Totally Fucked UP
by Jon Bastian
First in the teen angst trilogy from Director Gregg Araki.
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It’s probably a fortunate thing that I watched Gregg Araki’s “teen angst” trilogy in reverse order. The last film of the three, Nowhere, is a funny, compelling and visually accomplished day in the life story. The second film, The Doom Generation, is a tensely erotic road trip. Part one, Totally Fucked Up, is the most experimental and least narrative of the three, and probably the least accessible to a larger audience. Still, if you’ve seen either or both of the other two films and appreciated Araki’s unique artistry as a director, you’ll definitely want to get Totally Fucked Up. Why not? Most of Araki’s characters do…
As an alternate title for the film, in case its given moniker disturbs you, I’d suggest. “Six Gay Teens In Search of an Answer.” Then again, if the film’s title bothers you, the film’s content would make your head explode. Not that there’s anything graphic at all, except maybe for one or two anatomically correct inserted clips from old films. It’s just that Araki deals with real life and real teens, not their glossy Hollywood counterparts. The movie is partly seen through a documentary film that one of those teens, Steven (Gilbert Luna), is making, and partly snatches of his friends’ real lives. There’s Andy (James Duval, Gone In Sixty Seconds), probably the most confused of the bunch. He’s one of those people who doesn’t know what he wants, but will know what he doesn’t want it when he sees it. On the flipside is Tommy (Roko Belic), who seems to want (and get) every guy he sees. His motto is “Wham, bam, later, man…” We also have the happy lesbian couple, Michele (Susan Behshid) and Patricia (Jenee Gill), for whom life is a picket fence fantasy full of tender kisses and the pitter patter of turkey bastered feet. Rounding out the appropriately numbered sextet is Deric (Lance May), Steven’s boyfriend, who’s already pushing Steven toward the world of old married couple while pulling back in the sack.
By way of exposition, we’re told and see these kids’ feelings about sex, commitment, AIDS, love and death, cut with billboardish intertitle commentary and odd film clips. Then, Araki gives us the most appropriately true and funny intertitle I think I’ve ever seen in this kind of film, and we proceed with somewhat of the story, as Andy meets Ian (Alan Boyce, Nowhere) and falls in love with him while Tommy is having family problems and Steven and Deric are hitting a rocky road. Only Patricia and Michele seem above the fray as they work their way toward artificial insemination.
Totally Fucked Up is not as narratively strong or coherent as the other two films. Its story is very slight, pretty much the ups and downs of two couples and the redemption of a slut. Still, Araki manages to make it compelling by what he chooses to show us. At one point, we’re only catching the briefest glimpses of moments from the characters’ lives, but they’re so finely focused that we understand exactly what’s going on.
Araki’s visual style is very strong. Sometimes, we’re in intimate close-ups that put us right in the character’s faces. Other times, our heroes literally vanish into bigger-than-life postcard panoramas of some of LA’s more garish landmarks. There isn’t a lot of cutting within scenes, and yet Araki has such a painterly eye in his compositions that the film hardly seems static. Frequently, he draws us into the action by distancing us from it, making us participatory voyeurs who have to work to spy on his characters. This technique is particularly apt, since this film and its two follow-ups are principally about alienation and angst.
Totally Fucked Up often seems like practice for Nowhere. That film’s “kick the can” Ecstasy communion is actually lifted from this film, and both movies’ endings are eerily similar, though the latter ups the ante considerably. As always, Araki manages to create an underlying sense of danger even in the most innocuous moments, a trait most strongly seen in The Doom Generation. The major difference here is that Araki actually lets James Duval get the guy, although his character is ultimately no happier for it.
The performances work for the most part, although they’re a bit uneven, with May’s Deric the most wooden and Behshid and Gill’s lesbians coming across as the most real. Luna shows the most emotional range as he tries to woo back Derick, although Belic is the standout here, morphing from glib and horny teen at the beginning to the diamond that Tommy really is after all the coal is kicked off. Hard to believe neither of them has done much since as film actors, although Belic popped up as a delivery boy in something called Fame Whore before turning to directing and producing. Meanwhile, Duval is…well, I’ve decided, Duval. I still haven’t figured out whether he’s a good actor or not, but as the centerpiece of all three films, he certainly establishes a distinctive persona as the confused and alienated teen who doesn’t realize he’d have happiness if only he’d stop chasing after it so damn much.
Totally Fucked Up isn’t for everybody. If you didn’t like Nowhere or The Doom Generation, you won’t find much in this one. Likewise, if you’d be disturbed by the lives of six gay teenagers told without being glossed over by commercial bullshit, go rent Norman, Is That You? or some other ancient and patronizing token gay film. If you’ve made it through this checklist without eliminating yourself and want to see an early work by a director who has since proven himself, this film is worth checking out. Then again, real stories about interesting characters with distinct needs usually are, no matter how experimental the style in which they are told.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. He is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade.
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