Posted by Jon Reiss
Director Gregg Araki is best known for his 1995 film The Doom Generation. Upon release, The Doom Generation quickly developed a strong cult following, and hoisted up Rose McGowan as a sex symbol for the dark alterna-teen set. Meanwhile, mainstream critics panned the film as nothing more than a cheesy riff on Larry Clark’s Kids, with insufferable dialogue and poor performances. At the time, few fans or critics were aware that the Doom Generation was part of series entitled “The Teen Apocalypse Trilogy,” which included the 1993 film, Totally Fucked Up and would include 1997’s Nowhere. A few major themes linked the three films, such as: one-liner style dialogue delivered with pitch perfect bratty angst, graphic and gratuitous violence, brief and seemingly random celebrity cameos, stylized settings and decor with vivid coloring and most of all, camp. By repeating this formula so uniformly in the three films, it seemed Araki invented his own genre. Except for The Doom Generation’s inclusion on Maxim Magazine list of “Films to watch with someone you want to sleep with,” you’d be hard pressed to find any kind of positive response to Araki’s work from mainstream outlets. With the universal approval of his films by young tastemakers and the opposing disproval across the board from critics, Araki’s work became an interesting subject to weigh in on. Something about the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy seemed so representative of the “us vs. them” mentality of the youth counter culture of the 1990’s. When word spread that a Araki film was on the horizon that sought to continue in the tradition of his Teen Apocalypse films, the most obvious concern for fans whether Araki could possibly pull off one of his signature films, and make it palpable for the post internet generation. Or, Would a new Araki teen/sex doom/film just feel like a Color Me Bad reunion?
After the trilogy was complete, Araki attempted to branch out. His 1999 film, Splendor took elements of the trilogy, mixing them into a more adult romantic comedy backdrop. Splendor was better received by critics, but a disappointment to many fans. After a hiatus, Araki went a entirely different route, making an adaptation of Scott Heim’s novel, Mysterious Skin in 2004 which left out most the elements that had become known for with the exception of certain visual and technical aspects. Mysterious Skin was bright and vivid like Araki’s past films, but that was the only connection it had to his body of work. The main thing that distinguished Mysterious Skin from anything Araki had done was the underlying seriousness of the film. Also unlike his past work, Mysterious Skin received universal approval from both critics and fans. The sweeping success of Mysterious Skin was hard to ignore and served reignite a passion from fans.
With the renewed interest, came the question of whether Araki would ever make another film in the style he’d become known for. Was it merely impossible to place the gawky doomed characters of his old films into the Aughts? What one would one of Araki’s sex-ridden apocalypses look like now? It seemed that perhaps Araki was avoiding his old wheelhouse. Perhaps the critics had finally gotten to him. According to the press packet for Araki’s new film, Kaboom, it was during an awards show, when John Waters presented Araki an award for Mysterious Skin, that the seeds for a new Teen Apocalypse film were planted. Apparently, backstage after the ceremony, Waters approached Araki and told him how much he’d love to see an “old school Araki film.” Araki was blown away. The man who re-invented camp was being prodded to make one of his signature style films by the man who actually invented it.
In Kaboom, Araki returns to the world he created with a film about college freshman that are both sexually obsessed and sexually ambiguous and find themselves caught up in a crazy plot to destroy universe. This time around, our protagonist, Smith (Thomas Dekker) considers himself gay, but a large chunk of his screen time is spent having sex with his female friend London (Juno Temple.) Smith also lusts after his Dorito-muching, ape-like roommate Thor, who represents the Araki straight-guy archetype. At one point, in a seemingly self-referential moment, London, Smith and Smith’s other jock crush, Rex, discuss and place themselves on the Kinsey scale. Here, Araki shows a new kind of self-awareness that his old films lacked. Other Teen Apocalypse staples in Kaboom include the token McGowan-esque one liners from best friend Stella (Haley Bennet) and ominous warning messages that randomly appear to the protagonist like, “You are the chosen one,” and existentially named hangouts such as a diner called, “Welcome to the Ontological Void.”
Araki also makes use of some new technical tricks in Kaboom. The beautifully designed rooms that Araki is known for are substituted in this film for new eye candy, such as iridescent servings of food that are used for violent shot transitions. Araki’s also mastered the use of shots in which somebody is creeping in the background, shots where the bait is taken away so quickly it can easily be missed. He also takes notes in Kaboom from the recent popularity of graphics novel films like Sin City and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, seamlessly transitioning into comic book mode during some of the film’s more surreal moments. This is one of the many aspects of Kaboom particularly modern.
The interesting question in watching this Kaboom, is how Araki updates his style from this new decade. The Teen Apocalypse trilogy was marked by a certain Cobain-esque depressive angst that was de-rigueur in the 1990’s, but would seem out of place in the post internet world. The characters in Kaboom lack the downtrodden apathy of those in The Doom Generation and Nowhere. Sure, they’re lost, and the end is certainly nigh, but there is sincerity to these characters that’s both likeable and distinctly Aughts. Araki also uses technology to move the story along, thereby adding to the time-specific poignancy of the film. One particularly notable plot point involves a misplaced email that results in an awkward semi-quarrel between would-be lovers. The Amy Blue/McGowan style dialogue that’s updated for the era, is snappy, and vulgar, but still relevant, and far more genuine that that of Juno.
As it turns out, The Teen Apocalypse trilogy might be more relevant than ever. Whether or not they are time sensitive is hard to say though. Araki might have skipped the Aughts on purpose, saving this film for the year before the world is actually supposed to end, but probably not though. In a sense, Araki’s films always feel uber-modern because they’re always so plugged in to youth culture. In Kaboom Araki shows that young rage isn’t generational, it simply takes on new accents. Araki understands that sense of being young and feeling like every move is life or death. He also understands how silly it all is thereby creating a juxtaposition that makes for these weird wonderful films, where everyone is always so totally fucked.