With all the disillusionment in the air right now, there feels like no better time to throw on a shrunken slogan tee, dye your hair slime green and go on a downward spiral through cult filmmaker Gregg Araki’s finest moments.
Since his low-budget ($5,000, to be exact) debut film, 1987’s Three Bewildered People in the Night, Araki’s cinematic themes have largely centred around anxiety, alienation, nihilism and destruction, often through the lens of young gay guys.
The director got his first proper industry kudos when The Living End was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992, during a time when AIDS was amongst the biggest killers of young men. Against that cultural backdrop, Araki’s cut-throat story of two HIV-positive men was made all the more uneasy – and woozily intoxicating. In the years that followed, Araki went on to address suicide (Totally Fucked Up), teen sex (Nowhere) and, in Mysterious Skin, arguably the most visceral film in his archive, sexual abuse, prostitution and grooming.
As the societal rage of Gen X’s youth bled into ’90s fashion (grunge), music (Nirvana), literature (Douglas Copeland) and television (MTV), Araki led the eye-rolling riot of film that emerged out of the decade, along with Richard Linklater, Larry Clark and Kevin Smith.
But what set Araki apart was his unflinching, unpolished exploration of gay lives, saturated visual style and, of course, the fashion in his films. If Araki’s characters depicted dark, ominous desperation, it was often their subversive costumes that cinched in that final sense of doom – or flipped it on its head entirely.
The Living End (1992)
This was Araki’s first film to exceed a $5,000 budget, but it didn’t lose the grit and guerilla style of his two directorial predecessors. The Living End is punchy, political and savagely funny, with its HIV-positive main characters, Luke and Jon, going on a free-wheeling road trip that ends in a murder (it’s alright, the victim was homophobic). Made in an era when a furious youth felt let down by the Reagan administration, their rage at an uncertain future is palpable. To combat the violent homophobia of the era and society’s live-or-let-die mentality, the film’s costumes turn its main boys into action men, in masculine leather biker jackets, visible boxers and blue 501s. Pistol optional.
Totally F**ed Up* (1993)
The first instalment in Araki’s Teenage Apocalypse trilogy (followed by The Doom Generation and Nowhere), Totally F***ed Up was also a seminal entry in the New Queer Cinema genre. The film follows six, well, totally fucked up teens (four gay men and a lesbian couple) who form an urban family. Araki addresses real-life issues that were highly prevalent then: the moral panic of the AIDS epidemic, high suicide rates amongst gay teenagers and the political dissociation felt by youth. While the smutty “Practise safe sex” slogan T‑shirt, backwards caps and skateboard-as-accessory draw on the characters’ irreverence, it’s the “I Blame Society” T‑shirt worn by James Duval’s Andy that says it all.
The Doom Generation (1995)
Perhaps the Araki film that did the most rounds on Tumblr circa 2005-’09 , The Doom Generation stars a young, pre-Scream Rose McGowan as one-half of the troubled teen lovers who embark on a four-wheeled odyssey of sex, gore and guns. Notably the most “hetero” of Araki’s back catalogue, Doom is laced with dark humour, and themes of intolerance and alienation that permeate through the film’s sparse landscapes and use of underdeveloped areas, which only add to the apocalypticism. That, and Amy Blue’s white, ’80s cat-eye sunglasses, razor sharp haircut and blood red lipstick that makes her look as deadly as it does totally alien. There’s just no place for us in this world, eh?
The sweet-spot of Nowhere, the third and final film in the Teenage Apocalypse trilogy, is in a hyper-saturated hue that coats its characters and all their surroundings in Day-Glo shades: grass green becomes lime, peach becomes crimson and regular school loos turn violet. Starring a fresh-faced Ryan Philippe, Mina Suvari and Denise Richards, Nowhere follows a day in the strange lives of a group of LA teens – drugs, sex, a Baywatch star and death by Campbell’s soup. Like its hue and, indeed, the plot, the style is balls-out bizarre, reflecting the surreal life and times of New York City’s club kids: snakeskin mini skirts, platforms, bedazzled tees, kitten prints and brightly-coloured hair that only add to the Araki trip.
Araki put his three leads in an open relationship in his final film of the ’90s, in which struggling actress Veronica waits “years and years” to find a guy, only for two to come along at the same time. While Splendor’s not considered one of Araki’s best works, it’s a visual feast nonetheless. The clothing is more camp than in his previous films – tiaras, hot pink thongs, peroxide spiky hair, a frilly kitchen pinny – which lends itself to the feeling of liberation in its first half, where Veronica declares: “It’s like the rules everybody else lived by didn’t apply to us.” It’s as though the care-free throuple were playing dress up from a costume treasure box.