The Doom Generation

(Gregg Araki, USA/France, 1995)


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! [1975], 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.

MORE Araki: Now Apocalypse, Mysterious Skin

© Adrian Martin March–April 1996 / February 2006

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search