Thursday, August 24, 2006


My film watching pattern is usually to find a director I like then watch all the films he's done. It started with Tim Burton and I've since gone through a whole bunch of other directors. One of my current people is Gregg Araki. Mysterious Skin was good enough to make me want to see everything else he'd done and that's led me to Nowhere.

Nowhere is clearly stylistically indebted to Araki's previous feature, The Doom Generation. TDG took place in a stylized cartoon universe where characters spoke in an odd, unnatural style and everything was overplayed to a severe degree. Nowhere is set in the same basic universe, but an even more schizophrenic over the top world than The Doom Generation. And, unlike The Doom Generation's narrow focus on three character, Nowhere wanders through a whole bunch of plots, using a similar structure to American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused.

Because this is such a short film, only 78 minutes, and there's so many characters, what you take away from it is more the style, both in terms of production design and also editing. Everything is pushed to extremes, the lighting casts the characters in bold, primary colors and particularly towards the end bares very little resemblance to what we know as reality. I think this is a fantastic choice, the whole point of the film is to push real life tendencies to the extreme and using the set design to parallel character feelings takes advantage of what only film can do. I've never seen another film, besides The Doom Generation, that looks like this, and that's a big compliment.

The opening sequence is actually the high point of the film, as rapid editing shows Dark's masturbation fantasy. I love the transitions between different scenes, showing the different elements of the character's sexuality, and the conflict presented here is what will drive him throughout the film. It's a really dynamic opening for the film, perfectly scored by Araki's choice of music.

The early moments of this film remind me a lot of Totally F***ed Up, the first film in the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy. The videotape diary is the most obvious example, but also the way the characters interact. Outside of the moments of stylization, the jealousy and sense of abandon are right out of TFU. The major change is that TFU takes place in a world that's essentially our reality, while this film takes place in a totally exaggerated world. Outside of Mel and Dark, pretty much everyone is a caricature, right down to their names, like Christina Applegate's Dingbat, whose kitten sweater and braces are the most obvious stereotype of a geeky girl.

The b characters, particularly the celebrity cameos like Rose McGowan and Heather Graham all feel completely unreal. Heather Graham's Lilith has no character traits whatsoever outside of the fact that she likes to have sex. But in this film, that's fine, Araki's goal isn't to promote an emotional reaction, it's more about immersing you in his stylistic world. So, we don't really care what happens to Lilith, no more than we do about Elvis and Alyssa, but it's still enjoyable to watch them because of the way Araki constructs a scene.

In this respect, the film is very different from The Doom Generation. There, we had the heavy surface stylization, but there was also a lot of thematic exploration and emotion. The ending of The Doom Generation, when the characters have a threesome, is a strong emotional payoff for what we've been through. Then, the intrusion of the neo-nazis is a really disturbing moment, both because of Araki's strobe heavy presentation and because we care about these characters and don't want to see them hurt.

Here, that emotional connection is lost, so we only watch for the style and presentation of events. That's fine because most of the film is pretty light and consequence free, however, it causes problems in the moments of real emotional violence. In such a cartoony film, it's disturbing to see a realistic rape scene. It just feels out of character with the rest of the film. The tomato soup beatdown at the end is still disturbing, but fits into the world better. And, I love the way he can get away with a ridiculous amount of blood by throwing the tomato soup into the scene. For the viewer, there's no difference between the two.

Sometime between watching The Doom Generation and this, I actually saw a picture of Gregg Araki, and there's quite a resemblance between him and James Duval, which would lead me to assume there's a good bit of autobiography behind Dark here. Dark is the only character who's really developed, and to some extent, I think his very real issue of being torn between the sexually free world he lives in and the more traditional relationship part of him wants is perfect fodder for a serious film. However, here the moments that are actually emotional wind up feeling a bit out of place.

The biggest issue with this is in the final scene with Montgomery. On one hand, I love the absurdity of Montgomery returning from an alien abduction, and the idea of an alien just wandering the town in general. However, the scene slows everything down and feels like it's from another movie. It might have worked if this was a movie based in reality that was just paced really quickly, but we have no basis for processing real emotion so it winds up feeling off. I do like the end when Montgomery turns into a bug and flies away, it's a really nice, bizarre note to close the film on.

Nowhere was a really fun film to watch, but it lacks the thematic depth of The Doom Generation, or Araki's later Mysterious Skin. It's primarily of interest as a style piece, and there it works wonderfully. Araki always picks perfect music to accompany his images, and this film works as his Fallen Angels, pushing everything to an extreme before a retreat to something a bit more conservative. I'm interested to see where he goes next, Smiley Face sounds like a rather mainstream teen comedy, but I'm sure he'll bring something crazy to it.

The one really lingering question from Nowhere for me is how was this made? This is a really odd film, yet Araki managed to get tons of stars to appear. I'm really glad that he got the freedom to do this kind of film with such a high profile cast, but it perplexes me how it happened. I don't see this film getting a wide release or appealing to a mainstream audience. But at least a really personal, unique film can still be made in America.

No comments: