[Deep Focus]
Written, Edited, and Directed by Gregg Araki
Starring James Duval, Rose McGowan, and Jonathon Schaech
USA, 1995


The opening credit refers to this as "A Heterosexual Movie by Gregg Araki," and while fans may recognize the cynicism, this certainly qualifies as the director's most het-friendly movie to date. Set pieces at convenience stores, cheap motels, and in the wide-open American spaces will be familiar to straight audiences of all backgrounds. Cameos by the likes of Perry Farrell, Parker Posey and Heidi Fleiss will delight hipsters, and the soundtrack is straight out of a Lollapalooza show. Rose McGowan plays Amy Blue, whose breasts are showcased in the great Hollywood tradition, while the ass shots of her male co-stars are kept to a minimum. And when Jonathon Schaech, as Xavier Red, starts licking his own semen off his hand after masturbating, well, whoops, I guess he's just kind of weird.

Actually, he's just kind of a classical bad influence on our teenage heroes, the kind that Jordan White's mother probably warned him about once upon a time. Jordan (James Duval) and Amy are teenage lovers, and they've been together for about three months, which makes it a serious relationship. Amy spends most of the movie hopped up on crystal meth, so she doesn't eat much, while Jordan is the kind of kid who favors chili dogs from the corner 7-11. Jordan's meek but sincere, affectionate but whiny, while Amy is an assertive loudmouth who takes refuge in a flamboyant vocabulary of four-letter words and much eye-rolling. The two of them are confused innocents, the kind who make doe eyes at one another and mutter sweet nothings like "You're the bright red cherry on top of my sundae," and "I hope we both die simultaneously." And when Jordan breaks off a love-making session in Amy's car, confessing that he's afraid of catching AIDS, she wails up at him plaintively, "But we're both virgins!"

That will change soon enough, as will their status as innocents. The transformation is helped along by Xavier's entrance, when Amy and Jordan help him escape bloodied but mostly unharmed by a knife fight. Jordan's affable as usual, but the newcomer grates on Amy's nerves so much that she ejects him from the car. It's no good, though, because Xavier's back in their lives when he saves them from certain doom at a convenience store. There's a lot of splattered blood, and even a decapitation, but the violence here is played strictly for laughs, and Amy and Jordan escape into a garish night of primary colors that deliberately recalls Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers.

At this point, Araki's still playing the young punk filmmaker, and The Doom Generation is loud and snotty, with a cruel, icy sense of humor. But soon, the film begins to explore the relationship between Amy and Jordan, and Xavier is developed as a sexual catalyst, and even a liberating element. In one shot, Jordan's sitting on the floor next to the bed, and Xavier's head is dangling over his shoulder. "How long have you and Princess Leia been a happy little couple?" he asks, and if Jordan doesn't realize it's a challenge, we do. Xavier watches from the shadows as Amy and Jordan make love, and a little later, when he's seduced Amy himself, Jordan will watch through a window and take a long walk before returning. And when Amy tries to justify sleeping with Xavier in the context of her continuing relationship with Jordan, Jordan just looks at her and says, "Whatever, Amy," without a hint of sarcasm or bitterness.

The biggest surprise in The Doom Generation is how seriously Araki starts to take these kids, who seem at first to have been set up as easy targets for his skewering of American youth, red, white, and blue. There's a lot of sex, but none of it is played for comedy, and all of it has its place in giving voice to the muted emotional relationships between the three kids. Anyone who's familiar with Araki's M.O. will be hip to Xavier's game, but it's very intriguing to watch as the tough, knowing Xavier works his way ever closer to Jordan, using Amy as a pretext. And when Xavier finally does make his move, the picture positively swoons, with quick cuts, gentle lighting, and flesh-on-flesh dissolves. It's as though Araki (who also edited the film) spent most of his time in post-production working on just the last 15 minutes of the movie.

But everything in The Doom Generation is just about right, and to my eyes, it makes a lot of what has passed for great filmmaking lately look mighty tired. Araki's kids are disenfranchised, lonely, and desperate to put on hip airs, but they connect as human beings in a way that Larry Clark's Kids never do. Their post-adolescent sexual longings make Gus Van Sant's To Die For look like cheap soap opera. And stuff like Reality Bites and Natural Born Killers is revealed as the self-conscious sham that it is. Doritos and chili dogs are part of the landscape, but Araki's mining a far more significant vein of our pop culture, and one suspects that no matter how thick the satire is laid on, Araki's got a lot of all three of these kids in him.

Caveat: You can't expect the guy who made The Living End to be happy cobbling together a slice-of-life teen comedy about life on the run or even just how great it is to let go of our sexual inhibitions, and indeed he doesn't. I'd hate to spoil the ending for anybody, but I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't note that it's far from pretty. I have a lot of respect for what Araki's doing, but I do find myself wishing he had looked a little harder to find a way out. These kids pay a heavy price for discovering themselves, and Araki demonstrates that he's a master manipulator of hearts, minds, and guts when his road movie centerpunches its audience across the median and into the oncoming traffic. There are folks who will no doubt love the movie for being such a wrenching experience, and probably even more who will never forgive it.

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