Gregg Araki’s films were repping queer, sexually fluid and non-monogamous characters way before it was trendy to be “woke.” But that’s not the only reason to watch his surreal sex epics. By Kristen Cochrane.
Sexual fluidity has been around forever. Yet while people have always been flexible about what gets them off, in our postmodern era no one has cinematically represented sexual fluidity as deftly and as prolifically as American filmmaker Gregg Araki.
This past May marked the 20th anniversary of Araki’s 1997 film Nowhere, the final installment in his Teenage Apocalypse trilogy. The trilogy’s hyperbolic name is apt—the narratives and dialogue are at once cartoonishly dark, with the Valley Girl (and Boy) dialect. The characters appear vapid, disturbed, or criminal. Politically (and here I specifically I mean in terms of identity politics), this was risky. The 1990s was the second decade of the AIDS crisis, where non-heteronormative sexuality was viewed as criminal, contagious, and dangerous. Lots of heteros abandoned their queer friends during the AIDS crisis. Even in the 1990s.
James Duvall as Dark Smith in Nowhere, shortly after having his masturbation sesh interrupted by his scary, postmodern Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest-esque mother.
But in Gregg Araki’s films, identifying as sexually fluid and thus non-heterosexual is casual. Nowhere’s characters basically sound like my group of friends. We are first introduced to Dark Smith (played by James Duvall), a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 18-year-old who is dating a bisexual, polyamorous woman named Mel (played by Rachel True). Mel has her own girlfriend, named Lucifer (played by Kathleen Robertson, who arguably steals the show). It’s all open, and everyone knows about everything. So when the three of them, packed into a convertible, pull up beside Dark’s crush Montgomery, it’s not portrayed as bad form.
Still, there is romantic conflict—Dark wants commitment, and Mel wants to remain in an open relationship. This sounds like 2017, right?! (I’m Dark, and Mel is everyone I have ever wanted to commit with). Following our introductions to the characters amid the hilariously postmodern set design, the film chronicles a day in the life of the acerbic, witty teens. When Nowhere came out in May of 1997, the New York Times described it as a “surreal American Graffiti.” And despite this classic cinematic text’s twentieth anniversary, I will not divulge anything further. I’ve met a surprising amount of people who have not seen this film, or even heard about Gregg Araki. Go forth and watch.
Araki’s characters operate outside of what theorist Judith Butler calls the “heterosexual matrix.” A matrix is an environment, and in this environment we subscribe to what poet and essayist Adrienne Rich calls “compulsory heterosexuality.” You know how you always have to explain yourself to friends and family members (and everyone in between) if you aren’t straight? And if you’re a public figure, to the media (which is why many public figures don’t bother–e.g. Anderson Cooper and Kristen Stewart, among so many others). And so, despite the privilege of being able to talk about sexuality in liberal circles, non-heterosexual, non-monogamous sexuality is still considered a deviation from a heterosexual norm. Araki shakes this up: his films feature marginalized groups (non-heterosexuals) behaving badly, when they are already routinely stereotyped as dangerous (it’s gotten better in liberal circles, but we still have to fight). Films like Nowhere, as a result, highlight the nuances of the positive versus negative images debate. On the positive images side, we would want to represent marginalized people in a way that would render them in a positive light (Donna Deitch’s 1985 film Desert Hearts subscribes to this). On the negative images side, we have Gregg Araki’s films. The characters are all “totally psycho,” to borrow from the Arakian vernacular, which has to be said with a Valley Girl or Valley Boy inflection. But to make everything positive with queer subject matter when the so-called respectable, heteronormative citizens get to behave badly seems unfair, no? Many of us are flawed, many of us are assholes, and many of us have conducted ourselves in ways that could get us ticketed or arrested. Should all of cinema’s queer characters only be portrayed as “good” to make up for their status as villains in the filmic imaginary? Or should filmmakers represent queer characters in all of their flawed, complex humanity? Araki’s work employs the latter philosophy.
All the while, Araki challenged this paradox with representations of sexual fluidity that confront accusations that bisexual and sexually fluid people are prone to criminality. They just can’t make up their minds! They’re unstable! These charges happen because too often we make sense of the world in binaries (man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual, etc.).
Jeremy Jordan as Bart in Nowhere (a.k.a. Guy Perkins in the 1999 romcom of my childhood, Never Been Kissed)
These aren’t the only binaries Araki disrupted. In his essay “Transgeneric Tendencies in New Queer Cinema,” Matthew Sini claims that New Queer Cinema (a cinematic movement primarily linked to the 1990s) is largely “transgeneric.” Like the fluid sexuality of its characters, NQC’s genre attachment is often in flux. The Living End, Araki’s first major success, was referred to by some as “the gay Thelma and Louise.” Sini writes that this intertextuality, imposed by critics and audiences, is a defining feature of NQC, inasmuch as it “[subverts] generic codes and form because it redeploys traditionally male genres (the Western and the road movie) in order to subvert the patriarchal orthodoxy that endorses and generates those genres.” Put simply, NQC flips the script on the classically masculine and heterosexual images of cinematic history.
In Nowhere, Araki engages in this subversion and transgression of genre. Genres are hybridized all the time, this is true, but Nowhere is exactly like its title. Araki invented his own genre – his own transgeneric visual language. Not only does this genre address the cinematography and screenwriting, but it also has critical implications beyond the screen. From his landmark debut The Living End to the films he makes today, Araki has relentlessly challenged the ways in which queer people are “supposed” to be framed.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her academic research is currently on queer Latin American cinema, but she also writes about art, sexuality, and life stories. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.