Araki fascinates me. My first experience of his cinema was The Living End, which I saw at least close to the year it was released (1992), I believe theatrically. I would have been about 24. I don't recall why I sought it out; probably just because I was exploring any independent cinema that I heard mention of, and read some positive press for it, but possibly also because I was interested in learning about gay cinema; I was watching Derek Jarman and Monika Treut films back then, too, for instance. These were the good old days in Maple Ridge, when I would commute by bus to Videomatica, rent five films or so, usually by a director I was trying to learn about, or maybe that I'd just heard something interesting about, and bring them back to the 'burbs, dub them onto my own VHS tapes during an all night session - sometimes three to a tape; remember EP mode? (or SLP, as it was sometimes known?) Then I'd return the rentals the next day, bussing all the way back into Kitsilano. I had no real cinematic map, more just a series of threads that I was following; I wouldn't have known - though I see it now - that The Living End is very much an exercise, stylistically, in Godard-worship (tho' now that I'm rewatching it, it reminds me more, formally, of another exercise in Godard-worship, Reg Harkema's Monkey Warfare, than Godard per se... perhaps because I am shamefully undereducated when it comes to Godard...). Anyhow, I heard about The Living End and I watched it and I really liked it.
I should mention that I stand in a strange relationship to the queer community. Despite having written for awhile for Xtra West, I can't really call myself gay, never having acted on any homoerotic impulse I might have had, unless you count the times I tried to fellate myself, or a couple of episodes from my childhood that were more about curiosity than sex, or certain thoughts that have flickered in my head from time to time, or that one time, that one time, I actually set out to meet this guy who offered to blow me, but couldn't find his address, which was kind of a relief... I don't think that these things give me the right to call myself "gay," whatever might go on in my head. The vast majority of my sexual thoughts are for the female of the species, and experimenting seems too complicated, too potentially identity-destablizing. Plus really I DO like the thought of going down on women WAYYYYY more than the thought of going down on guys. That's really what it boils down to, innit? I know very well what a penis does at the point of orgasm and I am quite happy not to have that happen in my mouth. It's bad enough having it all over my hand.
Though if the autofellatio thing had worked I probably would have gone for it.
(Okay, I can sense your curiosity, so, like - it's a yoga pose, modified. You gotta be pretty supple, but I think with enough practice, almost any man can learn how to blow himself, sort of. After a few months of regular yoga, and a warmup - because you could hurt yourself quite easily doing this - you lie with the top of your head about two feet from the wall, at a 90 degree angle, back on the floor, nice and straight, and raise your feet up over your head, so that they touch the wall; and then you "walk down the wall," toes pointing towards the floor, bending your knees so they head towards your ears, as your spine curves and you start to feel the blood pounding in your temples. With the weight of your folding body acting on you, gravity pushing your ass down further, your cock, if you're a male reader, will eventually be dangling just above your face, and if you crane your neck up, you can fit it between your lips. You can tongue the tip of it. You might even be able to get it so it's in your mouth. And then you'll discover the ultimate irony, the black joke at the end of the pretzel, because, with your cock in your mouth - something that, if you're at all like me, you have long wondered about - your back, neck, and head will be in such horrible discomfort, and your blood will be so oddly distributed in your body, that there will be no way in hell that you could get an erection, let alone come. The horse, led to water, blinks at you with his one eye, head hanging down, and your balls sure look ugly that close to your face, and after about fifteen minutes of screaming discomfort, you give up and unfurl, feeling sore and kind of pissed off. You will try it again three more times over the next few months to establish the futility of the endeavour, then give up and stop doing yoga; what fucking good is it?).
Anyhow, The Living End is a road movie and, really, a very dark comedy, about two HIV positive men - this made when AIDS was still spreading rampant through the gay community and killing people in vast numbers - whose mortality, their long lists of infected friends, and their awareness that the political and straight establishments don't much care, drive them to a sort of odd criminal freedom. A homophobe insults one of our (queer) heroes on the street, and so said hero beats the homophobe to death with a ghetto blaster; why the hell not? Why obey any law, respect any convention of a society that has turned its back on you? A title in the film labels it "an irresponsible movie by Gregg Araki," but it was very, very well-liked, angry for the right reasons, and - dark as it gets, is, I think, positive and funny and clear-headed. (It's also been reissued in DVD format - the first proper release - with a commentary by Araki, restored sound, and remixed audio, and it looks great). In the very straight suburbs, pretty insulated from the gay scene, most of the reason I liked it, aside from my being able to pin some sort of liberal-brownie-point-button to my chest for digging a queer film, was because I also felt an outsider sexually. As a geeky, overweight, cerebral, socially clueless, terrified and intense young man - who at that point in his life was dropping acid twice weekly, reading WAY too much Nietzsche, and - well, I think I'll leave some details out, but suffice it to say, women stayed VERY far away from me, and I felt pretty lost and unloved (by anyone but my parents and a few friends, mind you). Certainly I didn't get laid. So I felt good to see someone raising a cry for some other version of sexuality than the one that had disenfranchised me, even if he was speaking from some place rumour'd to have been Sodom, where I'd never actually been (I love that poem, by the way).
