That Was Now This Is Then

Totally f***ed up: Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 'Mysterious Skin'
Tartan Films

Gregg Araki movies often toss a startlingly attractive miscreant in with some slightly less soulless compatriots just so someone can drawl--in half-admiration, half-fright, and all irony--"You are a demon from hell." The root of these provocateurs' stylish nihilism (they do believe in sex and lots of it) may be AIDS or it may be something more diffuse like, you know, exploitative media and/or compulsory consumerism. But in any case, the energy is all in the now. From the initial shot of Araki's new movie Mysterious Skin, you know we're not in California anymore: Something--can it be cereal? (yes, it's Fruit Loops)--rains down on a young boy's head; a title card says "1979." Holy smoke, it's backstory! Not only that: We're in Kansas, and, buddy, there's no escape.

Mysterious Skin, adapted by Araki from Scott Heim's novel, is the first film the director has made that isn't from an original screenplay. I'm tempted to say, as Greil Marcus once wrote of Billy Bragg and Wilco's transformation of Woody Guthrie lyrics, that the collaboration pole-vaults the principals past all previous failures: "This time you got it right." Intertwining two tales of childhood sexual abuse and its aftermath, Mysterious Skin focuses Araki's empathy (and lust) for youth (and its discontents) into a clarity so sharp that it's the viewer who's bloodied by movie's end--and not, as is usual, Araki's protagonists. However, I happen to think Bragg and Tweedy did genius work before Mermaid Avenue; ditto Araki before this film. Mysterious Skin is a movie full of wonders, but it doesn't necessarily represent the filmmaker's maturation, culmination, or triumph.

There's no arguing that it's not plenty different for the director, though. For one thing, it's not the least bit campy. Funny, sure--just not in the referential way that assumes familiarity with Russ Meyer, 90210, and the idea that pulpy dialogue and slasher violence should amuse while it signifies. The dialogue here is pulpy only in an adolescent way ("I hate this town"; "I'm drunk!"), which makes elders laugh because time is an imperfect healer. The words always arrive in the context of those earlier events: a trusting boy (Chase Ellison), his Little League coach (Bill Sage doing Redford's Sundance Kid), that fall of Fruit Loops, the crushed cereal on the floor afterward. If Neil, that boy at 15 (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, all sexed up from Third Rock from the Sun), alternately dazzles and deserts his friends--including Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg, Buffy's little sister)--his emotional blankness isn't merely iconic.

Nor does the violence titillate: No massive scissors or swords digging into pelvic flesh here. Araki envisions the child abuse through implication more than image, not only because he has to, but because he's not going to pander to anyone--or to his previous impulse to shock. When Neil, who grows up to be a prostitute, is later raped, the camera concentrates on his face rather than on the act itself. You'd have to go back to that last amazing scene in The Living End (1992) to find brutality with such affect in an Araki movie--violence that actually leaves a mark on both characters and audience. Add the moody score by Harold Budd and Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie, and there's an undeniable sense that action and emotion are meant not only to connect here, but to do so as the viewer might expect.

All of which makes Mysterious Skin quite a conventional movie, especially in Araki terms: Here are causes and effects, a solid structure, even an arc of discovery. The last of these belongs less to the viewer than to the boy whose life is tangled with Neil's. The same summer of 1979, dorky and bespectacled Brian (George Webster) blacks out between a baseball game and his house. By the time he's a dorky and bespectacled teen (Brady Corbet), this mystery and the accompanying nightmares have him believing that he was abducted by aliens. There's never any doubt what happened to Brian. Partly due to that certainty, and partly to Gordon-Levitt's slinky-skanky beauty (much admired by Araki), some people may engage less with Brian's half of the story. In my mind, it's equally satisfying, though more subtle. Brian's interactions with another "abductee" (Mary Lynn Rajskub) have an awkward resonance that speaks eloquently of loser loneliness--which in turn brings to mind the supernatural "flight" of another movie set in Kansas, The Wizard of Oz.

Araki's Nowhere (1997) also deals with imaginative avenues of escape from mental alienation: sex, physical pain, religion, binge eating, romantic love, TV, celebrity crushes, violence. It's splintered and superficial--people-sized lizards stalk the streets, for Christ's sake. But it seems to me just as serious a picture of psychic damage and the impossibility of a "fix" short of death. Indeed, you could feel that Nowhere is the more honest movie in that there's little to no attempt to manipulate the viewer into empathy via in-depth characterization. It's like Johnathon Schaech's X in The Doom Generation (1995): a sexy bauble with spikes (and, if you're lucky, it'll show how Jesus lies within you).

What I'm trying to say is that Mysterious Skin marks less of a creative advance for Araki than a deliberate shift in language. Village Voice critic Dennis Lim argues that this movie is Araki's first to expose the audience as voyeuristic participants within the filmmaker's intensely sexy milieu. Yet both Nowhere and The Doom Generation withhold the consummation of the central homoerotic relationship in what strikes me as a teasing critique of audience desire. The ending of Mysterious Skin is not unique among Araki finales in signifying a sort of bleak survival of the viewer's--and the filmmaker's--sexual appetite for destruction. The difference is in affect, in Araki's choice to make the audience feel the weariness of the one who's objectified.

Which is his own weariness, perhaps. I don't know. What I can say is that, style aside, Mysterious Skin shares with The Living End a specificity of subject, whether abuse or AIDS, that grants both films a translucent, shivery power. In both movies, the "victims" are portrayed as complicated, diverse, and too explosive to merit mere pity. As Lim points out, within the recent spate of American indies about child abuse, only this one seeks the humanity within the abused--i.e., their (child) sexuality, their idiosyncratic responses to the abuser (which in Neil's case includes affection and even gratitude), their creative drive toward distraction and revelation. In Mysterious Skin, joy pours down from above, mixed with horror. And there's no god to blame--only all of us, humming "Silent Night" in our separate skins.

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