Pretty Poison

Is the world ready for "a heterosexual film by Gregg Araki," as the twentysomething writer-director-editor-producer's new project, The Doom Generation, bills itself? Araki, already a pioneer of queer new-wave cinema (The Living End, Totally F**ked Up), moves into the world of big-time 35mm moviemaking with this, his fifth film. Those who feared that the step up would tempt Araki to sell out or at least temper his dark, subversive vision need not have worried. The nihilistic maestro of pop culture and homo teen angst still makes John Waters look staid by comparison. He's never been sicker, funnier, or more pessimistic than he is in The Doom Generation.

Araki combines the murderous-but-misunderstood-young-lovers-on-the-run element of Natural Born Killers with the violent humor of Wild at Heart, then mixes in the romantic triangle with homoerotic overtones of Interview with the Vampire. The film is both sexually and violently graphic; it's not every day that you see a movie wherein a peeping Tom masturbates into his hand and then licks off his own ejaculate, or in which the severed head of a shotgun-blasted convenience-store clerk flies through the air, lands in the produce section, and continues to talk for hours. Sound appetizing? You ain't seen nothing yet. Fornication, mutilation, degradation -- this movie's got 'em all.

At the film's core are three apples in various stages of rotting. Lovers Jordan White (James Duval) and Amy Blue (Rose McGowan) are merely disaffected late-teen slackers; however, the mysterious ambisexual drifter named Xavier Red (Johnathon Schaech) whom they save from a vicious pummeling at the hands of a band of homophobic skinheads is an experienced killer. Fans who swooned at Schaech's tight tummy and perky pecs in How to Make an American Quilt are in for a shock; his Xavier Red (a.k.a. "X") is a leering, carnal, obscenity-spewing predator. McGowan's Amy Blue, her jet-black hair and flaming red lips accentuating her overall pseudo-dominatrix vibe, parries X's blatantly sleazy come-ons with a steady stream of her own profanity (heavy on anal references). By way of contrast, Duval's Jordan White is endearing and innocent-looking, a sweet, soft-spoken wastrel. Duval, a charismatic Araki veteran, employs idiosyncratic phrasing and passive, soothing delivery that complement the director's deliberately disruptive and unconventional-to-a-fault technique. In both Totally F**ked Up and Doom he plays a basically decent but vulnerable lost soul; in both films Duval's lover betrays him; and in both films he pays a horrible price. There's one big difference, though: In Totally F**ked Up the betrayal tears Duval's character apart; in The Doom Generation it turns him on. But poor Jordan: In Gregg Araki's world, nice guys don't just finish last; they meet sad, horrible ends.

What exactly is "a heterosexual film"? Araki's previous work concerned itself almost exclusively with gay men and women. But in The Doom Generation the filmmaker tweaks and redefines his protagonists' sexual identities until traditional gay/straight/bi distinctions blur and become meaningless. Only a portion of Doom's heat radiates from the purple coupling of Ms. Blue with Messrs. White and Red; Araki wrings more suspense from his two male leads' attraction to each other. Will they act on it or won't they? And if they do, will they include Amy? These are the questions that propel the narrative forward when the principals aren't raiding minimarts manned by cashiers played by the likes of infamous madam Heidi Fleiss. Gay-bashing, ambiguous sexual identity, and teen alienation all figure prominently in the mix, as they do in most Araki films. The distinction here, though, is that the primary couple, Jordan and Amy, are straight. Or at least they start out that way.

Araki's humor remains dark, sarcastic, and withering. His hip dialogue and pop-culture references careen from the natural and hyperrealistic to the campy and surreal. Refracted through Araki's prism, mundane behavior seems out of place and ridiculous, while absurd behavior and off-the-wall statements make perfect sense. One minute Amy professes her love for Jordan; the next minute she's flipping a coin to determine whether Jordan or X gets first dibs on making love to her that night. In addition to Heidi Fleiss, Margaret Cho, Parker Posey, the members of Skinny Puppy, and Porno for Pyros front man Perry Farrell, Araki coaxed cameos out of trash-TV icons such as The Love Boat's Lauren Tewes, Married...With Children's Amanda Bearse, The Brady Bunch's Christopher Knight, and 21 Jump Street's Dustin Nguyen. It all adds up to a strange and heady mix, definitely not for the squeamish or tradition-bound.

The Doom Generation.
Written and directed by Gregg Araki; with James Duval, Rose McGowan, and Johnathon Schaech.


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