(Oh, well - actually, have I been to Sodom? This essay by Leo Bersani, "Is the Rectum a Grave," convinced me that I should "reclaim" my anus as a site of sexual pleasure and overcome whatever trepidation I felt about touching or penetrating it... but that was strictly a solo act, you understand. No, really, I'm not gay. Really. I hope Michael V. Smith doesn't read this - he'll tease me about it, I'm sure.)
Then I saw The Doom Generation, in a chopped up VHS release. It wasn't until I got to Japan that I'd realize how wonderful that film was, being able to view it more-or-less uncut. Araki very carefully contrives to set us up on a certain trajectory: a straight young couple of punked-up, nihilistic-seemin', but oddly innocent kids hook up with a sort of dark bisexual demon, an odd tempter who seems to have stepped out of The Living End with an even fiercer sense of purpose to obey no law but his own. He flirts with both of them. Their "ride" with this figure - because it's also a road movie of sorts - is a ride further and further out from "normalcy," including a safely hetero-normative world; just as we move to greater and greater acts of lawlessness, assenting when our heroes have to rob a convenience store or kill someone in self-defense, Araki slowly and intelligently teases us with the male-male flirtation in the film until we REALLY want to see them get it on. (SPOILERS FOLLOW, skip to the next paragraph if that's an issue). And then, at the peak of sexual tensions between the two men, a crew of fucked up homophobic jocks, who have surfaced now and then in the film to demonstrate how screwed up American youth's ideas of love and romance can be, burst onto the scene and castrate and kill the innocent young man whom the audience has most identified with up to that point, while the American flag waves and, if I recall correctly, the "Star Spangled Banner" plays. It's an amazing film, politically and morally. It's also really fuckin' fun to watch, as Araki pushes our buttons and winks at us. There's much more to it than I will even try to do justice to here.
It was also the last Araki film I really liked. I missed Nowhere, partially due to the format shift from VHS to DVD; I never got around to it when I had access to it, and now I don't even have a VHS player hooked up, were I to find a copy, which is not easy to do. (It's only available on DVD in Europe and Australia, to my knowledge; there's still no Region 1 release). Splendor and Mysterious Skin both seemed compromised in various ways - Splendor an attempt to get wider audience appeal, by making a too-too likable, toned down bisexual comedy for the youth market, while Mysterious Skin seemed a rather flat attempt to ingratiate himself with the arthouse crowd. As such, it worked, in that it was widely distributed and well-reviewed, but the best I can say for it was that it made me very curious about his next film; it had nothing of the toothy, razor-edged grin of the films of his I liked most, none of the perverse inventiveness. It just wasn't shit-disturbing enough. Araki seemed to be struggling to find a location for himself as a filmmaker, an audience, a mode of address that suited him and gave him a place in the mainstream. I preferred him as a cult taste.
About a year ago, I heard Araki had completed a new film, and got very excited about the prospect of interviewing him, perhaps for Xtra West, for whom I was still writing at that time. The film was some sort of pothead comedy with little-or-no queer content. I contacted the distributors to try to arrange an interview with Araki. To my amazement, they wouldn't set it up. It took me around a dozen emails to establish this. They weren't sure if they were going to bother with a theatrical release of the film; it might just get dumped onto DVD, and I guess they just didn't think it was worth it. They suggested I contact Araki's people through IMDBPro. They blew me off. Later I heard other stories, of a major film festival that wanted to play the film, and was denied a print. I didn't know what to assume: either Araki had made a film that was atrociously, unwatchably bad, an embarrassment to be associated with, or else he'd delivered something too politically dangerous to be a safe consumable. Something that scared the executives and led to their sabotaging the very film they were supposed to be distributing.
Which would mean, maybe, that he'd returned to form. The very burial of the film got me kind of excited about it. And I made a resolve to see it - though I also resolved not to try too hard. I figured that eventually it would cross my path.
It was released several months ago on DVD (I'm guessing on April 20th); I've attentively watched to see when people might acknowledge that the movie exists. This very week, copies finally made it into the rack at HMV. And yes, it's a return to form; it's a delight - it has all the energy and charm and passion of the best of Araki's early films, while being nowhere as dark; and the higher you are when you watch it, the better, REALLY. It is a shame that this film didn't find it's proper audience, was handled in such a cowardly and indifferent fashion. It's a dose of good medicine in dark times. It's on the side of the good guys. And there are delightful cameos - notably Harold and Kumar's John Cho. I won't say anything more about it right now, but trust me - especially if you smoke a bit now and then - it's a film to see, even better with friends. Make some special cupcakes and have a party.