Monday, 3 January 2011

And Everything Goes Kaboom!

In her book Sexual Politics, Kate Millett, an American feminist writer and activist presents a very comprehensive analysis of a conflict between the biological and psychological understanding of the concept of sexual identity. Millett argues that patriarchy’s biological foundations are extremely apprehensive and have to be reinforced by a process of ‘socialisation’, whereby the established norms of sexual identity are transferred into a young mind. She concludes that, “Because of our social circumstances, male and female are really two cultures and their life experiences are utterly different.” The perception of masculinity and femininity is designed to perform specific roles in our society and any form of deviation from these roles is looked at as sinister and threatening to the social power structure that has been in place for generations. 

Gregg Araki’s filmography, which makes human sexuality and gender roles its main theme, might be looked at as an extension to Millett’s analysis. Queer fiction was always closely associated with feminist theory, as it provides fresh re-assessment of sexual identity and politics surrounding gender division. Through his films, Araki makes a clear statement that he refuses to accept the norms which are passed on to us by the previous generation. He re-evaluates the male and female life experiences mentioned in Millett’s book and rejects the conventional understanding of masculine and feminine attributes. In the early 90’s Araki’s films like The Living End (1992) and The Doom Generation (1995) set the tone for the director’s counter-Hollywood filmmaking. With their very refreshing storytelling and a retro set of aesthetics his movies were able to present an alternative way to filter anger and frustration through a camera lens. 

The socio-cultural and political climate that attributed to Araki’s success in the 90’s is very similar to what was happening in America in recent years. When The Living Endpremiered in 1992 the country was troubled by the post-Bush era downturn in economics and wide-spread homophobia. There is a parallel between the social discontent of the early 90’s and the events preceding the premiere of Araki’s latest film Kaboom (2010). One could draw a conclusion that the two films might share the same level of rebellious black humour or at least maintain similar cultural sensibility. Yet it appears that eighteen years after making The Living End Araki loses interest in being involved in a political battle against the patriarchal system which used to be the major drive of his films. In Kaboom, Araki could have expressed his concerns about the future, but instead the film focuses on an examination of youth and the joyous excitement surrounding the first sexual experiences. 

Kaboom operates in a universe of its own. Any political drama that takes place in the film is a far-fetched fantasy that aims to entertain and escalate the thrill of the plot which has the feel of a cheap pulp novel. The main character Smith’s (Thomas Dekker) seemingly normal life revolves around sexual fantasies about his dorm roommate Thor (Chris Zylka), having sex with randomly met girls or boys and spending most of his free time with his best friend Stella (Haley Bennett). Things start getting complicated when he accidentally witnesses the murder of a red-haired girl on a campus lawn. At the same time, Stella becomes sexually involved with a witch and an odd set of random events unveils a secret society which aims to turn the whole world into ashes. Araki is known for incorporating surreal elements into his otherwise realist dramas. The themes of sex, violence and American pop culture are reoccurring elements in all of his films but are used for different purposes depending on the subject of the film. With KaboomAraki multiplies unexpected plot twists and integrates threads of a fantasy world in order to achieve an expressionist image of a young person at the brink of adulthood. The film in a very poignant and poetic way highlights the sexual and emotional freedoms of the ensemble of young characters which is especially true for Smith and Stella. Yet the film avoids being too self-involved and rather than focusing on the emotional state of its characters it creates an emotive picture which inspires the audience to take their own trip down memory lane.

By relying completely on digital technology, Araki’s Kaboom escalates a well exercised set of retro aesthetics into a new level of distinctiveness. The manipulation of colour is vividly and neatly executed. This is especially true in the sequences presenting paranormal activity and during Smith’s dream scenes. While the aesthetics do not quite achieve the same level of visual originality as films produced with the Dogme 95 manifesto, they definitely deviate from any established norms currently dominating indie cinema. While Kaboom benefits from its low budget digital look, its cinemascope format suggests that the film imagines itself to be a studio production. The editing transitions between scenes use popular digital effects known to most any camcorder user. Very often the screen breaks into small glass-like pieces or zooms into view in a corny swirl. These types of transitions as well as other digital effects help Araki provide comic relief and at the same time add unusual visual texture and rhythm to an already odd plot.

The story similarly to the aesthetics makes unexpected and innovative transitions. It starts off as a teenage comedy, presenting Smith and Stella’s lives as fuelled by alcohol and random sexual affairs. But the moment Smith witnesses a murder another genre tries to creep into the seemingly established plot. However it does not even end there as the film in its development integrates genres and sub-genres like family drama, fantasy, and sci-fi and ends on a strong note with a Le Carre-like conspiracy drama. The wealth of the narrative layers in which Araki dressed up Kaboom is yet another device used to great effect to showcase the feelings of excitement and insecurity so often experienced in our youth. 

Michael Atkinson in his article “Unsafe Sex” wrote about one of the earlier Araki’s filmsNowhere (1997) with the following statement: “The soap-operatic narrative contains all the usual elements of apocalyptic teendom: sexual violence, suicidal junkiehood, nihilism, disconnected adults, aliens, tortured narcissism.” As mentioned before, Araki doesn’t demonstrate the same socio-political interest with Kaboom as he did with his previous films. Yet based on the example of Nowhere we can see that the director keeps re-using the same themes and plot devices. Would this suggest that Araki has continued to be discontent with established social norms? Or quite the opposite – so much has changed that the same arguments he once used to interrogate and criticise can now be applied solely for the pleasure of entertainment? 

