the films “Totally F***ed Up,” “The Doom Generation,” and “Nowhere,” combine themes of teen angst, self-destruction, and the search for love with New Queer Cinema’s focus on sexuality and the threat of AIDS. At the heart of the three movies is Araki’s muse and star James Duval whose cynicism and helplessness becomes the embodiment of Generation X alienation[i] and it is through the presentation of Duval’s body that Araki is able to explore themes of vulnerability and the search for meaning in the modern world.

The nihilistic sensibility of Generation X filmmakers has been attributed to a number of issues prevalent in contemporary Western culture, as Jeffrey Sconce notes – ‘In an age of proliferating multicultural identity politics, the ‘Gen-X’ label…[is]…a popular point of identification for an educated white middle class in search of victim status.’[ii] The problems of the first world, most notably issues of taste, consumerism, and boredom, have become the focus of many American filmmakers and the so-called ‘victims’ that these directors present in their movies are hyper-aware of the constructed nature of their surroundings. Araki in particular showcases this through a ‘strange nether world of fast food joints and abandoned buildings,’[iv] from billboards and advertisements to his ludicrous ‘Shoplifters will be executed’ sign in “The Doom Generation.”.

Gregg Araki has openly stated that his trilogy began with James Duval[v] and that the actor’s mixed background as someone born to a French-Vietnamese mother and a part Irish, part Native American father made his body a heterogeneous tool for the director to use as a way of blurring the boundaries between gender, race, and sexuality. Duval is the embodiment of the Gen-X condition as a teen struggling to find a true sense of self in a confusing world of commercial propaganda and sexual freedom. New Queer Cinema scholar B. Ruby Rich notes the movement’s skill at renegotiating subjectivities, annexing genres and revising histories[vi] and Araki’s films are a clear example of this move towards a more diverse representation of modern life. Unlike more nihilistic 90s filmmakers like Todd Solondz and John Waters, Araki identifies with his characters, presenting them as real functioning people with relevant day-to-day problems.

The ‘Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy’ establishes Duval as the driving element of the series by presenting him within the opening scene of each of the three films. “Totally F***ed Up” begins with a close-up of Duval’s face and he exudes a rebel-without-a-cause magnetism, effortlessly lighting a cigarette, a mop of floppy hair hanging loosely over his forehead. He begins as a cynic as Araki positions his camera within close proximity of his subject like an artist admiring his subject. The result is intimacy but also entrapment as Duval’s character, Andy, is confident yet lacking objectivity. Araki will later underscore Andy’s inability to escape from his own inner turmoil by having him dramatically commit suicide in the closing scenes.

In his first appearance in “The Doom Generation”, Duval enters the frame in mid-shot, almost invisible under a veil of red light. He holds a mawkish boy-next-door pose, positioned uncomfortably next to his domineering girlfriend Amy, played by Rose McGowan. His dazed expression and optimism directly contradict the disparaging mannerisms seen in the film’s predecessor. On a first viewing it may seem like Duval, referred to here as ‘Jordan,’ has been demoted to the role of the bouncy boyfriend while McGowan steals the limelight as the assertive cynic, but in actuality he has shifted even closer towards becoming the teen icon and martyr of the series.

In a move away from the subjective viewpoint of the first movie, Araki offers an objective perspective on vulnerability and, from the moment the mysterious ‘X’ (Johnathon Schaech) joins Amy and Jordan they are thrown into a violent and murderous underworld. Jordan becomes a witness to X’s violent outbursts, beginning with the decapitation of an aggressive shop assistant, and his obsession with death shifts to a more communal ideal as Duval utters “I hope we die simultaneously, like in a fiery car wreck, or a nuclear blow-out or something.” Death becomes a unifying activity, unlike Andy’s suicide in “Totally F***ed Up” which is more of an expression of the desire for attention and escape.

David Moats writes that in “The Doom Generation” the character of Jordan takes on bigger issues as he is ‘wrestling with his sexuality, while everyone from the FBI to neo-Nazis are in pursuit.’[vii] His problems take on a wider context as his two companions are also in danger and this culminates in his acceptance of the need to sacrifice himself in order to save his two friends. His body is no longer his own to be manipulated and it must be mutilated to atone for the sins of others. His sacrifice allows his friends to escape unharmed and this shift is perfectly captured in Araki’s decision to place the camera at more of a distance in the opening scene. He gradually moves away from pure subjectivity to a more open awareness of the surroundings and the simultaneous perspectives of multiple characters.

If “Totally F***ed Up” is subjective and “The Doom Generation” is objective, then the third film in the trilogy depicts a new and completely transcendent perspective. Duval’s character in “Nowhere”, referred to as Dark Smith, has an omniscient presence as he is the only character with an awareness of the negative repercussions of his friends’ experimentation with sex and drugs. Araki amusingly has this dilemma manifest itself as a bizarre Godzilla-like creature who seems to be wiping out the majority of the teen population. To indicate his position as the all-seeing yet helpless presence in the film, Araki ensures that Duval is heard before he is seen in the opening, indicating a God-like presence, as he begins the film with a blue screen accompanied by Duval muttering “L.A. is like nowhere. Everybody who lives here is lost.” – a line that works in direct contrast with the opening of “Totally F***ed Up” where Duval is only able to make statements about himself.

