Greg Araki staked out his place in the film world with the advent of so-called New Queer Cinema, a crop of gay filmmakers who in the early 1990s rebelled against the idea of ‘positive representation’ and embraced a more confrontational, punky ethos. The movement was short-lived and never really made an impact on the mainstream, although its influence can be felt in films that are shown at venues like the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. The most prominent and intellectual film-maker to come out of New Queer Cinema was Todd Haynes, who was Oscar-nominated a couple of years ago for his superb Douglas Sirk-inspired Far From Heaven.
Araki’s trademark has been to channel queer teenage anger and sexual energy into a defined aesthetic, which nods to elements of pop culture such as MTV video-clips, B-Movies and other sub-cultural grammar. But, unlike Haynes, so far he never seems to have hit the nail on the head and his films have been plagued with a certain teenage petulance. Past films like The Living End and Doom Generation had a certain misplaced energy: though certainly nice-looking and ‘cutting-edge’, the films were not really intellectually satisfying.
Araki’s new film is based on Scott Heim’s debut novel in which one of the heroes, the geeky Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet) believes he was abducted by aliens at the age of eight because of two blank-out moments which he can’t account for. Running parallel to Corbet’s story is the story of Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an indie type who hustles for a living and who may hold the solution to Lackey’s childhood mystery. The film is quintessentially American in its sense of small-town weirdness, as is the look of the film, sometimes redolent of Cindy Sherman’s ‘film stills’ with a nod to David Lynch.
Mysterious Skin seems to signal that Araki is reaching maturity – and it is probably the film that will garner him some cross-over success: it has moments of beauty and genuine emotion, and the cinematography is beautifully composed, the antonym of the gritty documentary feel pursued by much independent cinema these days.
Araki seems to have found a balanced way to cinematically portray the issue of paedophilia, which has become one of the big issues of our times, without succumbing to the medieval hysteria that usually stifles any mention of the topic (it’s a good companion film to Todd Solondz’s Palindromes in that respect). The young cast deliver good performances and those who nurture nostalgia for the 1980s look will be in for a visual treat.