Socio-political context is very hard to define in Kaboom; the film presents his homosexual characters on an equal or even superior basis to their heterosexual counterparts. Homosexual tendencies are seen in the film as liberating and empowering. The social divide between people of different sexual orientations which troubles Araki’s earlier films is virtually non-existent in his newest flick. On the other hand none of the characters (except perhaps Stella) finds it easy to define themselves as homo- or heterosexual. They prefer to stay away from accepting a definitive label and enrich their sexual life with a variety of partners of both sexes. However when it comes to certain characters’ bisexual identities there is a sense of division – some of the characters like Smith take a lot of pride in being versatile, but there are people like Rex (Andy Fisher-Price) and Milo (Carlo Mendez) who enjoy their homosexual experiences yet try to keep them secret. Araki puts a lot of emphasis on the sexual liberation or confusion as a period purposefully attributed to the age of late teens. It’s a time of experimentation and according to Araki it is an important process on the path to self-discovery. 

The murder intrigue enriches the narrative with a series of unexpected plot twists which builds to a grotesque political drama about a secret society trying to annihilate the entire world in order to build a new utopian society. Through a series of sequences happening within Smith’s dreams Kaboom makes a thematic transition from a sex comedy to a bizarre thriller. In the past Araki integrated thriller-like elements into his film in order to utilise violence as a way to make a socio-political statement. In The Doom Generation heads and limbs that are accidentally cut off a number of male characters throughout the film are juxtaposed with a terrifyingly realistic murder scene of a character that is thought to have bisexual tendencies. Araki presents a society troubled by condemnation from conservative religious and social standards and metaphorically alludes to a harsh reality lived by non-heterosexual individuals. In Kaboom however the dramatic events taking place at the end are so disengaged from the parts of the film presenting the character’s day to day life that any kind of parallel meaning is virtually non-existent. It is the pacing of the film and its overall composition that achieves symbolic significance. While the film plays heavily with a multitude of genres, it ends with a serious warning that too much self-indulgence can be poisonous. In fact, the ending may seem grotesque considering the level of destruction which is displayed, but it serves as a wake-up call after the hedonistically entertaining hour and a half. 

From the moment Kaboom premiered earlier this year in Cannes, the reception has been nothing but positive. However similarly to Araki’s other films, Kaboom is having problems acquiring a major international release. When The Living End was released in the USA it was seen as obscene and controversial. The so called New Queer Cinema which included films like Poison (1991) by Todd Haynes and Swoon (1992) by Tom Kalin, presented not only homosexual characters as positive, but morally superior to their heterosexual counterparts (Benshoff and Griffin, 2004). The films made within the school of New Queer Cinema very often gained provocative publicity. This can be seen by using Haynes’s Poison as an example. Poison was attacked by the religious right who claimed that the National Endowment of Arts (NEA) illegally awarded Haynes with a fund to make this provocative film. Yet the festivals like the Sundance Film Festival, where Independent American Cinema takes main stage proved that there is a market for these films which we can attribute to the public’s desire see the subject of human sexuality from a different perspective. 

Kaboom however drifts away from the standardised definition of New Queer Cinema as the film expresses much less political stigma imposed on its homosexual characters. Although sexual experiences are still at the heart of Araki’s new film, the division between the hetero and homosexual identities are blurred and the two seem to operate in an almost idyllic harmony. But perhaps it isn’t Araki who is trying to break from the classic concept of New Queer Cinema. Instead it could be the model itself which has changed so much that a certain re-evaluation of the industrial norms is necessary. Looking at some of the recent titles coming out from directors who are considered to be part of the elite of Queer Cinema, one can draw an obvious conclusion that these films operate with a very complex dynamic as they become less and less didactic as compared to their precursors from the 90’s. John Cameron Mitchell’sShortbus (2006), Cheryl Dunye’s Stranger Inside (2001) and Todd Verow’s Between Something and Nothing (2008) serve as perfect examples of the constant transformation of Gay Cinema. However successful in re-establishing the format and meaning of New Queer Cinema, Kaboom still remains an independent project and its success is heavily dependent on art-house cinema distribution just like most all of Araki’s previous projects. 

Kaboom operates with such high levels of moral and sexual ambiguity that it might seem even more threatening for the mainstream media than any of his previous films. Kaboom reassesses the division between the biological and psychological understanding of sexual identity mentioned by Kate Millett in her Sexual Identity. The only place in the film where the patriarchal system is still thriving is within a religious organisation. The cult recognises how far the poisonous effects of patriarchal destabilisation have progressed in society and tries to re-establish these norms by imposing its dogmatic beliefs on everybody else. He concludes the film in a similar way Millett concludes Sexual Politics – the patriarchy’s chief institution is the traditional family and these foundations need to be restructured in order to build a better, more equal society. Araki’s film instils an ominous thought in our mind that no matter how much social progress is made that it can easily be destroyed by the few in power who want things to remain the way they are.

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