Is Gregg Araki’s new film really “a more radical personal and political film than Oliver Stone could have managed in his wettest of wet dreams?” Matthew L. Severson says so, and Araki agrees.
Gregg Araki’s fifth feature is destined to provoke controversy. Ostensibly a road film in the ultraviolent mold of True Romance or Natural-Born Killers,The Doom Generation goes against the grain of these studio-manufactured postmodern genre pieces and transcends their ultimately conventional vision of pop-media hipness. Araki has made a more radical personal and political film than the bombastic Stone could have managed in his wettest of wet dreams. And he has captured the cultural apathy and violent dissolution of the present in a manner unseen since A Clockwork Orange.
This is familiar terrain for Araki. The Living End (1992) featured an HIV-positive male couple who flee Los Angeles after a sudden eruption of violence. As in The Doom Generation, the characters’ journey is as much metaphorical as literal. Both films avoid the clichés of the road movie: there is virtually no traceable topography in his characters’ odysseys, and no destination. The desolate L.A. universe Araki evokes lacks traditional iconography — no Bradbury building, Melrose Avenue, Hollywood landmarks, just convenience stores, vacant parking lots, and drab apartments, clubs, and hotel rooms. Billboards and signs pop up in the frame like grim Greek choruses: “Choose Death,” “Welcome to Hell,” “666.” Punctuating these visual signs is the music of The Smiths, Jesus and Mary Chain, This Mortal Coil, Nine Inch Nails. Together the visual and the aural fuse the fragments of a black-comic, trancelike narrative that at first glance seems minimal or even slight. Araki strips his cinematic space to the bare psychological essentials. Parent-child clashes familiar from such films as Rebel without a Cause and If. . . are practically nonexistent. The cartoonlike violence ofThe Doom Generation, where people’s heads and limbs are blown apart in graphic detail, is presented as if unconnected with the story. These characters are cultural ciphers of a fractured society, wounded souls who wander through a corrupt, alienated world in search of redemption.
These rooms — and an abandoned warehouse — are the isolated chambers in which the film’s real journeys occur; they are also the locus of the film’s controversy. Araki is an anarchic filmmaker in the tradition of Vigo and Pasolini, showing us areas of human behavior and transgression that test our limits as an audience. His characters explore their sexuality in a series of erotic scenes initiated by the mysterious character of Xavier Red, whose presence sets off the narrative a la Teorema. The film is structured around the group’s sexual encounters, beginning with the opening scene between Amy Blue and her boyfriend Jordan White in their car at a drive-in theater and culminating in the final three-way coupling that is abruptly preempted in a scene of ferocious violence and surprise. This juxtaposition of sex and horror will no doubt propel some viewers out of the theater in disgust. Leaving the theater is of course one way of fending off Araki’s implication of the viewer in what is happening onscreen.
At the press screening for The Doom Generation, many of the critics walked out, and those who stayed seemed unsure how to respond. Aside from a few nervous laughs, the film played to almost total silence. At the San Francisco International Film Festival, however, the audience responded enthusiastically. Variety and the local San Francisco papers gave it good reviews, most proclaiming it as “Gregg Araki’s breakthrough film.”
I met with Araki, Rose McGowan, and James Duval the morning after the SFIFF show at the Castro Theater.
Matt: What has been your feeling about the general response the film’s getting?
Gregg: Really good. It really needs an audience to respond and react to it, though. Did you see the film?
Matt: I’ve seen it twice, actually.
Rose: Did you see it last night?
Matt: I saw it last night and I saw it at the press screening here about two weeks ago.
Gregg: I hate press screenings.
Jimmy: It was probably better last night.
Matt: At first there were a lot of press people who walked out during the film — it was dead quiet — people seemed afraid to react to it. And yet the response was completely different last night. . .
Rose: It’s just like when Xavier licks the come off his hand, everyone gasped in shock at the press screening but then when we show it to a regular audience everyone is clapping and screaming — it’s like a roller-coaster ride.
Jimmy: At the end of every screening they’re always speechless — it defies people’s expectations.
Matt: People are really expecting the film to go one way, riding at one level, and to end on this certain note . . .
Jimmy: And then it smashes them upside the head! Leave with this! It definitely leaves them with something to think about.
Matt: Totally F***ed Up is also an amazing film. Like The Doom Generation it seems to speak to this generation in a way I don’t think has been captured on film before. Certainly not like most films that tend to deal with agendas and issues.
