When I was twenty-two, I watched Gregg Araki’s 1997 film Nowhere on my laptop in my childhood bedroom. I had just graduated college and was trying to figure what type of person I wanted to become. After the credits rolled and the sun went down, I downloaded every song I could find off the film’s gazed-out soundtrack and went for a walk.
I’ve always been nostalgic for the ‘90s in a way that makes me feel as though I was never really there. The sun-drenched backyards, Clintonian optimism, and edgy cartoons: images from a childhood I hardly remember. My yearning could have just as well been a wish for a return to ambiguity, a time when my decisions were made by my parents, and my only real concerns weren’t real at all. Nowhere, then, seemed less a trip back in time and more a vision of what life could have looked like if I were born ten years earlier, before draconian airport surveillance, George W. Bush, and cargo pants. In the end, I figured I was jealous—jealous of the people who got to experience that type of world, jealous of the characters on the movie screen.
Nowhere, like Seinfeld or The Real World, is compelling precisely because it isn’t really about anything. Like the majority of Araki’s early movies, Nowhere functions best as a mood or a cultural artifact than it does a plot-driven narrative. Over the course of a day, brooding teen Dark (James Duval) roams Los Angeles with his nonexclusive partner Mel (Rachel True), as well as a group of friends who skip class, take drugs, and reconvene at a party later that night. As night begins to rear its head, odd and inexplicable things happen, both to Dark and his friends, who fall in and out of love, who die, and who kill. One of the film’s central points of friction involves Dark’s desire for Mel and Mel only, who, despite loving Dark, wants to love as many people as she can while she is still young and beautiful. “Sometimes I feel so old fashioned, from another planet,” Dark sulks, and we understand why. But from the levity embedded in Araki’s mock-Valley-girl script, we’re more likely to smile at Dark’s dramatics than we are to empathize or reflect.
This doesn’t mean that Nowhere is devoid of meaning. The film touches on the twinning of youth and uncertainty—how when we’re young we feel so strongly about the things we’ve just begun to experience while believing just as strongly that we’ll never experience them again. On a subcutaneous level, what Nowhere achieves is the construction of a reality parallel to our own, one that mocks and winks at ours, and this difference exists on a libidinal level. The main characters we meet—there are maybe twelve of them—are “free in all the ways that [we] are not”: they are neither uptight and puritanical, nor are they modernity’s hyperwoke, hypersexual overcorrection on this theme; they hang out, they hook up, everyone seems kinda gay, but there are no labels attached, no overt identity markers. In Araki’s universe, sexuality and identity have not yet merged into a promotional and commodified form in the way they have today. There are no discernible hierarchies based on class, gender, and race, and no overly niche labels affixed to the film’s characters, à la John Wells’s famous and satirical Shameless scene. Araki’s characters are bizarre and sexually liberated, yes, but they are also unmoored from a society whose culture demands such distinctions be made at the level of the sign. In Nowhere, Freud’s “narcissism of minor difference” is nowhere to be found.
This style is a hallmark of Araki’s late 90s work, as this fluid and whimsical world appears again, in a more grounded form, in his ill-fated MTV pilot, This is How the World Ends (2000). The two pieces begin similarly, with the protagonists’ mid-shower reveries interrupted by adults who, in these films, are totally removed from what it means to be a teen. One of the pilot’s best scenes happens on a school bus, where the students are going on a senior trip, and the chaperone, a young-ish guy who’s as creepy as he is handsome, is reading off the rules in a slick, insouciant way. Immediately after he says that no alcohol or drugs are allowed on the trip, one of the kids yells, “What about sex!” to which the chaperone rhetorically asks, “What about it?” The bus erupts in cheer. Both this film and Nowhere capture the anxiety and fervor of the impending Millenium; however, what these films lack is the emotional heart on display in Araki’s earlier pieces, which are a testament to the rocky social terrain of the early 1990s.
