Monday, December 30, 2013

Totally F***ed Up (1993): The Downfall of Generation X, Part 1 (Suicide)

Totally F***ed Up (1993)
dir: Gregg Araki

In 1993, Gregg Araki embarked on a 3-film odyssey that served as his own personal farewell to youth as he knew it. He had been watching all of the behaviors of the gay teenagers around him, and also seeing how they interacted with the culture art large, and had been noticing certain trends. The Teenage Apocalypse trilogy can be seen as the oncoming co-option of certain subcultures, but it can also be seen as the end of the teenage years of Generation X as they move into adulthood.

Grunge, No Wave, Goth, and Industrial music

In 1993, teens were adopting adult culture faster and faster. In 1991, Nevermind brought the aggressive and aggressively negatory grunge scene to the forefront of American culture. The music that surrounded Nevermind was a wide range of aggression, depression, and nihilistic apathy. If that was the mainstream culture, what was the underground?

One of the subcultures that had been developing through the '80s, and came bubbling closer to the surface in the wake of Nevermind's crunchiness was the goth-industrial scene. The scene had its roots in the works of Kraftwerk, David Bowie, Post-punk and No Wave. Lydia Lunch, in a more recent interview on the roots of No Wave in the late 70s, said "Nihilistic? The whole fucking country was nihilistic. What did we come out of? The lie of the Summer of Love into Charles Manson and the Vietnam War. Where is the positivity? I'm supposed to be fucking positive? Fuck you! You want positive, go elsewhere. Go find a different lie." In the same interview, China Burg said "It was nihilism in the sense of a rejection of the future."

The industrial scene that grew out of no wave took this giant ball of noise and static and ran. They made music that was darker, angrier, and even more aggressive than No Wave had seen, taking sonic cues from the heavy metal scenes that industrial was also patently against. The goth scene, which is intrinsically tied in both tastes and attitude, grew out of brooding and nihilism. The works of Siouxsie and the Banshees demonstrates a more brooding icy sound that would show how the trippy tinged shoegazing genre would be co-opted by a group of people who are just as happy to stomp their feet and shout as they are to broodingly shufflestep and clean the cobwebs of their mind.

Homosexuality and HIV/AIDS

The next prong is the gay seen by a teenager. In 1969, as we've constantly mentioned before, Stonewall happened, launching queer pride. But, in 1978, HIV/AIDS started hitting the gay groups, and in 1981 it was fully recognized by the CDC. The adults, and new youths were rallying around Act Up and trying to get funding for the crisis through the 1980s. Reagan didn't mention AIDS until 4 years after CDC came on record about it, and really provide adequate funding for it until 1987.

Part of that funding went into preventative education. As teenagers were going through sex ed, straights and gays in the more liberal cities were getting full on STD talks, and going on about condoms. I remember one of my cousins having a sticker on the wall that said that condoms had pores and there was a 7% chance of failure, or something. I didn't mention it to her at the time, but it was a weird sticker to have on her mirror.

Gay teenagers were also being told that they had to be extra careful because of HIV and AIDS and how horrific this disease was, because HIV/AIDS was still equated as a death sentence. Fear of sex was growing and growing through the good intentions of STD prevention. Bret Easton Ellis would note this in The Rules of Attraction which features a female student looking at pictures of STD-ridden genitalia in order to stop her from having random sex.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, more major cities and metropolises saw some major moves towards acceptance of gays, at least in terms of cultural visibility. There was the ongoing influence of Warhol. Keith Haring's art was decidedly gay, and widely accepted. But, while gays were starting to become more integrated in the major cities, gays were still outsiders even in those major cities. There were still gay bashings. There was still in school bullying. There was still outside pressures from church and news. The politicians were still all against the gays for moral votes. It was a time period where gay teenagers were starting to feel accepted enough to participate in the subcultures of their straight peers. However, especially if they were closeted, they participated in angry bitter nihilistic subcultures, such as the goth-industrial scene. One of my friends put it, if you were a gay teenager in the 90s, you had a larger chance of being attracted to lyrics like "I wanna feel you from the insides."

