Interview: Gregg Araki

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Gregg Araki is a director that you might not have heard of, but he’s as major to his loyal audience as a filmmaker can be. Araki did with queer and punk life in the 1990s what Martin Scorcese did with Italian life—he stylized exaggerations of its dangers and its joys and made it seem like a great, exclusive American melodrama. You can’t watch a Scorcese movie without thinking that you’d never be tough enough to make it in the real world of Italian gangs, that you couldn’t handle the grim reality required to make money and survive. Araki turned queerness and punkness into that kind of hard privilege, chronicling a bad kids club in movies like Nowhere, The Doom Generation, and The Living End that’s ridiculously unhealthy, at times fatal, but also irresistible. In those early movies, characters rip off each other’s heads, listen to This Mortal Coil, have loads of sex, smoke millions of cigarettes, die, oblivious to the future or their careers. If you were queer, watching them reminded you of how cool it all was. If you weren’t queer, you wished you could be.

Lately he’s been taking a different tack. 2005′s Mysterious Skin established him as a director capable of reaching a mainstream. It was still gay, Joseph Gorden-Levitt cast as a hooker and a victim of child abuse, but it had almost Oscar-bait levels of emotional intensity. It’s an incredible movie, sad without ever being sentimental, but adult. He followed it up with the amazing stoner comedy Smiley Face and now Kaboom, out Thursday, January 27 at BAM and then Friday, January 28 at IFC, a sci-fi thriller set at a college. He’s up to his old tricks—there’s threesomes, farce and comic violence, ridiculous plot lines, but it’s still the movie of a grown-up filmmaker, deliberate and perfectly calculated. Araki will be conducting Q&As at both the BAM and IFC screenings. We sat down and asked him about the new movie, and the path that led him there; check out the interview after the jump.

I saw in the press notes about the movie that Kaboom was an attempt to get back to the spirit of your early ‘90s movies a little bit. Is that true?
It’s true and it’s not true. True in the sense that I do want to make cult movies for the next generation because I run into kids, some of them are so young that I have no idea how they even saw a movie like Nowhere or The Doom Generation, they’ll say, “Oh my God, I’ve seen Nowhere like a thousand times. I grew up in some shit little town, in Bumfuck Montana, and this movie saved my life, I watched it everyday.” As a filmmaker that’s one of the highest compliments that someone could pay, something you created as meaningful to them. I did have an interest in making a film that was kind of a cult movie in a way. I wanted it to really speak to its specific audience. It would be a film that kids like that, they can say, “This film is my film, it’s for me!”

It’s also interesting to me that you went about making a cult movie, normally that just happens, it finds a cult audience, but I’ve never heard a director seek it out.
Specifically I was thinking about fans that I talk to, that’s all I mean. Kids with that feeling of being different, a feeling of being the outsider. People said Kaboom is utopian in a way. There’s no consequence to the sex, you know, it’s not like it’s a bad thing or you’re going to be punished for it. It’s really just something that’s seen as part of growing up and sort of a positive experience. It’s what forms you as a person. There’s a sense of fun and adventure. I think it’s because I wanted to conjure that world.

And so I was really excited to do a film like that. But at the same time I didn’t really want to make Doom Generation 2, you know? I’m not really the same person I was when I made that movie so it’s not really possible to make The Doom Generation for today. I’m not in a 1995 headspace.

What is a 1995 headspace? Your movies represent that early ‘90s Alternative Nation, grunge and punk and queer politics to so many people. Do you just mean that that cultural mentality is gone?
I actually think that it’s bigger than ever. I think that utopian vision of the Alternative Nation is, at best, an ambisexual world of sexual acceptance, you know? That’s big today, I think. No labels. It’s creatively based, it’s music based. There’s a vibe that’s, in a weird way, a throwback to the hippies. There’s just like peace and love and people are accepted for who they are.

And the characters in Kaboom have such a matter-of-factness about sex and being gay.
That’s just how I operate, but it was also a conscious decision that I wanted it to be honest and true. I think that with a lot of people in the younger generation, much more so than in the mid-90’s when I did The Doom Generation, that there is a matter-of-factness about sexuality and the idea that sexuality is a grey area. It’s not really about labels, it’s not really about “I’m gay” or “I’m straight” or bisexual, I just am who I am, I have relationships and I have experiences and all of this. I think, personally, that that’s a really healthy attitude. A lot of times when you are young you are just finding out about yourself, it’s best to be free of that idea of “Does this mean that I am this?” I think that there should be that space to do that, without having to take on responsibilities or burdens.

What else is different about the early ‘90s and now?
I don’t know but my characters are definitely less blasé. In The Doom Generation all this violence and blood and the characters don’t care. It’s decadent. But Smith isn’t blasé. It reminds me of Mysterious Skin. That’s kind of how the Brian character is in Mysterious Skin: more sensitive and more deeply affected by things.

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POSTED January 25, 2011 3:30PM IN ART+CULTURE INTERVIEWS Comments (2) TAGS:

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  2. riley says:

    Is Smiley Face his Age of Innocence or his Aviator? :)