Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Doom Generation

Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin was one of the best films of 2005, and it prompted me to go back and check out some of his earlier stuff, starting with The Doom Generation. I went in pretty much blind on this one, except for the knowledge that Araki was a leader of the "New Queer Cinema" movement on the 1990s, and also that it starred James Duval, better known as Frank the Bunny from Donnie Darko. Like Visitor Q yesterday, Doom Generation is a pretty weird film that takes place in a heightened reality, that's slightly askew from our world.

The film's opening is quite strong, starting with the buzzing synth of Nine Inch Nails' "Heresy" and frenetic strobing images of people in a club. A title announces that this is "A Heterosexual Movie from Gregg Araki," which I initially figured was just a joke about his reputation, but turned out to have some more thematic significance to the film as a whole. Araki uses the same font as he did in Mysterious Skin, it's interesting to see certain directors always sticking with the same type, such as Kubrick's preference for Futura.

When the film proper begins, the characters' style of speech is notable. They never sound quite natural, sometimes using bigger words than you'd expect them to, and other times using slightly odd turns of phrase, particularly when insulting people. James Duval as Jordan reminds me of a young Keanu, speaking with a perpetual stoner drawl, always about thirty seconds behind what's going on. Despite all the strange stuff they go through, he remains an innocent until the finale. His most notable cluelessness is in the relationship with X, there's clear homosexual undertones, practically overtones, and yet he doesn't seem to get it at all. Scenes are set up to maximize their tension, most notably in the scene by the bed, where they always seem just a few inches away from kissing.

The thematic significance of this becomes apparent later, for most of the film it's just subtext to the relationship between Amy and Jordan. Amy is someone who's incredibly worldly, always desiring to be in control. She takes on the traditionally masculine role in the relationship, driving the car and usually initiating sex, while Jordan plays the role of the ditzy airhead. Normally if you have the attractive stranger, like X, come into the car it would be the man trying to get him out, while the woman is attracted to him. Here it's flipped, which makes for an interesting dynamic.

For Amy, X represents a sexual and intellectual equal. He takes the initiative in their relationship and she seems almost in awe of him. In the scenes where she has sex with Jordan it's all about closeness and love, whereas when she has sex with X, it's more about the spectacle, the novelty of this man and his skill. This is particularly evident in the cowboy hat scene, where Jordan observes her and sees a sexual enjoyment that's deeper than what she experienced with him. I also really like the aesthetics of that scene, the hat and the way the scene is shot make it seem like she's a rodeo rider, using this guy as her own entertainment device.

So the film sets up a basic conflict between the somewhat naive love she has for Jordan, and the more experimental pure sexuality of X. It's not a straight love triangle (pun intended) because Jordan has an attraction to X. He seems almost unaware of it, but it's evident that there's something more than just friendship between these two. The only time he seems to object to X being with Amy is when he wanders away from the room after they're having sex, an action that could be interpreted as despair prompting him out into the desert to reflect, or simply giving them space for what he's doing, almost like a child who caught his parents having sex.

Getting away from the narrative elements, I loved the aesthetics of the film, most notably in the design of the hotel rooms. The initial red room, with cold blue light was very David Lynch, and the way Amy was lit prefigured what Lynch would do with Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway. In that scene, there was also the funny bit with the bluescreen showing through the news anchors' clothes, a nice visual, even if the overall tone of that newscast was a bit too knowingly ironic. The later black and white checker hotel room was another fun bit of design.

The film is very much a mid 90s indie movie. It's got Parker Posey, a character using speed, absurdly excessive violence and frequent trips to a convienence store. At times, the stylized dialogue and bizarre situations can be a bit distancing. It's a case of seeing through the surface sheen and finding the emotions underneath. If you only look on the surface, this is a pretty soulless, excessive movie, you have to dig through that sensationalist stuff to find the real core.

The end of the film takes things to a stylistic melting point, pushing the violence and imagery over the top. If you look at the top of the film, it says "A Heterosexual Movie," which would imply that the film exists within the code of heterosexual society. So, a threesome is okay, but after Amy leaves we see the homosexual relationship between X and Jordan finally about to happen. At the moment he makes a proposition to him, the gang invades their space and attacks Jordan.

Why do they attack Jordan and not X? I would argue it's because X has proven himself to be the superior partner. If we look at the film as a competition between Jordan and X, it's clear that X is the more in control manly guy, even if he does seem to have a strong bi streak. As the film progresses, we at first see Jordan and Amy exclusively together, except for that one time sleeping with X that didn't mean anything. Then they have sex while Jordan's not around, and ultimately there's an implicit agreement that they will share her. By the end, they're on an equal level, flipping a coin to decide who will sleep with her first. There's a critical moment where she looks at the coin, and could easily lie and choose Jordan over X, but she doesn't, and it's more clear than ever here that X has moved ahead of Jordan in her affections.

He opens her up to new things sexually, that she then uses when she's with Jordan, and ultimately X feels free to move in on the two of them and make it a three. This moment revisits the earlier scene where we see the three of them in bed together, but there it's played as the height of love for Jordan and Amy, alone together, despite the presence of X. Here it's Jordan who gets lost in the shuffle, he's no longer enough for her own his own, he needs the aid of X.

So, Jordan is now irrelevant, he has been replaced. The gang at the end is representative of normalizing society, competition between two men over a woman is okay, but for the two men to be together themselves is unacceptable, one of them has to go, and clearly it's going to be Jordan. He's the boy, while X is a man. Considering this is a film where the characters' primary mode of expression is their sexuality, the moment when Jordan is castrated is equivalent to death, he now has no chance to compete with X, and as a result, he must go.

The sequence itself is harrowing and intense. The use of the American flag, national anthem and swatiska by the same group is meant to equate the restrictions within the country on homosexuality with similar restrictions in nazi Germany. This gang of blonde haired, blue eyed men is out to destroy those who are not compatible with their worldview. The moment when Amy turns their weapon against them is particularly satisfying.

In some respects, I wish the film ended on that dramatically intense note, instead of the just there finale, but that scene is crucial for a couple of reasons. One is to show that X and Amy are now together, and Jordan is left behind. A new relationship is forged between the two adults, the two men, and the child is left behind. The other is to show that even after all this extreme violence, things are still going on the way they were before.

I'm not sure if it was out at the time, but the title may very well be a reference to the videogame, Doom. Araki's statement seems to be that this generation is so used to extreme violence that it is numb to them, and even after all they've done, the only X has to say is "Dorito?" The weak and innocent are left behind, it is the strong cynics who survive.

I really liked the film, I think it's visually inventive and thematically challenging, even if it did drag a little bit at times. That's largely because there is very little narrative, and there's no traditional tension. In theory, we're worried that the police will catch them, but that's not really a pressing concern. It's basically these people living their lives, upended by a burst of ultraviolence in the finale. In that respect, it's not unlike the late 60s youth films, like Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde, that both relied on the romantic myth of the open road and the power of progressive youth to combat outmoded society.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I thought the movie was disgusting and sad.

Unknown said...

What car are they driving??

amber hallett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.