The Living End (1992) is the most engrossing Gregg Araki work in that it remains a successful portrayal of an era characterized by frustration, exuberance, and precarity. The film centers on a drifter, Luke (Mike Dytri), and a film critic, Jon (Craig Gilmore), both of whom are young, HIV-positive men, who stumble into each other’s lives and end up on a hedonistic road trip across the West Coast. At this point in American history, the gay community, cast aside like Agamben’s homo sacer, is pissed off, reeling in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic, an unresponsive federal government, and the country’s twelfth year of a Republican presidency (mind you, at this point, there was a palpable-enough difference between Republicans and Democrats). Luke functions essentially as Jon’s id; he’s been infected longer and knows the world doesn’t give a shit about him. Early in the film, he spraypaints “fuck the world” on a building; later, “I blame society” on a parking garage column. (The same phrase appears on James Duval’s character’s t-shirt in 1993’s Totally Fucked Up). At one point when Luke and Jon are having breakfast, Luke says he believes that AIDS is “the neo-Nazi Republican final solution,” and we, decades later, basically agree.
The Living End is a time capsule, an epochal artifact. Its actors had little or no prior acting experience, the film’s budget was around $20,000, and Araki often shot quickly on locations due to a lack of proper permits. The film is urgent and political in a way that American films today are not. In a review, Michael D. Klemm writes, “In…the film’s most radical scene…Luke tells Jon over breakfast that, because they have AIDS, they have nothing to lose; they’re totally free and can do anything they want.” This captures the mood of not only the movie but the time and social milieu in which Araki and other transgressive filmmakers were working. (Harmony Korine’s Kids and Gummo are filled with similar themes and a similar palette of detritus and dread). Araki’s low budget and outsider status, at the time, mirrored Luke’s pronouncement. As with his subsequent “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy,” Araki was able to push his low-budget, anti-establishment ethos to the fore, which effectively pulled his audience nearer to the film’s characters in a way that big-budget, gay productions of recent past, like Brokeback Mountain (2005), Moonlight (2016), and Call Me By Your Name (2017) with their high-profile actors and directors, could not. One reason for this could be our culture’s current preoccupation with telling individual stories and “living one’s truth.” One of the ways that capitalism entrenches its power is by neutering as many dissenting elements as possible. If a subculture cannot be destroyed, capitalism will embrace it, sanitize it, then recycle it back into mass culture. What we’re seeing with these recent queer films are battles at the personal level–individuals against themselves or each other, as opposed to a people against an oppressive system. They fall prey to Baudrillard’s “myth of emancipation,” whereby characters, and thus people, are not liberated from but emancipated into the consumer society.
Over time, as Araki’s chops were honed, his work became embraced by a wider audience; such is often the case. Mysterious Skin (2004), both smart and disturbing, represents a departure in style from his earlier catalog, as it is less choppy, the dialogue is more true-to-life, and the lead actors are Hollywood-established. Similar themes of alienation and frustration pervade, and the story is strange, dreamy, and tragic, but it does not quite challenge systems in the way that his sloppier, low-budget productions could. A psychological mystery plays out in front of our eyes, but by the end, we have only gotten glimpses of individual stories and broken lives.
I do not think a radical queer cinema is a possibility in the way that it once was. If any one individual could encapsulate this impossibility, it is Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the living embodiment of the commodified gay identity working on behalf of the corporate class. However, this doesn’t mean that queer cinema will no longer exist; it just might revolve around the emancipation of more and more identities into the existing society, as opposed to a call for an end to that society. Emancipation, as Baudrillard knew, is not the same as liberation. Consider Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015), a dramedy shot on an iPhone 5 that chronicles a day in the life of black trans sex workers. The goal of the film is to illustrate the struggle for survival that these women face, which is a net positive, as it humanizes a group of people. However, can a group of people ever be fully human under capitalism, a system of which an essential property involves the commodification and thus the dehumanization of the individual?
There is a theory that horror movies, post 9/11, began to fixate on random acts of violence instead of those that were premeditated, carried out by deviants like in Psycho, Scream, or even Halloween. 9/11 not only ushered in a millennium of rootless confusion but it also successfully neutralized threats against the current order (one need only look at George W. Bush’s post-9/11 approval rating for evidence of this). The Patriot Act instilled fear and suspicion in every American, and its effects still linger, especially as we await what Joe Biden is likely to give us: The Patriot Act Pt. 2: Domestic Terrorism Edition. When fear and precarity become the dominating modes of an epoch, a politics of solidarity becomes an impossibility, and emancipation of the individual into the oppressive apparatus works as both a distraction and as a cudgel against the liberation of all members of that society. What Gregg Araki accomplished in the ‘90s was work that defied one-dimensional thought. At times, he created a world detached from the brutal, boring, and ultimately repressive one that existed. At others, he presented the world as it was, and implored us to rail against it whatever way we could, even if failure seemed imminent, which now, more than ever, it feels like it is.