entry in Araki’s “teenage apocalypse trilogy,” which also consists of the pretty terrible The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere (1997), which I haven’t seen. It makes for a natural transition from The Living End, channeling much of its same frustrations but broadening the scope. It’s also the first Araki project of many to include James Duval, his skinny, post-River Phoenix-esque muse.
The movie is divided into 15 parts, and follows a quasi-chosen family made up of six gay and lesbian teenagers. Totally Fucked Up has somewhat unimaginatively been labeled as something of an LGBTQ+ version of The Breakfast Club (1985); Araki has said it was inspired by Masculin Féminin (1966), the youth-centric dramedy from Jean-Luc Godard, one of his most conspicuous inspirations. (I’ve always been charmed by Godard’s use of stylized title cards and fitful jump-cut edits, though clearly not as charmed as Araki, who wears his love for the flourishes on his sleeve.)
The characters ofTotally Fucked Up are grappling with the ills of sex and dating; some of them are still a bit sexually confused. The surest of themselves are a couple, Michele and Patricia (Susan Behshid and Jenee Gill), whose relationship seems like it’s going to stick around. They have a sense of humor about their premature domestic routine (they essentially live together) and their love for love. “I believe in love,” Michele says. “I mean, there's got to be something for people to cling to besides TV, right?” The least assured of the group is introverted Andy (Duval), who at the beginning of the movie is still not so sure he’d like to have sex with a man. “Don't touch me unless you mean it,” he cautions a prospective love interest at one point.
Tommy (Roko Belic) is habitually noncommittal. He prefers, for now, a succession of one-night stands to anything concrete. He’s humorously morose. “I suck! I don't deserve to live,” he moans. “I just wanna lie down in the middle of the road and get run over by a Suzuki samurai.” Steven and Deric (Gilbert Luna and Lance May) have, like Michele and Patricia, been together for a while now. But a little into the movie, Steven, who is also a budding filmmaker (much of the movie incorporates grainily shot "interviews" he has conducted with the group's "members"), starts having anxieties about the future and sleeps with a guy (The Living End’s Gilmore) who seems to want more than a quick night together.
Uninventive as I think the John Hughes comparisons are (though Araki has cheekily spruced up and then appropriated the comparison in interviews), I’m wont to admit that they do at least prepare the viewer for a movie that spends most of its time wallowing in aimlessness. It mostly toggles between the teenagers and their individual problems. They’re comparably frustrated with the disapproval of family members and from broader society, from which they feel alienated though not solely on account of their marginalized sexualities. “Let me tell you what the problem with the stupid fucking world is: All the stupid people are breeding like mad and having tens and tens of kids, while the cool people aren't having any,” Patricia observes.
Not all of Araki’s creations are made equal. They’re all at minimum compelling (Tommy, Michele, and Patricia are especially appealing and funny), though I found myself often wanting to spend more of the movie, if not all of it, with Andy. The film charts his coming into his own; Duval is just generally an absorbing, carefully emotive actor. He’s so persuasively delicate here that he seems forever on the brink of either a fit of laughs or tears. What’s heartrending, and I thought the most well-realized thing about Totally Fucked Up, is that Andy’s progressively strengthening sense of self does not necessarily mean that the relationship that made this positive change for the most part happen (it’s with another Nine Inch Nails devotee played by Alan Boyce) is an altogether good one. I wish Andy weren’t so rash handling his disappointment.
The conclusion of Totally Fucked Up is both bleak and uplifting. It is, on the one hand, deeply tragic; on the other, it’s sort of optimistic — suggesting that maybe it’s more worth it to weather life’s storms than let them knock you around. You could get sucked up by one of its cyclones; said cyclone might spit you out someplace totally fucked up. But what if it took you somewhere pretty good? You never can tell.
otally Fucked Up, Araki’s 1993 follow-up to The Living End, is, per its opening title card, “another homo movie” from the director. (The Living End was “an irresponsible movie” from him.) It’s the first
latest piece is, very originally, about the death of cinema.) Any sense of success or comfort in his routine is curtailed early on in the movie when he finds out that he is HIV-positive. “It’s not a death sentence,” his doctor assures him. But how much solace can that bring? Some alleviation soon comes in the form of Luke, a handsome, drifting hustler whom Jon meets by chance. Luke, tan and muscular, looks like a model in a male pin-up magazine. He wears leathers and shiny, dangling earrings — he’s a biker movie idol manqué. He is also HIV-positive. Jon and Luke spend a few days and nights together; it’s a nice respite especially for Jon, having just received such bad news. The latter eventually half-heartedly breaks things off — Luke, who's learned to be reactionary to survive, has a tendency to get confrontational. The longer you spend time with him, the more you notice that it’s more than likely he’s going to get in trouble of some kind.
