Gregg Araki once described Totally F***ed Up, his follow-up to the 1992 New Queer Cinema staple The Living End, as a “rag-tag story of fag-and-dyke teen underground…a kind of cross between avant-garde experimental cinema and a queer John Hughes flick.” The statement attests not only to Araki’s committed radicalism, but also to his sense of how the politics of pop culture play to alienated youth. He probably loved a rave from a San Francisco paper hailing the film as “a ’90s version of The Breakfast Club.”
Araki’s Brat Packers, far ruder and more vociferous than Hughes’s, are a rainbow batch of teens muddling through the triple-whammy of adolescence, boredom, and uncloseted homosexuality in an unmellowed Los Angeles. Actually, queer sex is never a problem; rather, it’s the emotional cargo and the homophobic assholes the young characters have to deal with on a regular basis that lead main brooder Andy (James Duval) to conclude that suicide might not be a bad idea after all. Others orbiting around the film’s deliberately deadbeat Beverly Hills, 90210 scenario include aspiring filmmaker Steven (Gilbert Luna) and his boyfriend Deric (Lance May), sexed-up Tommy (Roko Belic), and acidic dyke couple Michele (Susan Behshid) and Patricia (Jenee Gill), all dealing with their personal ecstasies and miseries.
Godard has always been among Araki’s biggest influences, and, indeed, Totally F***ed Up has been called his Masculin Féminin. Vivre Sa Vie is also evoked via the film’s segmented structure, yet the biggest stylistic shadow here may be Katzelmacher, during which Rainer Werner Fassbinder similarly propped a batch of young outsiders against the wall of society and watched the resulting wreckage. The characters try to flee into their own self-contained universes, complete with self-contained slang (jacking off to Randy becomes “shooting tadpoles at the moon”), but the world is always breaking in, inevitably in the form of emotional pain. Randy’s tentative romance with a potential Mr. Right (Alan Boyce) provides the film not only with the closest it has to a narrative, but also with Araki’s sense (also shared with Fassbinder) that coming to terms with your sexuality doesn’t necessarily shield you from the agonies that often come with relationships. After all, this is a film where a bootleg Nine Inch Nails video is reason enough to betray another person’s affections.
“Life is shit,” Andy says in one of his sunniest moments, but the nihilism is never Araki’s. In fact, for all the mumbled rants about AIDS and shitty relationships, much of Totally F***ed Up’s tone is spiky in its compassion and humor, due in no small amount to Behshid and Gill’s funny lesbian duo. The total lack of pity and condescension carries the film over its rough spots and aimless patches. The endings of Araki’s Teen Apocalypse Trilogy (of which Totally F***ed Up is the first part) may seem utterly desolating, yet they all move toward a rejection of negativism in favor of the harsh but inescapable complexities of the world. Life is fucked up, the filmmaker is saying, but it’s worth living.