Is Gregg Araki the patron saint of the alienated teen? His work, which now spans over three decades, has helmed a wave of new queer cinema that began with radical low budget films like The Living End and is now cutting through the abundant noise of shiny teen TV drama with the excellent Now Apocalypse, a hark to the trilogy that arguably started this whole beautiful mess: the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy. So pucker up, light up, and read on to find out more about how the godfather of rebellious youth framed a generation in neon rainbow colours that remains ever so relevant in this strange, doom-laden landscape we’re living in right now.
Totally Fucked Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere were made and released in the mid-90s, when tie-dye and inflatable furniture was in, and Gen Z queer icons Amandla Stenberg, Chloe Grace Moretz and Hunter Schafer were mere twinkles in their parents’ eyes. It’s arguable to say that these three films, and Gregg’s subsequent features like Mysterious Skin and Kaboom! paved the way for a plethora of queer and teen-centric media today. He’s even had a guest director spot on a few episodes of 13 Reasons Why, one of the most talked about teen TV shows of recent times.
The Teen Apocalypse Trilogy was never seen as a critical success. Maybe because most of the film reviewers assessing them at the time were deliberately far removed from the worlds shown on screen – there’s nothing a middle-aged white man hates more than teen disenchantment, disengagement, disaffection. Not to mention all of that ambiguous sexuality, questions of gender identity and complete disregard for populist politics and society. Gregg’s films depict utter doom in the purest sense, where teens find themselves facing alienation and actual aliens, out to pull them free from the crazy world they’re struggling to fit into.
The first film in the trilogy, aptly titled Totally Fucked Up, stars Araki-darling James Duval, who we see throughout a large number of Gregg’s work. His inky black eyes, pouty mouth and Keanu-hair make him an instant pin up in the franchise, but what makes James stand out is his flat, carefree valleyboy accent, often used as narration, particularly in his starring role in Nowhere. He is part of a group of six young gay teenagers who have come together as a family of misfits. Largely filmed with a handheld video camera, the movie has a grainy, homemade quality to it reminiscent to the early work of the great John Waters, and as intimate as the talking head portions of modern reality TV.
The Doom Generation, which is a roadtrip movie, stars Rose McGowan and her iconic Mia Wallace haircut, hurtling through the desolate landscape of nighttime LA with boyfriend Jordan (James Duval) and new arrival X (Jonathon Schaech). Their blossoming triage-ship is wrought with jealousy, confusion, and terrifying encounters throughout the way,
The third film, Nowhere, showcases Gregg’s obsession with alienation in a comically literal sense. Its bisexual hero, again played by James Duval, is on a manic search for the alien race who is taking over his community and friends, stalking him as he navigates his failing relationship with girlfriend Mel and falling for new town arrival Montgomery.
So there you have it. Three films – a portrait movie, a roadtrip movie, and a sci-fi fantasy – each exploring themes of existential doom and teenage heartbreak that, each with their own rad, acidic soundtrack and palette of blindingly neon colours, paved the way for a multitude of queer cinema that celebrates the weird and subversive, an aloof middle finger to the mainstream. And maybe that’s what we need to celebrate right now.
Gregg Araki’s Teen Apocalypse Trilogy screens at the CCA Glasgow as part of Scalamara Glasgow on Thursday 26th September, 2019. Buy tickets here.