Friday, September 08, 2006


The journey through Gregg Araki's filmography comes to a close (for now) with Splendor. Every successful indie director usually reaches a point where they are offered a mainstream project, and the success of this project will determine whether they "sell out" or continue in the indie world. Splendor certainly isn't your everyday romantic comedy, but it's so toned down from the excess of The Doom Generation and Nowhere that it can't help but feel like a stab at mainstream success. This is like Dazed and Confused after Slacker, or Mallrats after Clerks, a film that takes the director's idiosyncracies and fits them into a more mainstream form, in this case the romantic comedy. For Linklater, doing a mainstream film actually helped curb some of the excesses of Slacker and made for a fantastic, albeit unprofitable, film. Splendor is more like Mallrats in that it feels like Araki made some concessions to the mainstream that ended up blunting that which was so unique about him. Splendor isn't a bad film, it's just one that that's not particularly unique.

That said, the first half hour or so is very successful, and very Araki. The Halloween club scene, with intense blue light, is right out of The Doom Generation and Veronica is like a female version of James Duval's characters in those films, naive, yet full of strong desire that will drive her through the film. I really like the device of Veronica speaking directly to the camera. For one, those shots are gorgeous, with the ethereal white background and rings of light in her eyes.

Tracking back a bit, it's interesting how Araki uses near identical openings for all his films. We usually start on a white background with white letters on top, ethereal music playing as the camera pans down to a scene. I love the opening shots here, and the way the white soon fades into purple, it's fantastic visual stuff.

A film like The Doom Generation is notable for its complete visual assault on the audience. But, as Splendor forges ahead, we get less and less of visual interest. The opening club scenes give way to a rather standard domestic scenario, becoming more and more mundane as the film goes on. I'm guessing that the opening visual intensity is designed to disguise the fact that what we're watching is essentially exposition, but I'd rather watch this interesting exposition than the plot stuff that happens later.

The plot itself is at once transgressive, in its basic conceit, and totally ordinary, fitting the mold of countless romantic comedies. When the film begins, we're presented with a love triangle with no easy resolution, two guys who each have their own unique merits. When combined as one, they become the perfect guy, the fusion of physical and mental prowess serving as the ideal mate for Veronica. I found this pretty interesting, the troubles they have trying to navigate life as a threesome. I think there was more potential for comedy there, particularly in putting them in contact with more 'normal' social situations, maybe bringing in a character who knew Veronica back in her suburban home, directly contrasting her old life with her new.

Though I suppose that role was filled by Ernest. Ernest is a classic romantic comedy character, the nice guy who seems perfect for her, except for the fact that she doesn't love him. Once he enters the film, things start to descend. I was still emotionally involved in the story, but I wasn't really sure how to feel. On the one hand, Veronica doesn't love him, but at the same time, the story goes out of its way to make Ernest seem like this perfect guy, it feels a bit cruel for her to string him along then dump him. It's a bit of a cliche to make the romantic rival into a jerk, but that's done for a reason, because it makes it easier for the audience to get behind the heroine dumping him for the guy she really loves. In this case, the two guys seem so slackerish and unproductive, and Veronica so dissatisfied with them, that it's hard to accept that she has a deep love for them.

But, that's what the story's about. I think the ending is particularly troubling, with the really goofy jumping off the hotel balcony bit, which feels like a much different film. This, for all the goofiness, had a generally real world feel. But that final stunt felt like something out of an Adam Sandler movie.

In the end, Veronica's decision to embrace her alternative lifestyle ties directly in to Araki's central theme of people growing up and leaving behiind the repressive power structures of generations past. This is dramatized in a crazy way in The Doom Generation, and also represented in the totally out of touch parental figures in Nowhere. But it feels the most like Mysterious Skin, where Wendy has to choose between staying in Kansas and growing up to live her parents' life or heading for, and embracing the big city.

The film has most of Araki's thematic and stylistic tropes, but they're shoehorned into a conventional romantic comedy structure that really limits him. Mysterious Skin does a much better job of moving out of the hyper style of TDG and Nowhere and into more sedate, 'mature' filmmaking without sacrificing his visual style or narrative ambition. But, Splendor was a necessary step along the way.

Looking ahead, his next film is Smiley Face, a stoner comedy, which could be another attempt to move into the mainstream. He could play it as an over the top insane journey, a la Nowhere, but I'm guessiing it will be more restrained and conventional. Will this be successful, and more importantly will it be good? I'm still hoping that he gets Creeeeps going, that one's been talked about for a while, but doesn't seem to be making much forward progress.

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