Monday, June 29, 2009

Is Gregg Araki Mad (Cowgirl)?

I am totally biased and nothing you say will ever sway me. Despite the gratuitous violence and sick plotlines that reveal a director that revels in prurient interests, I am an unabashed Gregg Araki fan. Gregg Araki can do no wrong. Even when he is wrong, he is 100% right for me. If I were a gay man, I would want to be Gregg Araki. Heck, I love my life and I still wouldn’t mind being Gregg Araki for a day.

Gregg Araki is the director of the cult classics The Living End, The Doom Generation, Nowhere, Splendor, and Smiley Face. He also directed the more widely distributed Mysterious Skin, and the lesser known films, Totally F***ed Up, The Long Weekend (O’Despair) and Three Bewildered People in the Night. He wrote a pilot for MTV called This is How the World Ends, but it never made it as a regular series. I have had the privilege of seeing The Living End, The Doom Generation, Splendor, Smiley Face and Mysterious Skin (almost all of which I own). Totally F***ed Up is now on my Netflix cue. A brief summary of each:

1) The Living End is a very low-budget film about two guys driving around L.A., in a desperate state because they are both HIV positive. The early Araki film was the groundwork for Araki’s talent at writing witty, L.A.-based dialogue. There are also some slick shots of locales and the two actors are chosen well. They are attractive but not too glossy; they have edge, which is necessary for the dark humor of Araki films. This is an okay starting point, but towards the end, the film falls flat.

2) The Doom Generation has cameos by Heidi Fleiss, Perry Farrell and Parker Posey. In my opinion, it is the film that allowed Rose McGowan to do everything she has done in Hollywood. James Duval (Keanu Reeves for the underground set) is perfect as the guy who goes along with pretty much anything, probably because it feels good, and Johnathan Schaech was doing things like How to Make an American Quilt before DG demonstrated to the public that he was perfectly nasty enough to be the next B-Blue-Movie Star. This over-the-top film is another road trip where Jordan and Amy (Duval and McGowan) are forced into becoming serial killers after they pick up Xavier (Schaech). When Netflix first started, there were LOTS of posts calling Doom Generation the worst movie in existence. Now, Facebook has several fan pages devoted to the movie and its director. The reasons why it has a cult following include the visually interesting artistic design that owes a lot to raves and DJ culture, the hilarious dry dialogue (think Tarantino with queer call-you-out edge and female rhythm that plays both bawdy and soft notes), the sexy actors, and a killer soundtrack. This is the film that begins to display Araki’s world appropriately.

3) If DG began to display the Araki imagination, Nowhere sealed the space and made it concrete. The dialogue is fast and offensive, the framing of the color-saturated shots is always perfect, and the insistence on reminding the viewer that Araki can marry the high-tech with the ridiculously low-budget into a fabulous union is key. Nowhere is a day in the life of a college kid, Dark, who just wants to find someone to love. Unfortunately, his plan is thwarted by his slutty girlfriend and a pesky alien. This film also includes a sort-of-road trip to find JuJyFruit’s party. Expect to see pretty much everyone who has been a player in Hollywood for the past few decades: Rachel True, Debi Mazar, Ryan Phillipe, Heather Graham, Gibby Haynes, Denise Richards, Beverly D’Angelo, two of the Brady Bunch kids, Mena Suvari, Traci Lords, Shannon Doherty, Chiara Mastroianni, Scott Caan…and there are a lot more! I have to shout out Guillermo Díaz, too, who actually starred in a New York production of Vincent’s play, Bong Hits. Some might write-off the film as shallow, but to me it is actually a campy examination of how shallow L.A. can be. Araki is joyfully and viciously making fun of a place he both loves and hates.

4) Splendor is the film that made me aware just how talented Araki is. He took the screwball comedy format and actually made it believable in a non-traditional relationship situation. I have no interest in “threesome” relationships. As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t met one that lasted. However, by the end of Splendor, you are totally rooting for the threesome! They are so sweet and cute and man, those yellow gels just make their world seem totally perfect! The movie follows Veronica (played by Kathleen Robertson), who moved to L.A. to become an actress but cannot secure much more than the occasional temp job or a promotional gig at the auto show. When two guys want to date her, she sees the opportunity to do something “original,” as she calls it. Actually, it is quite cliché and icky: she convinces both guys to sleep with her at the same time. Wow, cuz that’s what small-town/suburban girls think moving to the big city is all about: weird screw situations. I disagree, but somehow, we sympathize, even when V. get’s pregnant. Somehow she lands a TV movie and the director/producer, Ernest, “falls in love” with her and she decides to leave her threesome and marry the director because it is best for her baby. She even has the arty sidekick friend who warns her that juggling three men is bad, bad, bad. Duh! But I dare you to watch the film and see if you don’t find yourself engaged. The jokes are funny, everything looks pretty, and the ending is actually believable (aside from the pool thing).

5) Mysterious Skin is the more “Hollywood” film and very little of the Araki humor is found in this one. This is a serious film about molestation and its after-effects. We find the killer Araki soundtrack, the great visuals that are made complete with good make-up and costume choices, and a group of actors that are compelling to watch (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Elisabeth Shue, Brady Corbett). The film is based on a novel by Scott Heim. The subject matter isn’t easy and I can’t say I ever want to see this movie again, even though I thought it was excellent after I saw it. I will say, however, that Araki cannot make a movie without leaving some of his stamps on it. I believe this one starts out with mist, just like Nowhere does. For a glimpse at the script to Araki's MTV pilot, which starts out with a misty shower scene nearly identical to Nowhere's opening scene, click here, and click the link "This is How the World Ends" on the left of the screen.

