Whether in the guerrilla eruptions of The Living End or the pothead reveries of Smiley Face, Gregg Araki has long displayed a keen interest in young characters whose restless sexuality is but one element in the volatile cultural landscapes they find themselves in. A New Queer Cinema guiding light whose “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy” (Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, Nowhere) lent the indie '90s much of its anarchic energy and danger, his films have often given the feeling of an Armageddon bubbling underneath their brash surfaces, a sense of dread nevertheless kept at bay by spiky humor and compassion. This apocalyptic tension is at its most explicit in Araki's latest, Kaboom, yet this buoyant amalgam of paranoid sci-fi and horny screwball comedy emerges as the writer-director's funniest and perhaps most hopeful work, striking a balance between the thrust of his scruffy early pictures and the stylistic control and maturity of Mysterious Skin. I sat down with Araki in San Francisco, where Kaboom had just played as the San Francisco Independent Film Festival's opening night film.
How did Kaboom come about?
A lot of times when I go to film festivals, here or abroad, I get these kids coming up to me with DVDs of The Doom Generation or a Nowhere CD or something and telling me about how the movies helped them. A lot of times these kids come from these horribly retrograde little towns in some red state somewhere, and they grew up feeling ostracized or alone. I would often hear about movies helping them get through some really tough times, and, as a filmmaker, that's really the highest compliment you can get, when somebody connects with something you've made. So in a way, I wanted to make another movie for this generation, while at the same time finding a way not to repeat myself or going backward. I'm really not the same person that I was in the mid 1990s. I'm older now, and I'm at a really different place in my life. So even if I wanted to, I couldn't make, say, The Doom Generation 2. I'm just not in that angry, angst-ridden headspace that I was back then. But I had for years wanted to do this Twin Peaks-y mystery that was really out there, the kind that would allow your imagination to run wild and also maybe reach back to a kind of youthful innocence. That was Kaboom to me.
I keep seeing it described as a throwback to the trippy 1990s movies, but I see it as much closer to your more recent films, like Smiley Face and even Mysterious Skin.
I definitely think so too. On the surface, it seems like Nowhere, especially, but there are specific elements from the newer movies. In particular Smiley Face, which is the one that's closest in sensibility to where my head's at. Both of them come from the same sense of playfulness. When I made The Doom Generation, I was in a very vehement place which I've since moved away from.
It's certainly less despairing. The humor is warmer.
And a lot more accessible, I think. I've been surprised by how positively it's been accepted in the mainstream. It's my first film to be in the main selection in Cannes, and the ride from there to Toronto and Sundance and Indiefest has been incredible.
You've always been interested in youth.
Sure, but it's important for me to not get pigeonholed as “that” director. A pet peeve of mine is when filmmakers keep making the same movie over and over without any kind of progression. I believe, of course, in the auteur theory that was taught in film school when I was growing up. But the old-time auteurs, like Howard Hawks or Hitchcock or whatever, they all worked in a variety of genres and types of movies, and their personalities would come through in their style or themes. So even if Kaboom goes back to the familiar themes of youth, my hope is that it stretches them, takes them to a different level.
The campus setting is wittily designed. Even the name, “College of Creative Arts,” seems like part of a catalogue of conservative fears about Southern California universities.
[Laughs] I was born and raised in California, and there's this very distinctive pace of life and attitude that's always been a huge part of my movies. A very Los Angeles vibe, let's say.
I'm always struck by how sex-positive your films are.
I'd like to think so. A writer for The New York Times was telling me about how unusual it is to have an American movie in which sex has no awful consequences, how it is seen in an almost utopian way. You see these kids experimenting and sleeping with people of different genders, and they're not being punished for it. Maybe it's just the way I view sex, the relationships and the breakups, as truly important elements in shaping your identity when you're growing up. American movies in general have such a weird, puritanical view of sex; you know, you have to have retribution in there somewhere. So much is lost when you repress sexual curiosity. Something like a Sarah Palin-like insistence on abstinence seems to me absolutely against nature.
I saw a connection between the liquid, volatile sexuality of the characters and the style of the film, with its shifting tones, fantasies, and dreams.
That's an interesting observation. I think they're certainly related, that sense of a sexual experience that's very dreamlike. The colors are heightened, there's a mash-up of genres, characters wake up and aren't sure what's real. Sometimes it's funny, other times it's sexy, other times it's scary. You really don't know where it's going next. With a huge percentage of movies, you know where they're going before the first hour is up, and then you have to wait excruciatingly for them to get there. So one of the things I love to see when I watch Kaboom with an audience is seeing people going, “What the hell?,” as the story goes insane. I wanted a kind of rollercoaster feel to it.