PRINT May 1997



IN THE BEGINNING, director Gregg Araki’s reputation was tiny but sterling. His early, so-called no-budget movies Three Bewildered People in the Night (1987) and The Long Weekend (O’ Despair) (1989) were wildly admired for their gentle, depressive tone, seeming smarts, and movingly restrained psychological insight. Few people were making narrative films on the cheap back then, and Araki, a madly ambitious young fellow fascinatingly attuned to the inarticulate speech patterns and confused emotions of his generation, was rightly considered a promising, if blurry talent.

If 1992’s The Living End—a talky, gloomy road movie in which HIV-positive lovers unleash their outsider rage on society à la Thelma and Louise—was Araki’s breakthrough, it also marked a certain gentrification within his work. Where before he had epitomized the sensitive, laconic, mumbly poet of youthful despair, he now seemed sarcastic and withholding. The carefully constructed tonal smudge of his early films, where high if undeveloped intelligence clashed with an incapacitating emotional ennui, gave way to self-consciously playful affect. While Totally F***ed Up (1994)—arguably his best work, a touchingly awkward, beautifully measured distillation of Araki’s youth-culture biases and French New Wave influences—was a return to form, The Doom Generation (1995) may have confirmed his most severe detractors’ suspicions. Made for just under a million dollars, The Doom Generation is, to be generous, a transitional work. Araki’s script fills characters’ mouths with ridiculously tweaked youthspeak—“Life is a chewy shit sandwich,” “Fuck you, anus face”—at once too clever to seem spontaneous and too lame to signify anything but authorial condescension toward his unlikable protagonists. When, in the film’s penultimate scene, one character (the terrific James Duval) has his balls cut off simply to meet a narrative requirement and to rivet the MTV target audience, I wasn’t the only Araki fan who wondered if the tender, complex humanism I’d appreciated previously had been a device all along.

With his new film, Nowhere, Araki’s career takes a sharp turn, and not a minute too soon. Though still quite imperfect, it’s a convincing teen movie and a reminder of Araki’s unique, punchy way with youth-culture iconography. While the shockeroo moments—a brutal rape, a gory murder or two, some silly S/M scenes—are desultory and implausible and the dialogue’s irksome in spots (it’s probably time for Araki to do a Gus Van Sant and give screenwriting a rest), the film is a head rush nonetheless.

Nowhere is being promoted as a “Beverly Hills 90210 episode on acid.” Actually, Saved by the Bell on crystal meth is more like it. Bratty and hyperactive, Nowhere’s all phantasmagoric shallowness. Thanks to Arturo Smith’s photography and Patti Podesta’s production design, the film is a wondrous, continuously inventive eyeful. The cast is huge, cute, hot, and virtually interchangeable. Apart from James Duval’s always resonant work, every performance is like a cameo. You’re not expected to give a toss about them, just to pick out a cutie, track him or her through the labyrinthian plot, and hope he or she eventually gets naked. Araki substantiates his interest in designer emptiness with a lustrous, rippling superficiality. When Nowhere is over, it’s so over that you half-wonder if Araki has invented a way to induce amnesia aesthetically.

A kind of Dante’s Peak for horny teenagers and the people who love them, Nowhere is quite possibly the most extravagant, unapologetic example of protracted adolescence ever committed to celluloid, a brilliantly guilty pleasure. More than anything, the film suggests that Araki could direct great action flicks, or even knowing, Russ Meyer-style extravaganzas. With a decent script, Nowhere could have been an American Trainspotting. It’s not even close. Still, there’s something awe-inspiring in its crazy anatomy.

Dennis Cooper is the author of Guide (Grove).