6) I am so glad that someone finally made a stoner film with a woman as the main character. Smiley Face is just that. I’m not sure I like the Manifesto part of the movie but every other part is HA-LA-RI-OUS! I don’t believe Anna Faris would have gotten her House Bunny film without having done this one first, but that’s just my opinion. They were made so close together, that could be totally wrong. Faris plays Jane, an actress in Hollywood that has pretty much screwed everything up due to her obsession with mary jane. We are allowed to see just how her screwed up life came to a head on one particular day. Bright, sunny lighting abounds and Faris’ comedic timing when imagining what her roommate does on his own time or when attempting to audition whilst lit up like a X-mas tree hits the funny bone in just the right place. The Araki humor is back with this one. Again, he forces the viewer to sympathize with someone who normally wouldn’t garner sympathy from her own parents. Shouldn’t Araki be doing commercials? You’ll see great parts by Danny Masterson and Jane Lynch in this one.

So, why am I putting my ode to Araki in print, you might be wondering by now. A couple of reasons. First, I want to defend him. There are the accusations of shallowness, of violence, of debauchery. Araki has a dramatic sense of humor, kind of like what you might find in the films Girls Will Be Girls or Die, Mommy, Die! He goes to extremes but in such a campy way, it is meant to be laughed at. No, not like how we laugh at death in Tarantino films, which has begun to really bother me. Araki goes to extremes in order to show us how ridiculous we are. In Doom Generation, he attacks the crappy food we eat (the characters live on hot dogs and nachos), the heterosexist world, and how even sweet characters inevitably become corrupt or die, regardless of good intention. In Nowhere, characters who are barely 20 years old have come to think of love as a quaint idea that isn’t realistic and despite having families that seem to care, the alienation makes these people, who haven’t even completely formed their identities yet, relate to inspira-junk on televangelist shows more than their own families. Mysterious Skin is an excellent film, just read the reviews. And Smiley Face shows how we jail people who are encouraged to follow an unattainable dream in Hollywood, fail miserably and then resort to anti-social behavior. I mean, just stop letting kids take the bus to that damn Hollywood, already! Stop making kids think they can be discovered. Splendor touches on the same issues.

Second, I have a hunch that Gregg Araki has made more films under aliases, but I can’t be sure. Maybe you can help me with this. I watched Mad Cowgirl a while back and it is one sick film. Totally disgusting. If you have any desire to make someone turn into a vegetarian, either take them on a Texas-Mexico border trip to ranches and U.S.D.A. inspection sites, OR make them watch this film. However, what stood out even more to me was the continuing parallels with other Gregg Araki films. Mad Cowgirl was supposedly written and directed by Gregory Hatanaka. Here are some parallels that I found:

1) ironic TV figures in televangelist cameos: John Ritter plays a televangelist in Nowhere; Walter Koenig plays one in Mad Cowgirl

2) multi-racial casts in nearly all of his films; this one isn’t any different

3) Sarah Lassez, James Duval, Devon Odessa, and Jaason Simmons are all part of this cast and they’ve all been in Araki films (I believe they’re all in Nowhere together, too—in fact, Sarah Lassez and Jaason Simmons are in a scene where Simmons’ character rapes Lassez’s character, in Nowhere; in Mad Cowgirl, she kills him during sex)

4) gratuitous use of colored lights and gels, especially red, green and blue – yellow is also used for happy moments, but what is most important about this is that it is rarely subtle, you can notice it as a viewer

5) shots of people watching TV under “blue” TV light (they have this in a lot of films, but Araki uses it religiously)

6) incest (literally in Mad Cowgirl, virtually in Nowhere, where a brother and sister feel “randy” at the same times)

7) running theme of a woman who can’t pick one man/lover; found in Mad Cowgirl, Nowhere, Doom Generation, and Splendor

8) rape scenes; found in Mad Cowgirl, Doom Generation, and Nowhere

9) killer soundtracks featuring a taste that owes a lot to rave and DJ culture (brought this up earlier), Japanese and Asian pop and alternative, late 80s and 90s new wave/punk/alternative, and what a Wiki entry calls “shoegazing” music (like Jesus and Mary Chain, where the musicians are always looking at distortion pedals, hence “shoegazing”)

10) serial murders; found in Mad Cowgirl, Doom Generation and Nowhere

Now, if Mad Cowgirl had one or two of these elements, I wouldn’t have made the connection, but all of them? Furthermore, the few public photos of Gregory Hatanaka do not show his face directly. They are always at a weird angle that does not allow one to see what he really looks like. I also think it is interesting that they share the same first name. However, I’m not sure. I’m not completely sure if Mad Cowgirl is a Gregg Araki film or if I’m just pining for more films by this man. What do you think?

Other stuff -
For an unofficial Gregg Araki page with some links that work and some that don't, click here.

For an old article on Araki, where Robin Wood totally misses the point of Splendor, click here.

UPDATE: Gregory Hatanaka actually answered a message I wrote to him on fb. He denies being Gregg Araki and was very friendly in his reply. He said he actually gets the Gregg Araki comment a lot and that his influences are actually Takashi Miike and John Cassavetes. He thanked me for watching his film. So, maybe I'm wrong, or maybe he's being polite and lying and he just wants his darn privacy. I hope I didn't bother him too much.