Monday, September 6, 2010

No Place Like Home

Directed By Gregg Araki
Southern California born Gregg Araki’s “Nowhere” is something of a revelation for me, being a fan of the 90’s teen party movie, I was in a constant state of awe at this strange, burtal and bleakly funny, period parody.
There is a long tradition of films about a bunch of young people going to or leading toward a party, and more often than not it leads to some pranks, drunken hijinks's, romantic intrigues, and usually some kind of speech, probably about “tolerance”, or the virtues of underdogdum, and all of these things are perversely inverted at Arakis touch, like flowers wilting in the presence of Dracula.
Described by it's director as “90210 on acid” the film is true to it's word, full of valley-girl speak and so-Cal lingo of it’s Los Angeles setting, with costumes that recall the decade from the left over glam of the 80's to the encroaching grime of "grunge", as if designed by someone who spent their time rolling their eyes throughout the entire period.
The colors are garish and the set designs particularly those of the bedrooms, are impressively stylized in some of the boldest colors since Dario Argento’s “Suspriaand outside of Keilowski’s trilogy.
Araki has always worn his John Water’s influences on his sleaze, and though not nearly as sleazy, or trashy, he does still manage to take his excesses to shocking heights (specially designed for the urbane cynic whose seen it all).
Aliens, terror cells, rape, suicide, and murder are always just around the neon corners, tearing at the sun-soaked seams of things.

I can completely understand those who would call this movie an overload of irony, celebrity worship, and glitzy garbage aesthetic, that sooner than later, becomes monotonous, but as tedious as this can be, it's also a part of life in Los Angeles, that though here held to a demented funhouse mirror, is still a mirror in the hands of one it's native sons.

There are glimpses of reality here and there in the film, and sometimes it's only perceptible in and because of, the film's most artificial moments.

One method of shock in Araki’s cannon has always been sincerity, after all the jokes, once you’ve prepared yourself for anything to happen, Araki might slip a tender moment into the maelstrom, of course this too may be just a be a lure into a set up for greater outrages, but Araki makes you want to take the chance to find out, and that’s something.

I’ve watched “Nowhere” several times now, and each time I come away impressed and surprised this wasn’t more popular upon release (or today).

The tension between utter contempt and sheer naivete is at the heart of teenage angst (Araki is also a fan of John Waters), and the film seesaws through love and confusion with the best of em.

The main character is sexually confused teen named “Dark Smith”, played by Indie cinema’s low-budget Keanu Reeves; James Duval in love with a hyper sexed bi-sexual Rachel True, as he pines and pines some more and represses his interest in men (particularly the new guy at school).

Though Keanu-light is our main character, the film follows a number of others, from Ryan Philipe and Heather Graham as hyper-sexed "Nihilists", a game of kick the can on ecstasy, an innocent girls date with star of a Beach themed TV series (remember those?), to a happy-go-lucky S&M couple (capable of shocking violence outside the bedroom), and glimpses of a gay couple in a band, living out some obligatory “go to rehab” scene (appropriately staged behind the giant letters that make up the famous Hollywood sign) delivered with all the schmaltzy pander of TV drama fishing for Emmy’s, all leading toward the obligatory big party.

All the typical issue of the week problems are present as any episode of Degrassi or Saved By By The Bell, but “Nowhere” is more likely to wear a herpes sore as a badge of honor, than a cautionary tale.

“Can’t Hardly Wait”, “Clueless”, “Go”, “200 Cigarettes”, “The Rules Of Attraction”, are members of the same MTV stylized party films for the alternative generation, that Nowhere is, but where those films glamorized bohemian freedom and Dionysian carnality, Nowhere shows them to be a closed circle; sex, death, and rock and roll locked forever on some dreadful dj’s infinite mixtape.

Polish avant-garde film epic “The Saragasso Manuscript” features a running gag where each time a soldier is about to have sex, he blacks out and wakes up as if from a dream, next to a corpse.

Though sex does actually take place in the film, violence and alien abduction are never far behind, twisting into each other like a series of music videos and skits written by George Bataille.

A masterpiece of hallucinatory pop-art if ever there was one, “Nowhere” justifiably failed as a mainstream comedy.

The end of the film recall’s William S. Burroughs, where homo eroticism merges with grotesque surreal black comedy.

These absurdist fringes are where the film becomes most interesting, and more than mere episodic hipster fear and loathing (as it has been dismissed).

Like all of Gregg Arakis early films “Nowhere” obnoxiously snarls at the identity politics of it’s day, providing no “queer role models” and giving it’s protagonists not only no redemption, or closure, but by the end no stable reality at all.

This lack of internal stability in the film, mimics Dark's un-confronted bi-sexuality, and his doubts as to his "coolness" toward's his girlfriend's promiscuity; the alien's and in general most insane parts of the film occur around Dark's interactions with Rachel or the new guy.

"Nowhere" is strongest when it departs it's genre conventions but it's transgressions are also made interesting because of the choice of the genre itself.

As a serious film it would be a failure and as a light comedy, it would fail twice as hard, but only straddling a threesome between John Hughes' wry innocence and Harmony Korine's doom and gloom (pre-"Mister Lonely" anyway), can the film achieve it's proper place and sense of period, but when it does, despite how familiar much of it is, it's hard to shake from memory.

This final film in the “Teenage Apocalypse” trilogy is true to it’s namesake, and if you like your comedies like Los Angeles, a hallucinatory mix of drugs, kinetic hallucinations, kinky sex, suicide, failed dreams, bright clothing, and celebrity cameos, “Nowhere” is the place to be.

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