Then, late one evening, Luke returns; that trouble has most certainly been gotten into. Breathless and blood-soaked, he tells Luke he’s just killed, or thinks he’s killed (“I didn’t check his pulse or anything”), a confrontationally homophobic cop. “Looked like dead pork to me,” Luke says. Since it isn’t possible to come to a place of understanding with prosecutors when you’ve shot an officer and then immediately fled, Luke thinks it better to try to keep driving and driving and leave the figuring-it-out to his future self. He at least has a friend up north; he can regroup once they’ve met up. Jon asks Luke if he would like to help him get away. Luke is at first apprehensive. He’s orderly; this is chaos. Just look at the blood all over Luke’s face, the stolen gun in his hands. Who is going to pay his rent? What is going to happen to his career? What about his friends? Jon knows this is a bad idea. But his id has something else to say. Predictably, the id wins out; such leads us to the film’s tagline: “Fuck everything.”'
The ensuing road trip is hardly blissful. There are lots of blow-ups, usually on account of Jon getting frustrated with Luke’s potentially harmful spontaneity. Sometimes I wasn’t sure how much Jon and Luke even liked each other: Dytri and Gilmore look great together, but the movie is pressed to show us very many commonalities, shared interests. But eventually I re-considered and reasoned that part of the mutual dedication, which can on the surface seem kind of flimsy, has not only to do with the fact that the sex is good but also that with each other, Jon and Luke are able to confide in someone about their plight and know that the person listening next to them knows exactly what they’re talking about. And, to a degree, what they’re feeling. There’s a comfort in shared anger.
The Living End, shot with just $20,000 in pocket, is stirringly confrontational. A budgeted lovers-on-the-run romantic thriller with a big heart, it turns fantasies of various kinds of retribution and I’ll-show-yous into realities. A homophobic cop will not get a pass on his homophobia. Gay romance, still cinematically taboo in the early '90s, will not be sanitized. Rather than above all else pity characters who are HIV-positive, Araki, who has said the movie was a true-to-life reflection of his ideological headspace at the time, shows his leads righteously angry, living loudly rather than idling miserably in the shadows.
The most famous Hollywood movie addressing the AIDS crisis, the at-times effective but predominantly milquetoast and straight-washed Philadelphia, came out a year later. When thinking about that movie, it’s especially electrifying to hear Luke say provocatively of current president George Bush, Sr., “We could hold him at gunpoint, inject him with a syringe full of our blood. How much do you want to bet they’d have a magic cure by tomorrow?” The movie, sensuously shot and strikingly soundtracked (there’s lots of echt shoegaze), ends before any kind of tragedy can take hold. A fade-out is sometimes more powerful a thing than a singular closing note. You can take it anywhere.
common denominator, really, is that both films involve a couple of people hitting the road in a desperate bid to avoid the law. The Living End does not conclude with its getaway car — a beat-up blue sedan with a “Choose Death” sticker on its bumper — speeding off a cliff following a high-speed chase. It doesn’t feature a memorable meeting with a young Brad Pitt, either. It is not a toast to the power of friendship. The duo doing the running from the law in the movie are Luke and Jon (Mike Dytri and Craig Gilmore), 20-somethings who had started a fling just before becoming most-wanted figures.
Long-haired and limber Jon is a movie critic. He is apparently successful enough to neither worry too much about affording his pretty-nice single-bedroom apartment nor deadlines for his occasional freelance assignments. (His
regg Araki’s The Living End (1992) has been described occasionally as something of a gay equivalent of Thelma & Louise (1991). But to my eye, the only
On Gregg Araki's The Living End, Totally Fucked Up, and Mysterious Skin
A Thousand Stars Burst Open July 8, 2020
Mike Dytri and Craig Gilmore in 1992's The Living End.
New Queer Cinema wave.) Though never not serious by way of their ideas, the early movies on which Araki built his name were more noisily irreverent — seriousness, sometimes though not always, might be presented to us with a wink.