When introducing the character of Dark Smith in physical form, Araki films Duval in a long shot as he washes himself in an unusually large shower. The distance of the camera combined with the abnormal vastness of the space suggests that Dark has an even greater awareness of his surroundings than Jordan was ever given. Fragmented shots of Dark’s body are then intercut with scenes of his sexual fantasies and this linking of the physical body with imagination is an early signifier that Araki is joining the very real trials and tribulations of teen life with an abstract representation of inner turmoil.

Rantasmo notes that “Nowhere” ‘takes all the fears and anxieties of adolescence and exaggerates them to crazy extremes.’[viii] For example, the struggles that Dark is facing being in an open relationship with his girlfriend Mel culminate at a party where, rather than simply catching her with another man, he sees her being caressed by two muscular blonde hunks. The party is less a literal representation of reality and more the projection of his worst nightmare. His girlfriend has not only been with other men but she is doing it in front of dozens of people and doesn’t care if Dark sees. This emphasises the dream-like nature of the narrative as issues become abstract combinations of reality and nightmare. Dark’s awareness of these issues then makes them take on a life of their own within the bizarre Araki universe.

“Totally F***ed Up” is primarily about self-destruction more than it is about the threat of external forces. Duval chainsmokes, jokingly quipping at one point “I smoke therefore I am”, as he bonds with his new lover Ian by exchanging gruesome stories and fantasising over the last moments before death. In a world overwhelmed by consumerism the only comfort is the possibility of finding some form of human connection and it soon becomes clear that Andy’s serious demeanour is a way to hide this level of vulnerability. After Ian kisses him for the first time, Andy says “Don’t touch me unless you mean it.’ – he exposes himself to Ian, allowing him to come closer and provide him with the human contact he so desperately craves. Araki then takes this away from him in a painful moment later in the film when he discovers Ian has not been faithful. Ultimately by exposing himself to someone, both emotionally and physically, Duval’s character is left feeling used and alone and the suggestion here is that such vulnerability always leads to tragedy as a teen must experience this pain in order to be able to make the transition into adulthood.

There are constant references throughout the trilogy to Duval’s apprehension at exposing himself both literally and metaphorically. “Don’t you wanna shut the lights off?” says Andy before his first sexual encounter with Ian. “I’m afraid of catching AIDS” says Jordan to Amy despite the fact they are both virgins. Finally in “Nowhere” Araki presents Duval naked on his bed trying to stop his girlfriend Mel from leaving him after they have had sex. Sex seems to be something that other characters are willing to subject themselves to without any reservations but all three of Duval’s characters are afraid of it in some way. As Moats effectively puts it, ‘the sex is awkward, sometimes embarrassing and surprisingly graphic’[ix] and at the heart of the trilogy is something very real as the awkwardness of the teen condition is conveyed through the unsettling shift from childish to ‘adult’ activities.

The most significant moment in “Nowhereis the scene where Dark’s internal fears become a reality. At the end of the film, Dark opens up to Montgomery, imploring him to never leave in an almost parallel fashion to Andy’s “Don’t touch me unless you mean it”. Araki decides that rather than allowing Dark to be cheated on he will instead have Montgomery turn into a giant insect, leaving Duval caked in blood and looking completely baffled. Fantastical moments like these have a comedic purpose but also suggest that Araki, and his muse Duval, have completely transcended reality and turned their world into a living metaphor.

As “Nowhere” is the most abstract and visceral film in the trilogy, Dark’s awareness of his friends’ self-destructive behaviours manifests in a succession of bizarre imagery based around sex and violence. The majority of the scenes focus on the sexual antics of various characters, some more aberrant than others, as well as sequences depicting drug addiction and violence. As the trilogy progresses, Duval’s character becomes an outsider to destructive tendencies as a result of his helplessly self-aware perspective. Where “Totally F***ed Up” sees Duval grinning at the camera as a he pops a pill with his friends, “Nowhere” captures nothing more than grimace when he takes drugs again and this is yet another sign of his increasing awareness of the negative repercussions of such fleeting pleasures.

Duval’s vulnerability in the final film is shown through his need to be loved but also his inability to find connection in a world of casual sex. The actor himself even explains that ‘Dark Smith’s search is the ideal search for love. For him, it’s not about the party or the drugs’[x] and Araki positions him as an outsider, motivated by an ‘unending search for True Love in a world gone utterly mad;’[xi] a truth made even more poignant when Dark’s new potential love interest turns into an insect and leaves him.

Araki underscores Duval’s suffering in “The Doom Generation” through a scene depicting his castration and death before X and Amy leave to continue their journey together. As suggested earlier, the character ultimately becomes the martyr, still cynical in his acceptance of the inevitability of his demise, and accepting his fate allows his friends to go free and carry on with their lives. This moment comes directly after the three of them have finally had their ‘communion’ in which they become unified through sex and Wood notes that the film ‘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.’[xii] This final sexual act is the closest any of Duval’s characters get to a feeling of true security and warped happiness as the three of them share the same desire for comfort, unlike Andy and Dark’s lovers who feel the need to see other people.

