Illustrated by Kelly Doherty/OutWrite
This article was originally published in our Winter 2023 print issue “Culture.”
It’s not every day that your new gay crush climbs through your window, confesses their love, and then promptly explodes in a shower of blood “Alien” style, leaving behind a cockroach-like extraterrestrial.
But it happens in Gregg Araki’s surrealist sextravaganza “Nowhere.”
With a directing career born out of his desire to see underrepresented, marginalized groups “identify themselves via the cinema machine,” queer, Japanese American director Gregg Araki is no stranger to disrupting the traditional Hollywood narrative. Beyond his transgressive portrayals of queer and marginalized characters, his cinematic worlds are equally distinctive, characterized by the provocative and obscene, the nihilistic and romantic, and love-it-or-hate-it plotlines. When Araki does engage with tropes, he takes exhausted cliches and revitalizes them in queer and punk spaces, soaking them with shoegaze before lighting them on fire with neon light.
Araki’s work with genre is equally significant. Over the years, his efforts have brought queer characters into genres we never expected to see them in before — everything from the sappy coming-of-age film to the Bonnie-and-Clyde-style road movie. Yet perhaps the most significant feature of his experimentation is Araki’s lifelong relationship with the sci-fi genre. Specifically in the films
“Totally F***ed Up” and “Nowhere” from his “Teenage Apocalypse” trilogy, Araki fashions LA into a dystopian landscape filled with empty parking structures, premonitions of disaster, and the occasional laser-gun-equipped, real-life space alien. Playing with the themes and genre expectations of past sci-fi films, Araki channels the experiences of queer youth living in post-Reagan, post-AIDS America — an experience not unlike living through an apocalypse.
The 1993 drama “Totally F***ed Up” has a pretty straightforward premise, focusing on the everyday struggles of six queer teens (four gay men and a lesbian couple) living on the outskirts of a heteronormative society. One of the film’s distinguishing features is its structure; within the first couple of minutes, a flickering, blue text flashes onto the screen and introduces the story as a collection of “fifteen random celluloid fragments.” Indeed, “fragments” is the perfect word to use here with Araki collecting and collaging snippets of old news footage throughout.
The film opens with an image of a cityscape overlaid by wisps of swirling smoke. Next, it cuts to a newspaper article with the headline “Suicide Rate High Among Gay Teens,” reporting on two 15-year-old boys from Wisconsin who found out their families were moving apart and entered a suicide pact together. These images sink past the audience’s eyes and settle into a collective subconscious, only to resurface 45 minutes later when Andy brings up the story while on a date with his boyfriend, Ian. By occasionally referencing the oppression the queer community experiences in and beyond the bounds of LA, Araki instills a sense of existential fear within his cast and his own viewers.
Beyond Araki’s distinctive editing style, his depiction of LA is uniquely alien and devastatingly lonely. Scenes mostly take place at night and under the cover of highway overpasses and parking garages (this choice could be attributed to the director’s cinematic vision, or maybe out of the mere convenience of not having to obtain location permits). As a result of this decision, his characters’ world is often deserted and submerged in twilight. Araki’s characters wonder aloud at the bleak state of their surroundings, remarking that it’s like someone “dropped a nuclear bomb and nobody noticed” and calling LA the “alienation capital of the world.” Even when they run into other people on the street, the circumstances are bizarre. At one point, Andy and Ian have their meet-cute as a woman in a nightgown and hair rollers screams at the top of her lungs nearby. Later on, when Andy seeks out Ian’s company at his apartment complex, he sees a girl dragging a barely clothed man down a flight of stairs. He doesn’t ask any questions. In fact, he barely registers the pair, as if this surreal darkness was meant to be ignored.
To understand the numbness plaguing Andy and his friends in “Totally F***ed Up,” it is essential to examine the social and political changes that preceded the film’s release. By 1993, the queer community had already witnessed the decade-long progression of the AIDS epidemic, its devastating casualties, and the Reagan administration’s apathetic response to what they called “gay plague.” In a 2015 interview with Araki, he spoke about the emotional impact of the AIDS crisis on his generation, stating “as a young person in your twenties or thirties, you were just surrounded by constant death. Your time was very limited by the simple fact that you were gay.”
This pessimistic perspective makes its way through the film, directly voiced by the character Michele. When asked about her thoughts on AIDS, she angrily declares, “It’s like a government-sponsored genocide! Biological warfare. I mean, think about it, a deadly virus that’s spread only through premarital sex and needle drugs? It’s like a born-again Nazi republican wet dream come true.” With a completely justified distrust for the US government and a constant risk of contracting a sickness with no cure, the nihilism of Araki’s young characters comes into focus. Andy, Tommy, Michele, Patricia, Steven, and Deric’s cynical outlook on the present and future undoubtedly shifts their belief in romance, family life, and a just society. Araki externalizes their emotional despair in his cinematography, presenting the audience with a decaying LA landscape and apocalyptic threats.
If the first entry of Araki’s “Teenage Apocalypse” Trilogy dabbled in apocalyptic themes, “Nowhere” takes subtle sci-fi elements and pushes them to their limit. The story takes place over the course of a day, following a group of polyamorous, drugged-out teenagers on their way to a big party. They go about their usual routine: having sex (lots of it), skipping class, and playing their version of kick the can — except that LA is currently experiencing its first alien invasion. Yes, that’s right. Amidst polka-dotted bathrooms and oddly decorated bedroom sets, a comically campy lizard creature is abducting boys and vaporizing valley girls with a laser gun. Unfortunately, Dark, an unwilling member of a throuple with his girlfriend Mel and her girlfriend Lucifer, is the only person who can see it.
While this film may not be Araki’s best, “Nowhere” has its tender moments when its high-flying UFO of a plot lands in human emotions. At the end of the movie’s short 1 hour and 20 minute runtime, Dark lays in bed after the party and reflects upon the violence and loss he has experienced in the past 24 hours. He narrates a melancholic diary entry, wishing aloud, “I know there’s got to be somebody out there somewhere —just one person in this huge, horrible, unhappy universe who can hold me in their arms and tell me everything’s gonna be okay. But how long do I have to wait before that person shows up?” Over the course of his monologue, the comic alien invasion metamorphosizes into something much more: an allegory for the queer community’s loss as a whole. Time is running out for these characters, but no one is looking out for them and no one seems to notice when they are gone. In the blink of an eye, Dark loses someone and simultaneously learns to carry on. There is no time to grieve; people can only try to survive.
In conclusion, Araki takes the sci fi genre in his hands and molds it into something queer. Disaster footage and depictions of post-apocalyptic LA accurately capture a generation’s struggle for survival in the early 90s. Meanwhile, threats of being literally vaporized and figuratively “disappeared” hint at a future where these queer characters may no longer exist, marginalized to the point of extinction. It would be a mistake to assume that Araki’s depiction is entirely negative, however. We can look to the characters of “Totally F***ed Up” and “Nowhere” for examples of our community’s resilience, of our enduring hope that we may still strive for love and company at the end of the world.
Author: Kristin Haegelin (She/Her)
Artist: Kelly Doherty (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Michel (He/They), Min Kim (They/Them)