GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Strand Releasing, 1993
Starring: James Duvall, Roko Belic, Susan Behshid, Jenee Gill, Gilbert Luna, Lance May, Alan Boyce, Craig Gilmore
Unrated, 85 minutes
I've always had a love-hate relationship with out director Gregg Araki's films. Back in 1992, I discovered The Living End, a demented road trip with two HIV+ men who lash back against an indifferent world. Though amateurish in spots, and at times poorly acted, it was nevertheless hip and gleeful in its anarchy. Visually, it recalled the agitprop of Jean Luc Godard's films; a torch passed from 60s Marxist cinema to the new wave of queer films in the 90s. Araki has himself acknowledged his debt to Godard's Pierrot Le Fou. Warts and all, Araki's self-proclaimed "irresponsible movie" was the film that Jonathan Demme's compromised Philadelphia should have been. Coming after too many years of watching gay men and women as victims on the silver screen, The Living End was both a bolt of lightning and a breath of fresh air.
His next film, Totally F***ed Up (this is the title, the asterisks are not mine or my editor's) has just been released on DVD. Continuing in the same vein of guerrilla filmmaking, Totally F***ed Up explores teen angst from a queer perspective in "15 random celluloid fragments." Six gay and lesbian teenagers, aged 18-19, share their thoughts on sexuality, drugs, and politics ("AIDS is a born again Nazi Republican wet dream come true") for a friend's video camera. Their ruminations are interspersed throughout the film's narrative.
Meet the eclectic and multi-cultural cast: Andy, aged 18 and depressed, is uptight about everything - especially sex. Tommy, on the other hand calls sex "pure bliss... a little moment of heaven in this hell on earth." Michelle and Patricia are a young, and very romantic, lesbian couple. Steven, the Latino filmmaker who is videotaping his friends, is dating a black man named Deric but feels suffocated by the relationship.
Watching teens sitting around and whining about their problems is usually the last way that I would want to spend an evening, but what these kids have to say, even the immature stuff, add up to a microcosm of gay teen life. They express how difficult being gay has been for all of them, and how much rage they harbor against society. But there is also a plot going on inbetween the talking heads. Andy finds romance and loses it, Tommy just wants to get laid, Michelle and Patricia want all of their gay male friends to donate sperm at a party so that they can have a child, and Steven is cheating on Deric. This is The Breakfast Club on acid.
The film feels improvisational even though most of the dialogue matches the published script. The actors do a good job and they talk the way disenchanted teens would. (Luckily, Araki learned a thing or two about how to write lesbian characters since his previous film, and this almost makes up for the two man-hating dykes featured in The Living End's worst scene). Though the tone is dark, there are doses of hearty humor, Watch, for example, the scene where the stoned ensemble plays a dating game for young pubescent girls and Patricia remarks that "heterosexuality sucks even as a board game."
When they're not speaking directly to a video camera, they are props in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. Alienation is the major theme as these young slackers drift through empty parking ramps, late night video stores, a deserted car wash, alleys adorned with graffiti. In several visual nods to Godard, they often stand underneath huge billboards that comment on a capitalist society that these kids have thoroughly rejected. Blurry video of bad public service commercials, The 700 Club, and slasher films flash on the screen, sometimes interspersed with titles like "The young and the hopeless." We are watching an activist director expressing his rage onscreen.
This is not a conventional movie by any means. Some viewers might be annoyed with the film's technique. I admire the fractured narrative, but there are moments when I wish Araki - who cut the movie as well as wrote, photographed, and directed it - had some input from another film editor. Even so, the film would lose much of its power if it was tainted with any studio gloss. Mirroring 60s foreign films, the early 90s was a time when queer films were experimental and filmmakers were pushing the envelope (see also Tom Kalin's Swoon and Todd Haynes' Poison). Such films usually aren't good box office, but their artistic integrity remains intact.
The DVD features a director and cast commentary but it would have been nice to hear more about Araki's politics and cinematic influences instead of whose apartments the various scenes were filmed in. But Totally F***ed Up is back in print and this is a good thing. Araki's newest film, Mysterious Skin, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has recently opened to widespread critical acclaim. We haven't heard the last of Gregg Araki yet.
Craig Gilmore also