Rose: Like “After-School Specials.”
Matt: It seems that your aesthetic and ideas are so relevant to today’s youth culture. You’ve often been quoted as being greatly influenced by Godard, saying that Totally F***ed Up was your Masculine-Feminine. Would you say that The Doom Generation is your Weekend?
Gregg: That’s what this French critic told me — “It’s your Weekend!” When I madeTotally F***ed Up I consciously thought, “This is my Masculine-Feminine.” The Doom Generation I never thought of in that way. I mean, they’re obviously related, with the car, the couple, and the violence. Weekend is totally apocalyptic, and I guess my film shares its nihilism.
Matt: The Doom Generation makes inventive use of color and cinematography. InVariety, Emanuel Levy wrote “Stylistically, Araki may have been inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange or Peter Greenaways The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.” What do you make of this?
Gregg: I’ve seen those films, but they are not any huge influence. I’ve seen A Clockwork Orange, and I like it more than the Greenaway film — and, well, it’s obvious where the writing comes from because of the red rooms, etc. But that’s what happens when you make a film: you make it, and then people interpret it any way they want.
Matt: How do you feel the characters in this film represent today’s youth?
Rose: I think it’s completely appropriate. I’ve said this now numerous times already, but it’s actually something that I would go see. And I can’t say that I would go seeReality Bites. I don’t think that I would go see those movies because they are all made by 45-year-old men in Hollywood, who are all thinking, “Oh, they’ll get off on this, they’ll think it’s hip, slick, and cool!” Rather than a film made by somebody who’s making a film about things they love, listening to music they love to listen to, using the language they like to hear. And obviously there’s a lot of themes running throughout, but the majority of it is made for and by the mentality of the people that are going to see the film in some way. It’s very different than a film made by somebody who’s preaching at you, “Feel this now!” This film lets the person make up their own mind, and it’s also a really cool crazy fuckin’ movie.
Matt: The character of Xavier Red seems to be the catalyst for much of the film’s exploration of “limits.”
Gregg: That’s why his name is X — he represents the unknown element.
Matt: Were you attempting to stylize the violence in the way it came across onscreen? You didn’t make it overtly realistic.
Gregg: The violence is very specifically handled and stylized. Most of the violence is very garish and comic book-like, and there’s a kind of Brechtian thing going on. But to me there’s a certain foreshadowing of the ending when Jordan’s in the bathtub, slips, and he hits his nose. You really react to the pain that his body is going through — as opposed to heads and arms being blown off — the bathtub scene sets up the ending and the idea that these are just bodies and they can break. And then there’s the dog.
Matt: When the dog dies, which happens really late in the film, after a lot of violence has already occurred, the three characters for the first time are emotionally involved.
Rose: It kind of exemplifies the irony why one can feel more sorry for an animal than they can for a fellow human being. It’s just the way it is in today’s society.
Matt: What were you attempting to explore in terms of the film’s sexuality onscreen? While billed as “A Heterosexual Film by Gregg Araki,” the film seems to be more keyed into toying with the straight anxiety about gay sex. The film’s conclusion of violence seems very much tied to the sexual transgressions of the protagonists.
Gregg: That’s what I’m interested in as a filmmaker. To go beyond the norms and expectations of the audience. That’s why the film is so controversial, because it goes beyond what people are used to seeing.
Matt: Have you received any flack from Goldwyn about the film’s violence and sex?
Gregg: The end of the film has been slightly altered. But only to make it tighter. Nothing — violence or sex — has been cut out. It was only cut to make the film more disturbing.
Rose: What’s really great about the film at the ending is the way the audience is expecting Xavier to jump up and save the day. The audience is constantly thinking, these characters aren’t going to get hurt, he’s not gonna do it.
Jimmy: I can remember the first several times I read the script, I was so shocked by so many things that happened in the story. I was so surprised — and I think that lingered throughout the making of the film — the feeling of shock and horror was an undercurrent all during the shooting. We were constantly aware of what we were doing.
Matt: Jimmy, as a heterosexual, what were your feelings about playing the sex scenes ofTotally F***ed Up and The Doom Generation?
Jimmy: Basically that they’re just extensions of my characters’ identities. The sex didn’t bother me at all.