Before the threesome in “The Doom Generation,” Jordan appears to be a more reserved character than X whose physical presence is much more overpowering. Not only does X sleep with Amy, he even watches her and Jordan have sex in the bathroom and will not leave them alone during their most intimate of moments. It later becomes apparent, however, that despite his alpha-male tendencies, X is actually somewhat infatuated with Jordan. X’s fascination with Jordan’s body in particular, as conveyed through him asking Amy about how well-endowed Jordan is and how he has sex, shows that Duval retains his position as the most enigmatic and important person within the threesome. This foreshadows Jordan’s later position as the sacrificial lamb because X seems to have a subconscious awareness of the importance of Jordan’s place within their gang.

Araki’s fascination with youth and beauty is not only apparent in his frequent use of close-ups but also through his desire to frequently show Duval’s body in its barest form. This is mostly confined to the waist up with a bare-chested Duval frequently lying down with his head hanging over the edge of a bed perfectly capturing the image of youth in crisis. Duval himself has suggested that “Nowhere” is ‘less about sexuality and the labels we put on sexuality and more about the everyday trials and tribulations of a teenager.’[xiv] and this is something that can be applied to the trilogy as a whole. Araki doesn’t politicise his films and sexual orientation becomes just another element in his study of the teen condition rather than something to be explored within a wider society. Duval’s characters’ sexualities are never fully clear as they all have encounters with men and women but this suggests that, whether gay or straight, people ultimately suffer from the same problems.

The ‘Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy’ is one director’s take on the suffering of the modern teenager. James Duval’s three characters suffer the most, as Lucy Tonic wonderfully puts it ‘my favorite character in all three films is that played by James Duval. The open-minded, slightly burnt-out but philosophic character tends to die at the end of these movies. What does that mean? That evil triumphs over good on this planet? That peace is a futile notion? Only Araki knows.’[xv] Duval’s characters become more aware of their entrapment as the trilogy progresses but this inevitably leads to increasingly more tragic endings.

Arguably the most painful ending of the series is seen in “Nowhere” as Dark is left to come to terms with Montgomery’s horrific sudden transformation unlike the more self-absorbed “Totally F***ed Up” which ends with Andy’s suicide and allows him to escape through death. Even “The Doom Generation” gives Duval some form of purpose and accomplishment as he is able to sacrifice himself so his friends can continue their journey to adulthood. Ultimately Araki and Duval use the movies to present a unique vision of the internal and external forces that weigh on a teenager’s mind, speaking to both the sufferer themselves and to those who can reflect back on their life and be glad that it’s all over.

 

   

 

References:

[i] Witbrodt, Cathy L. “James Duval: staying true to indie roots” YouthQuake. n.p., 27 May 2004. Web.

[ii] Sconce, Jeffrey. “Irony, Nihilism and the New American “Smart” Film.” Screen 43.4 (2002): 356. Print.

[iii] Ibid, p366.

[iv] Moats, David. “Teen Apocalypse: Gregg Araki’s Doom Generation” The Quietus. n.p., 31 Mar 2012.

[v] H Dellamorte. (2013). Gregg Araki’s Nowhere Q&A Part 3. [Online Video]. 11 Oct 2012. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVArSmZvY-Y.

[vi] Rich, B. Ruby. New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut. Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2013. p16

[vii] Moats, David. “Teen Apocalypse: Gregg Araki’s Doom Generation” The Quietus. n.p., 31 Mar 2012.

[viii] Rantasmo. (2011). Gregg Araki Needs More Gay. [Online Video]. 3 Feb 2011. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eD11HrAPe3s.

[ix] Moats, David. “Teen Apocalypse: Gregg Araki’s Doom Generation” The Quietus. n.p., 31 Mar 2012.

[x] Derryberry, Jil. “An Actor Who’s Going Somewhere Fast James Duval Sizzles Up the Screen in Gregg Araki’s new Nowhere” Platform.net. Web.

[xi] Savlov, Marc. “From Nowhere to Here” The Austin Chronicle 02 Sep 1997. Print.

[xii] Wood, Robin, International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Directors, Detroit, New York, San Francisco, London, Boston, Woodbridge: St James Press, 2001, p38. Edited by Pendergast, Tom, Pendergast, Sara.

[xiii] Severson, Matthew L.. “Young, Beautiful, and F***ed: The Doom Generation” Bright Lights Film Journal. n.p., Nov 1995. Web.

[xiv] Derryberry, Jil. “An Actor Who’s Going Somewhere Fast James Duval Sizzles Up the Screen in Gregg Araki’s new Nowhere” Platform.net. n.p.

[xv] Tonic, Lucy. “All Hail the Gregg Araki “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy”” Yahoo Voices. n.p., 15 Aug 2012. Web.

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