The Doom Generation
It is always fascinating to observe the complex
manifestations of intolerance among film viewers – and reviewers.
If a movie is experimental in its style or form, it is
often instantly dismissed as elitist or self-indulgent – possibly
the least meaningful terms of abuse in the annals of film criticism. Likewise,
if a movie speaks to a specific lifestyle or political interest – even if the “cause”
at stake is as vast and central to our society as feminism, racial equality or
gay & lesbian rights – it is predictably derided for displaying a “ghetto
mentality”. Never be too specific with your message, filmmakers!
The populist reflex – so sadly prevalent in Australia
– is to take any film that is markedly different almost as a personal
affront: how dare it not gear itself wholly to the mythical ‘common person’? Re/viewers
often appear to assume that that if a movie isn’t speaking to them (as
representatives of common people, of course), then it shouldn’t even be allowed
to exist. This is why gay/lesbian or feminist films, for example, sometimes are
only able to receive praise from the mainstream media if they can somehow be
construed as having a universal message and appeal. This is pure
ideology in action: universalism has never been less universal.
In this reactionary light, Gregg Araki’s resolutely
perverse and transgressive The Doom
Generation is a film I deeply admire. There are two aspects of it, two
contexts that I find particularly appealing: a queer cinema context, and an
underground cinema context.
Underground filmmaking is different from independent
cinema – which is mainly what we get to see at our certified arthouse theatres –
and equally different, again, from experimental cinema. But the underground
definitely overlaps with both independent and experimental cinema, influencing
one, drawing from the other.
The most familiar figure of underground cinema is Andy Warhol. His films are more joked about or
mythologised than actually seen, but I’m here to tell you that they (or as many
of them as I’ve been able to view) are extraordinary. Warhol was not an
experimental purist like Stan Brakhage, making
abstract, painterly films. Warhol used people, his tawdry-yet-glamorous “superstars”
like Edie Sedgewick, placing them in weird, quasi-narrative situations in front
of his mainly static camera. It was downbeat, camp, decadently theatrical
cinema (a big part of it, as it evolved, was due to Andy’s back-up guy Paul Morrissey). But this underground style had started
before Warhol, involving artists such as the legendary Jack Smith, and it
continues past Warhol in punk filmmakers like Jon Moritsugu (who must surely be a big influence on Araki).
Underground filmmaking is rough and ready stuff. It’s
always been allied with proudly makeshift artistic practices – like American
funk art in the 1960s, or the punk music scene of the ‘70s, militant super-8
filmmaking in the ‘80s, and nowadays, various aspects of the grunge culture
roaming like a bad smell through many art forms and media.
It’s easy to mistake the underground style for bad
filmmaking – that is, if you’ve never seen anything like it before. In The
Doom Generation, the special effects are ridiculous, the dialogue is
shambling and obscene, the art direction is painfully lurid, and even the basic
story line is a cornball joke. Everything, in other words, is screamingly
artificial, and intended to be such. All its themes and messages are emblazoned
like tabloid headlines. It’s a veritable cinema of attractions, to hijack
Tom Gunning’s useful term – but in a proudly trashy vein.
Araki is a militantly gay, Asian-American filmmaker
who (like Todd Haynes) was schooled in the 1970s poststructuralism transmitted
in the cinema theory university courses of the time. Classical aesthetic order
is not on his agenda; rather, he seeks to multiply starkly different moods, textures,and types of scenes, to create ruptures and alienation
effects, often via gross-out humour and gory horror-movie apparitions. All characters
are stereotypes; all performances are histrionic; all plot moves are signalled
and parodied as purely generic, as well as symptomatic of conservative social
values. Formal values are insisted on for themselves, in strident, garish
colour schemes, frantic passages of montage, and a loud, abrasive
music-and-noise score that (à la Jean-Luc
Godard) cuts in and out at the director’s will rather than subtly underlining
the drama’s modulations and articulations.
Here’s the set-up in The Doom Generation. We’ve
got three no-future Generation-X teens on the run, driving on that proverbial Road
to Nowhere. There’s Jordan (James Duval), an angelic, tender teen (in the Keanu
Reeves mould) dopily philosophising about existence. Amy (Rose McGowan), who
looks rather like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction (1994), but talks dirtier and lives at a more insane edge of hyperreality. And,
in-between these young, spaced-out lovers, male-model-type “X” (Johnathon
Schaech) – “supernaturally sexy”, according to Araki – who is somewhat a ‘90s
teen update of Terence Stamp’s role in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968): he’s
both angel and demon, seducer and sociopath.
Together, the three form a rough but compelling ensemble.
The film’s best and funniest moments come when Araki crowds all three faces, in
close-up, into absurdly claustrophobic frames, and observes their screwy
interactions. Never underestimate the comical power of many-faces-in-a-frame! Inadvertently
bad films commit this specific crime all the time, leaving audiences rolling in
the aisles in the face of such weird ineptness; Araki, on the other hand, goes
for the badness-effect intentionally.
Every time the trio stops off for a hit of junk food,
they encounter one or other gang of horrendous, predatory, local hicks. Someone
always gets killed, and someone else always vows revenge against our dazed and
confused heroes. And so the plot jump-starts along, in fits and jolts: a brazen
combination of ‘60s Godard, Reality TV, and Oliver Stone’s undeniable cultural benchmark, Natural Born Killers (1994). Without forgetting to chuck in the
extra-cinematic influences of Pop Art, tabloid journalism (the Samuel Fuller touch), and a wide cross-section of punk
and post-punk music history. “I’m a sponge”, says Araki, and his soak is true.