So, we have the nihilism of the no wave scene co-opted into the goth-industrial scene. The oncoming acceptance of gays. The anger and nihilistic tonality of the HIV/AIDS discussions. But, there's still a part missing.

The Real World and Slacker

MTV, in May 1992, started the new-fangled The Real World which was one of the first reality television shows to actually hit big. It didn't invent the genre, but it did bring it to a new light, and it brought everything to the teenagers. The Real World, original flavor, was not purely exploitative. Sure, they cast a couple of colorful characters, but the main intent of The Real World was exposure to multiple alternative viewpoints, and the emotions that happen when people who come from different walks of life actually have to face each other. The Real World also had been instrumental in bringing homosexuality into the common discussion as part of real life and not just that of eccentric, disgusting, artists. They had an openly bi dude, Norman Korpi, in the first season.

The Real World would also have an influence on how kids were communicating with each other, and also on the style of Totally F***ed Up. The style of Totally F***ed Up is a mix of video diary/documentary interview and semi-professionally filmed scenes. This style wasn't original then, but it was increasingly prevalent among youths of a certain age. The grungy Houston movie, Reality Bites, even trainspotted this a bit to discuss the commercialization of youth and their subculture in a more succinct and commercial venue.

Coincidentally, also in 1991, Richard Linklater released the landmark-y indie film Slacker, which also influenced everything. Richard Linklater orchestrated a film which felt like a single roving camera following characters as they talked about their strange goings-ons in Austin, TX. It took the documentary feel of a handheld camera, the casual feel of a guy walking around and following people, the reality show feel of life, and turned it all into one big ball of life. This would be one of the defining movies of the Gen X culture (along with Clerks).

Generation X (1965-1978)

Gen X is the generational wave of babies that is defined by a people born in a range of time from the mid-1960s to the early-1980s. For the longest time, it would generally be considered 1964-ish to 1979-ish, and only until recently have some of the scholars been putting it the end date as 1981, and some all the way to 1984. Using the core range, however, Gen X would be hitting 18 from the years 1982 through 1997. Gen X was defined by its pointed rejection of leadership and anti-establishment natures, while also not seeking to replace the culture. It was a collective, "Well, the Boomers fucked up. What the fuck are we going to do?"

Generation X is, in quotes from Wikipedia:

- "Compared with previous generations, Generation X represents a more apparently heterogeneous generation, openly acknowledging and embracing social diversity in terms of such characteristics as race, class, religion, ethnicity, culture, language, gender identity, and sexual orientation."

- "Unlike their parents who challenged leaders with an intent to replace them, Gen X'ers are less likely to idolize leaders."

Basically, an open-minded attempt at creating the soup that is America with no real needed leadership structure. This is Generation X when they were coming out of high school. Not as they are now, which are as an industrious generation when we can be. But, as an angry, disaffected youth who were seeing all the corruption and hypocrisy of the leaders we knew and hated. Reagan and George H.W. Bush reducing taxes on the rich, while increasing spending through the roof. And, in 1993, Bill Clinton would take office to reduce the debt while also selling out the middle class and sign DOMA and DADT into policy. So, jaded was the name of the game.

Just to sum up. Gays coming out after Stonewall. No Wave leading up to goth-industrial. HIV/AIDS being funded in 1987-ish. STD education coming online hardcore in the mid-80s. SlackerNevermindThe Real World. Goth/industrial, with Nine Inch Nails releasing Broken in 1992. And, they were all coming alive and marking the life legacy of Generation X.

Totally F***ed Up

Gregg Araki opens Totally F***ed Up with the title card, "Another homo movie by Gregg Araki" with the letters as punch-outs filled with the static of television. And, of course, the title card. In two succinct cards, we're talking about television (the MTV Generation), homosexuality, nihilism, ironic posturing, and anger.

What Totally F***ed Up is, on the surface at least, is a portrayal the life of Los Angeles gay youth as they see themselves. It is a based-in-reality portrayal of kids doing stupid shit that gay kids do. They listen to Ministry, Front 242, and other goth industrial bands. Fall in and out of love. Cheat. Hurt each other. Ironically play shitty board games about heterosexual coupling. Fuck. Worry about HIV/AIDS. Do drugs. This is the life of gay youth on the outskirts of life. Not associating with drag queens and musicals as one expects gay kids to do.

