Kate O’Riordan provides an overview of the offbeat director’s work which deals with sexual fluidity and gender expression through absurdism
From fever dream-like visuals to hardcore scenes of violence, Gregg Araki’s radical and subversive style of filmaking is undoubtedly distinct. As an independent writer and director who began his career in the late 1980s, he was ahead of his time in many regards. In the early 1990s, Araki pioneered in directing films centred around identity, sexuality and gender expression. It was a controversial period for queer media in the shadow of the HIV/Aids epidemic which had severely impacted the LGBTQ+ community and fuelled harmful homophobic rhetoric in mainstream media and society. At a time when AIDS was the biggest killer of young men aged between 25 and 44 in 1990s California, “being gay felt like a political act in itself”, according to Araki. His films have strong themes of alienation, destruction and needless death, reflecting the mood of the time in the LGBTQ+ world.
In portraying youth culture’s anxiety throughout the ‘90s, most of his earlier films are set in chaotic and hostile settings. Araki has compared his surreal film style to “a Beverly Hills 90210 episode on acid”. The almost apocalyptic world-building in his films proves extremely difficult for the characters to have any direction, and leaves them disenfranchised with the world around them – an idea highly apparent in ‘Nowhere’ (1997). The violent and brutal environments depicted here represent a more sinister idea that the LGBTQ+ characters, who are unapologetic in expressing their identity, face real challenges to their lives for simply existing.
Satirizing and addressing toxic masculinity is another feature prevalent across Araki’s films, with exaggerated hyper-masculine characters as antagonists. In The Doom Generation (1993), a cowboy refuses to believe that the protagonist is not who he thinks she is, spurring him into a murderous rampage when he doesn’t get his way, and not taking no for an answer. This seems like an obvious and horrifying manifestation of rape culture in society. Araki also created interesting characters that turned traditional gendered stereotypes and tropes upside down. This includes a macho reclusive character called Luke, in The Living End (1992), who ironically becomes very emotionally vulnerable whilst on the run as a fugitive. Subverting typical motifs creates more complex and realistic yet human characters, even if they are occasionally nonsensical and absurd.
One interesting observation on his work made by critic Kylo Patrick Hart, is that his earlier films mirror punk music and the punk movement in general. This is characterized by the aggressive (borderline violent) energy, nihilistic existential themes, and the general lack of commercial appeal. In comparison to traditional Hollywood productions at the time, Araki’s movies instil detachment and confusion upon the audience to a degree, as there is a general lack of direction as to “what will happen next”. However, behind these seemingly bizarre shoegaze angst films there’s a strong political conviction, reactionary to the political climate and in the way that LGBTQ+ characters are unapologetically depicted.
Upon first watch, Araki’s films may leave viewers overwhelmed and confused, but there are multiple layers to his style. Arguably the dominant takeaway is the odd satisfaction from seeing angst and bizzare existentialism accurately depicted against soundtracks of shoegaze and hard rock. Gregg Araki’s filmography is not for everyone, however he excels at deconstructing and subverting heterosexual norms and gender stereotypes in teen movies. If you’ve never seen any of his movies, I would highly recommend you watch The Doom Generation as a first step of descent into the surreal and sinister world of Gregg Araki.