Even more than Pedro Almodóvar, Todd Haynes, and other former enfants terribles of the queer filmmaking world, Gregg Araki seems caught in the double bind of maintaining outré street cred while simultaneously showcasing a more “mature” vision. His Nineties-era oeuvre has become both generational touchstone and lost utopia, with such unapologetically rambunctious and incensed films as The Living End, Totally Fucked Up, and The Doom Generation remembered as much for their promise of an aesthetically and politically engaged queer cinema as for their individual quirks and ragged edges. Araki’s “homo pomo” flippancy, down-and-dirty eroticism, and inchoate dread and rage have become so central to the collective idea of the New Queer Cinema (an idea by no means immune to the warping power of nostalgia) that, for some, any film he makes will be judged mostly by its extremity: how much it fans the “fuck you” flame that Araki helped to light some 20 years ago. But one person’s good fight is another’s lost cause, and Araki’s continuing identification with a largely moribund film movement can give his entire career a perhaps unwarranted but understandable feeling of arrested development. His predilection for youthful protagonists and elbow-nudging visual flourishes only contributes to the notion of Araki as a somehow immature artist, more concerned with flipping you off than pointing the way.
Given these crosscurrents, Araki has done pretty well for himself in the last ten years or so. Mysterious Skin kept the focus on the director’s chosen subject of down-and-out queer teens in turmoil, but displayed a formal control that sharpened his characteristically messy despair to a heart-piercing point. Finally, many trumpeted, Araki has grown up! Stoner comedy Smiley Face soon followed; and while it certainly showcased a shift back to lighter material, the film’s lively embrace of the subgenre and winning central performance by Anna Faris helped Araki avoid charges of backsliding. (And after Mysterious Skin’s sexual-abuse-victims-in-freefall heavy lifting, who would begrudge the filmmaker a palate cleanser of ganja hijinks?)
If Smiley Face was framed as the director’s “take” on the stoner film, however, Kaboom represents a full-blown (and thoroughly self-conscious) return to Araki Land proper. Read Matt Connolly’s review of Kaboom.