I should be frank and let you know that The Doom
Generation is basically a sex movie – like a lot of underground films,
which border on, or dive deep into, pornographic territory (if you get a
chance, take a look at Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack! , for
instance). The sexuality of underground movies is an infinite topic. Underground
cinema always was, since at least the 1950s, a provocative, angry, cheeky
spearhead of queer cinema. There’s certainly always been a lot of perverse
stuff going on in the films of the prolific George Kuchar.
In fact, I’m surprised that the current festivals and events devoted to queer cinema
(in Australia, at any rate) don’t revisit these crucial precursors of the
movement (such as Kuchar, Jack Smith, or indeed Warhol
himself) more often. Maybe they’d be judged just a bit too experimental, a bit
too demanding for queer audiences that want to be entertained by the latest
heart-warming Jodie Foster comedy – and if so, that’s a crying shame.
Old underground movies are truly queer in a very 1960s
way: they both preach and practice open bisexuality as a Utopian ideal. In
these often grey days of identity politics and theories of “difference”, it
doesn’t seem we hear the ideal, the mad dream of bisexuality-for-all celebrated
the way it was, say, 30 years ago. That’s why a film such as Cyril Collard’s
tremendous Savage Nights (1992), a bisexual movie which doesn’t give a
fig about the protocols of identity politics, is such an unsettling and
provocative movie in the ‘90s, even in progressive circles. (Note: Collard died
in 1993 at age 35 from AIDS-related illness.)
What kind of queer underground movie is The Doom
Generation? It promotes itself, rather brilliantly, as “a heterosexual
movie by Gregg Araki”. The director’s faithful, regular audience (his niche
market, I guess) immediately gets the point of this joke: it’s an announcement
that the movie is a masquerade, a movie featuring straight characters and
straight sex, but made by a militantly gay director. This kind of masquerade is
the quintessential defining gesture of today’s queer cinema – except, here, the
cross-dressing and identity-switching (or whatever you want to call it) is
going on behind the camera, not in front of it.
However, I’ve noticed a rather troubling tendency in
the press coverage of The Doom Generation to want to pin down its
sexuality, fix the exact identity behind the masquerade. For instance, the largely
sympathetic review by Paul Byrnes in the Sydney Morning Herald [2022
note: he’s still in the job] specified that, no matter who does what to whom
sexually in this film, the filmmaker’s gaze is always male and gay. Hmmm …
One very discomfited reviewer in a Melbourne newspaper
went a whole lot further than this. He seemed to be freaked out as much by the
film’s underground style as by all the queer sexual politics surrounding its
arrival on our shores. In a state of sheer hallucination, he decided that it
was in fact a “heterophobic”’ film, baiting
and demonising all mere straights on the screen or in the stalls. He went on to
observe that, in his eyes, the film was offering the message that when straights
are killed, that’s fun, but when queers die, that’s serious and tragic. He’s referring
to the fact that a terrible fate eventually befalls one of the main teens,
while a horde of ugly Americans get killed in various gross ways throughout.
That’s pretty much the way it went in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), too, or just about any
film that has fancy lovers-on-the-run pitted against a frigid, strait-jacketed
society. But The Doom Generation is simply not a queer version of Bonnie
and Clyde. No strictly gay sex happens in it. There is certainly the hint
of the possibility of this firing between Jordan and X – but the fact that it’s
posed as possibility puts us into an entirely different arena.
Actually, The Doom Generation – and this is
what I like about it – has a lot more in common with Savage Nights than
with contemporary sophisticated gay films from America like Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992) or Haynes’ Poison (1991). And I
believe that Araki has a soul link with historic underground heroes like Kuchar and McDowell. Araki sees his teen triangle of
characters as “more omni-sexual than anything else”, and he’s dead right. This
is a sex-film refreshingly free of moral qualms and conventional psychological
hang-ups – those usual cop-outs from non-stop erotic action.
In their state of adventurous innocence, these kids
explore any drive, any possibility which presents itself to them. Once they
become a threesome, it is only logical that an openly pan-sexual Utopia is the
next step in their rollicking crusade of liberation. And this whole omni-sexual
aura inevitably spreads from in front of the camera to behind it – and into the
audience, too. So I can’t agree with Byrnes that Araki’s gaze remains at all
times male and gay: it’s an omni-sexual gaze, and it creates a movie which is intensely
erotic. How’s your own gaze going, by the way?
Ultimately, I take the deepest theme of the film to be
as follows. An unfettered queer/bisexual/omni-sexual lifestyle is given to us
as a Utopian dream – it’s just out of reach of the characters, just out of the
reach of the film, just out of our reach as well. What sharpens the collective
longing for this dream is the fact that it contradicts and collides with cold,
hard reality – which, in this case, means the violent, repressive reality of
contemporary American life. An end credit informs us that the film was “shot on
location in Hell”. Araki – to put this in classic sociological terms – pits the
radical openness of youth against a nation’s soulless, fascistic,
fundamentalist, moral majority.
Now, to write it out like that, it sounds simplistic, even
adolescent. But The Doom Generation is not a sensible, well-reasoned,
political argument. It’s an angry, intense, expressionistic piece of
underground Pop Art. And, on that level, it is utterly persuasive.
© Adrian Martin March–April 1996 / February 2006