by Vonne Slayden

For my COVID isolation period, I resolved to watch a lot of films. At first, I had planned to watch all the Academy Award nominees available, treating the task with soldierly determination. I began by alternating the often long, quiet and muted-color-palette of Academy Award nominated films with more recent films that I hadn’t seen since theaters were effectively axed. I also decided to throw some older movies I’d been curious about into the rotation. Scrolling Letterboxd absently, I remembered the name of a queer director I had held on to for a couple years based on a passing, interest-piquing mention in a video essay: Gregg Araki.

The movies I decided to start with were those in his seminal “Teenage Apocalypse” trilogy; films from the ’90s consisting of aimless queer teens that end in (spoiler) tragedy. I had just finished several terribly straight films, and I needed something with characters I could relate to a little more; a movie where I could cackle as I made knowing, loving comments and remarks like “they’re just like me for real” numerous times. 

“Totally F***ed Up” (1993) is an “anthology” split into fifteen parts where the cast of characters offer their opinions about sex and other topics with the narrative mixed-in throughout. This film specifically contains what I consider to be several hallmarks of his work. Across his filmography, characters rarely succumb to senseless jealousy or engage in subterfuge against each other. Several of his early films show queer friend groups that felt, despite their nihilistic attitudes, that they truly cared about each other. The presence of both platonic and romantic love present in the groups feels unquestionably natural and organic. Sometimes it appears pre-established, but other times the love is built gradually in one of Araki’s legendary slow burns. 

His command of homoeroticism is truly staggering, even in his very first film, “Three Bewildered People in the Night” (1987). Created on a speck budget, it’s a surreal experience for modern viewers, showing the 1980s in grayscale. The normally bright-red lettering of his oft-filmed mini-marts and massive commercial billboards, placed disproportionately in frame over the characters, are rendered colorless, and contemporary industrial music plays from a record player over the low-quality footage. 

While some Letterboxd reviews called the acting in this and other films “bad,” for some reason the acting felt natural to me. Any stiltedness made it feel like friends who struggled to articulate their feelings, with the whole movie listing signs of depression but never seeming — or wanting? — to recognize that possibility. His first five films (the second is lost) present feelings that are felt in a liminal space: something is missing, wrong, and we’re on the journey to a feeling instead of being immediately dropped at the destination. Whether his protagonists were teenagers or adults, the acting and his scripts seemed very human in grasping at that feeling. People alternately crack bad jokes, flirt, swear liberally and finally express sincerity, only for it to be squandered. His films somehow simultaneously express a great warmth, starting right from the opening credits, where he’ll often humorously title his “by Gregg Araki” entry.

I would be remiss if I also didn’t note the design of his movies. While the first couldn’t do much in the way of design, his third through sixth films (finally in full color) cultivate a precise aesthetic that has reportedly earned them Tumblr recognition. Lighting is used dramatically in “The Doom Generation” (1995), where whole scenes are drowned in reds and blues. He employs truly killer-looking cars for his killer protagonists — retro and decorated with intense personality — which seems to be at odds with the consumerism and capitalism represented by the constantly visited convenience stores and monstrous advertisements. Characters’ rooms are often a feast for the eyes, stuffed with posters for Andy Warhol films and Nine Inch Nails cassettes, dominated by a floor mattress.

The fashion always looks great. From the simplest displays in “Luke in The Living End” (1992), where the protagonist wears almost exclusively jeans and boots, being shirtless almost the entire movie, to the more iconic looks, like star of “The Doom Generation” Rose McGowan’s clear plastic jacket over a pink sleeveless dress, abounding with rings and bracelets, completed with white over-sneer sunglasses and her black bob, the fashion never misses. The comments seem to suggest that anyone who is attracted to men is in for an extra treat: many of his films could be pithily described as “hot people making out for 90 minutes.”

Though some of his endings may invoke feelings of numbness, the bodies of his work brought a queer solace to my days of waiting around worrying about the horrors of COVID. And, ironically, they also brought a brightness as I looked forward to his depictions of queer bonds and what kind of characters portraying gender-envy he’d put up next. Some have really disliked his films, but if you’re okay with some onscreen sex, drugs and violence, go check out his work!