Bizarre Love Triangle
Allow me to make a case for a controversial filmmaker despite his inarguably awful new work--and perhaps even despite the general course of his career since 1994. Gregg Araki emerged from the L.A. independent film scene in the early Nineties with The Living End, which swiftly established him as the principal nihilist of the New Queer Cinema movement that also included Todd Haynes (Poison) and Jennie Livingston (Paris Is Burning). An HIV-positive/same-sex variant of the lovers-on-the-run road movie, the $25,000 Living End came on like the Breathless of gay grunge, its death-sentenced Act Up agenda encapsulated in one character's motto: "Fuck work, fuck the system...fuck everything." Now, after an exponential increase in budgets and a monumentally depraved "Teen Apocalypse Trilogy" (Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, Nowhere), Araki arrives at the ostensible post-AIDS bliss of Splendor: an absurdly shallow two-guys-and-a-girl farce that begins as sitcom eye-candy and ends as a negligibly tweaked ode to yuppie breeding.
What the f*** happened? Oddly, the Japanese-American auteur seemed to announce his own sellout four years ago by billing The Doom Generation as "a heterosexual movie by Gregg Araki." But for this fan, nothing signaled Araki's shift in direction more than seeing him step out of a women's bathroom at a Sundance-area diner while nuzzling 90210 star Kathleen Robertson, who'd evidently become his muse in the midst of Nowhere. As this romance went public (while Nowhere went the way of its title), queer cineastes from coast to coast cried foul at the filmmaker's incorrect behavior both on- and offscreen. And yet, sexual politics aside, might Araki have been making his identity more fluid and unique? Is there another openly bisexual American director whose work so vividly reflects his orientation?
Granted, Nowhere's particular form of polymorphous perversity ("90210 on acid," it has been called) puts the 39-year-old Araki at serious risk of becoming the dirty old man of Amerindies. But it's a great movie, bringing its maker's candy-colored mise en scène, power-pop soundscapes, vulgar teen-speak aphorisms ("This party's about as fun as an ingrown butt-hair"), and Macintosh editing techniques to a new, near-orgiastic level of audience arousal. (Kids: Don't watch this one while your mom's home.) And, as "sellouts" go, Araki's is nothing compared with that of, say, Gus Van Sant, whose bid to make his sexuality (and his indieness) invisible got under way with Good Will Hunting and climaxed last year with the straight mimicry of Psycho. Besides, if Araki has sold out, it has been to no apparent commercial advantage: Indeed, his last two films haven't even played theatrically in the Twin Cities. (Splendor will be relegated to home video starting Tuesday.)
I wish I could report that dismal box-office receipts connote radicalism in the case of Araki's latest. But Splendor, while infinitely more worthy of distribution than Three to Tango, can be adequately summarized by its heroine's description of her own predicament in the final reel: "Two boyfriends, one baby, no clue." As it begins, Veronica (Robertson), a 22-year-old L.A. office temp at the tail end of a sexual drought, finds the titular state twice over in the form of Abel (Johnathon Schaech) and Zed (Matt Keeslar): a rock critic and a speed-punk drummer. Of course, these two hate each other at first, but a drunken round of truth or dare ("Have you ever had sex with a guy?") leads progressively to a ménage à trois (offscreen, alas), cohabitation, pregnancy, a temporary separation, and--as baby makes four--splendor. Screwball comedy is the mode, but the film prompts far fewer laughs than cringes, while Veronica's aspirated Valley-girl voiceovers ("Love is a mysterious and baffling thing...") are not so much parodic as totally lame.
Worst of all, nothing in Splendor appears as kinky as the increasingly bizarre love triangle between Araki, his core audience, and his reputation--which, even more frustrating, may be just how he wants it. In 1994, while pondering Nowhere as an MTV series(!), he told AsianWeek: "I like the idea that you could just make [a show] and bring it to people's houses, rather than doing the whole distribution and publicity of film, which seems very antiquated." Okay--mission accomplished. Alas, what comes between Araki and a hard place at this point is the faint hope that Splendor's failure might lead him back to total despair.
Splendor is available for rent at area video stores beginning Tuesday, November 23.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.