Mysterious Skin, in contrast, is immutably serious and somber. Its visuals, though still inflected with Araki’s penchant for fresh pop-artishness, are more pointed and intentional. Rarely do we feel, as we might watching other Araki movies, that a certain visual idea is being placed there simply because it looks cool. (Which, of course, is never a bad thing if the visual idea is indeed cool, which they almost always are when Araki has thought of it.)
Mysterious Skin is about childhood sexual abuse. Starting in the early 1980s and then moving into the early ‘90s, it follows two victims of the same man, Neil and Brian (played as kids by Chase Ellison and George Webster and as young adults by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet, respectively), and how their processing of the formative trauma affects them as they come of age. Neil, who is gay, starts a parttime career as a sex worker as a high-school underclassman. There is a sense that he uses fleeting, perceived sexual power over older johns as a way to temporarily mask what has happened to him; he has developed a sort of fixation on gratifying older men.
Until the end of the movie, Brian isn’t clear about what happened to him as an 8-year-old. All he knows is that there were a couple of moments that year where he blacked out and then, hours later, woke up with a bloody nose. He subsequently suffered from unrelenting nightmares and a long bout of bed-wetting — none of which concerned his parents very much and as such were never dealt with. (All Brian got was loud dismay from his father, played by Chris Mulkey.)
In Mysterious Skin, we watch as Neil oscillates from john to john. Danger increases when he moves from his and Brian’s native Hutchinson, Tex. to New York City, where he relocates after graduating. He has a connection there in lifelong friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), who dotes on him like a mother — emphatically cautioning him about the violence he could be potentially subjected to. She doesn’t know what happened to him as a child, and is concerned about his recklessness and emotional guardedness. What are these things rooted in? “Where normal people have a heart, Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole,” Wendy warns a mutual friend. “And if you don't watch out, you can fall in and get lost forever.”
We simultaneously watch Brian, bespectacled and childlike as a teen, seek the truth behind his twin blackouts. Early on in the movie, after watching a sensationalist TV show about alien abductions, he hears the testimonial of an alleged victim, sheltered midwesterner Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), and is convinced that what has happened to her has also happened to him. He reaches out to her and, soon, the two are an informal detective duo. When she eventually expresses a sexual interest in him, something deep within Brian causes him to nearly lash out — as much a point of humiliation as it is an eye-opener to him.
Neil’s and Brian’s stories eventually intersect; then comes a cathartic purging of the truth. This moment, which closes out the film, is as excruciating as it is subtly hopeful — as though, after this shared acknowledgment of this awful thing that has happened, there will come at least some healing. The film, though, doesn’t tint the latter idea with a rosy color — there of course exists no easy resolution or
answer. “I wish there was some way for us to go back and undo the past. But there wasn't,” Neil says via voiceover. “There was nothing we could do... I wished with all my heart that we could just leave this world behind. Rise like two angels in the night and magically disappear.” Mysterious Skin emotionally devastates — it’s an empathetic and careful movie about a delicate subject matter. It’s rivetingly acted particularly by Levitt, who finds the essence of this young man who works so diligently to reclaim power over his life but gradually finds himself more and more unable to maintain it. Burying something can’t negate its existence.
The arc of Araki’s oeuvre has been compared to similar (if more widely celebrated) gay, iconoclastic filmmakers like Todd Haynes and Pedro Almodóvar. Those filmmakers also began their careers with passionate and exuberant features only to, later in their careers, find success in more solemn, occasionally melodramatic stories. Mysterious Skin might be Araki’s consummate movie. With it, he proves himself a filmmaker with an uncommon emotional sensitivity that translates well when bringing to the screen a topic so rarely detangled with such tact and lucidity.
Unlike Almodóvar and Haynes, though, Araki would not implicitly make Mysterious Skin the beginning of a new, more sobered era. His next movie, undersung comedy masterpiece Smiley Face (2007), would see him extolling the virtues of irreverence in a way he had never before. That movie is perhaps his most playful project. Part of the joy of Araki’s career evolution is seeing how he explores new territories without losing sight of his charming old tricks. He always shines through, but never so brightly that everything else gets washed out.
The Living End: B+
Totally Fucked Up: B+
Mysterious Skin: A
ysterious Skin (2004), Araki’s first movie of the aughts, is frequently touted as the movie with which he proved he’d matured a bit. (His early ‘90s products are today considered touchstones of the