It is told in 15 segments, each of which feature a certain theme. One segment is about safe sex and post-HIV coupling.  Another is about how you score a baby if you're a lesbian but are conflicted about safe sex. Another is about how you pick up new tricks or boyfriends. Another is about gay bashings.

The semblance of structural narrative concerns James Duval as a gay boy who picks up his first real, older, love. He falls head over heels, though doesn't show it. But, James Duval discovers that the guy is cheating on him the night one of his friends was beaten, and offs himself when he can't contact anybody about his existential dread.

Everybody else is living their lives, but they have no real end to their story. One guy cheats on his boyfriend, and is dumped harshly, but they have the same circle of friends so everybody is annoyed. The lesbians stay together in lesbian fashion.

Totally F***ed Up is a complete and effective portrait of gay subcultural youth rejecting the gay culture, and the mainstream culture to embrace the goth-industrial culture and each other. It portrays the gay lifestyle as completely normal compared to the hetero lifestyle, with some guys even desiring monogamous relationships (just like the arguments over monogamy vs open relationships in The Boys in the Band), yet still as outsider through their co-option of the gothic trappings and disaffected stances.

Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, Part 1

What Araki is beginning isn't the opening shot of gay youth. He's starting to document how a generation finally will off itself. The ending of Generation X by the oncoming commercialism and the rejection of Gen X ideals by the incoming Gen Y (aka the Millennials).

The Teenage Apocalypse trilogy details three different ways to kill a culture: Suicide, Murder, and Abandonment. It also presents three different filters through which one can view a culture: Documentary, In-Culture Fiction, and External Fiction. The filters and the methods of death are completely related.

Totally F***ed Up uses the form of the pseudo-documentary and reality television in order to show how teenagers would document their lives if they didn't have to worry about fictionalizing their attitudes for some audience. Totally F***ed Up is the equivalent of reading somebody's diary. In the avant-garde form, half lifted from the French New Wave and half from The Real World, Araki's characters are allowed to fill in some of the details with inter-section title cards dictating what they were actually thinking at the time of the situation. For instance, a title card will say "Not so safe sex."

Sometimes these title cards are foreboding, much like the shot of the news article about gay teen suicide. But, sometimes these title cards dictate exactly what the teenagers are getting from the culture at large. The messages they're receiving from the music or people in their lives. Most of these title card are pointing to the defining of the apathy that was defining the culture Totally F***ed Up was detailing.

These cards would also point to the suicide that is related to this. In documentaries, teens can be more vulnerable. In fiction, everybody has a big shot attitude that is somewhat of a Fuck You attitude that will point to an ironic vulnerability. In reality, these attitudes also are prevalent, but the shields come down when one is on their own.

It is why we are able to get the vulnerable shot of Duval calling all of his friends, and getting no answer, or getting busy signals. This wouldn't happen in a fiction movie, without real cause. When Duval coldly tells his friend that he "got burned. N.B.D." it is the ironic posturing that is the actual makeup of these teenagers. And, so it is fitting that it would end in suicide compared to the violence that happens in both The Doom Generation and Nowhere.

This also poses the question that the outside world is forcing the teens to kill themselves. There is nothing really to live for. The world sucks. Sex is a hassle. Intimacy could be a sham. The teenage culture of ironic distancing can only last so long. Of course ending it yourself is a way out of this emotionless hellholes.

It is really no wonder why the inverse culture is the one that would replace the goth-industrial complex. The emo took over for the goth in the early '00s. It is for the kids who feel deeply, are sensitive souls who need to find a connection and project their turmoil inwards instead of outwards. Suicide made little sense because of external pressures. To the emo crowd, suicide became the way to end the inner turmoil.

As a metaphor for the culture, Duval is the stand-in for the distanced edge of the culture. Killing himself out of a joyless panic because he has been replaced for a newer unseen culture is the only solution. And, that's what Totally F***ed Up is ultimately about. Culture expiration and replacement.

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