Rose: Both Jimmy and I wanted to make our sex scenes really sweet because it had to contrast the sex scenes between Xavier Red and me. And for me personally, it was a way of showing both sides of my character. Both Jimmy and I had a boyfriend and a girlfriend at the time, and we both thought that we were going to get into a lot of trouble — but then we both broke up with them before the film was finished so it doesn’t matter.
Matt: Did either of them see the film?
Rose: Actually, my boyfriend did. I’d already seen it a couple of times, and I didn’t really think anything of it. I forgot and didn’t think that he would have a weird reaction. He just kind of sat there and was twitching during the whole thing — I don’t think he loved it, let’s just leave it at that.
Jimmy: My ex-girlfriend, she loved it totally, all of it, every scene. She kind of really got into the sensibility that I had and the films I was acting in. At first she was really shocked, but then . . . all of a sudden later on, she said to me that the film really turned her on.
Rose: I think most people have the same reaction to it. Last night at the Castro, I finally got just how much sexual energy was in the air.
Gregg: When I came into the theater at the end of the film, and you could just feel in the air how hot and sweaty it was.
Matt: Where does the influence of music, particularly The Smiths, come from in your work?
Gregg: That music has always had a huge influence on me. For instance, in The Living End, the title is from a Jesus and Mary Chain song. I’m more influenced by music than I am by movies.
Rose: There’s this great line that I love which ended up being cut from the movie: “Smiths fans always die young.”
Matt: So there’s not some small pantheon of films you hold in high regard?
Gregg: Well, my favorite film probably of all time is Bringing Up Baby, by Howard Hawks. I love that film. I think that film is pure genius. I went to film school, so there’s a large influence of other films and filmmakers as well, particularly Bresson‘sThe Devil, Probably and films by Buster Keaton.
Rose: Ivan Reitman . . . [laughs]
Gregg: John Landis, all those people. [more laughs] In general, though, I’m really into screwball comedy.
Matt: I’m wondering what you feel about the ending of the film, which seems purposely opaque and vague.
Rose: The whole ending of the film starting with the raping and murdering is so metaphorical at that point: Jimmy obviously represents everything innocent and soft — and anyone with any dream or imagination in this society is doomed. . .. I can’t speak for Xavier, but for me at the end during the rape scene, which was definitely the most difficult part for me to do in the film, even though Amy survives, I played it as if it was her death. Any part of her that was soft up until that point — a wall or veneer goes over it and dies. I think at the end it is saying how tough it is to live in this society, and in order to survive, that innocent part has to die so that the physical being can go on. It’s such a beautiful moment at the end, even though it’s resolved, it’s peaceful after the horror and raucousness of what has gone on before, so at the end there’s just quiet.
Gregg: The ending of The Doom Generation to me is very open-ended and uncertain. In the way that all my films end on that same note, and the way I see the world. I always have a sense of the future as being a quasi-question mark. The Living End ends that way and Totally F***ed Up does too. It’s just kind of a sense of “What now?”
Matt: You make use of a lot of odd cameo roles throughout the film with pop celebrities such as Margaret Cho, Heidi Fleiss, Parker Posey. How did this come about and what are you trying to convey by their presence?
Gregg: Well, I specifically told the casting director to fill all the smaller parts with famous faces. Because to me, the film is very surreal and hallucinogenic, and so I wanted the film to have the effect of falling asleep while the TV is on, having a nightmare where there’s all these weird faces that are vaguely familiar and built on your subconscious memory of these figures. So that’s what I wanted, not something like “Oh, let’s put in all these in-jokey cameos,” but to have cameos of people who are buried in your subconscious. Even two of the guys that do the raping at the end are gay porn stars. So there’s this weird thing of people that are in your brain and then pop out. To me the whole film is stylized in that sort of way.
Matt: How did you find your cinematographer?
Gregg: We met Jim through some New York people. Jim had never shot a feature film before; he’d shot mainly commercials and videos, and he’d worked with Bruce Weber and I knew I wanted a very kind of beautiful look for the film.
Matt: The beautiful aesthetic look of the film — the photography, art direction, your casting of leads — was this in any way commenting on current “pop fascism” or done with irony?
Gregg: I don’t know about fascism, but photography and advertising is a really huge influence on me and cinema is about “looking,” and I think more interesting to me when you’re looking at beautiful faces and imagery on the screen. And I think there is a kind of fascism in that, but that’s what the world is filled with right now.