Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Personal Experience



By Tyler Coates | April 9, 2015 // 3:00pm

If you’re going to make a movie about queer people, you’re likely going to get a divisive response. Does it reinforce negative stereotypes? Does it provide an accurate cross-section of the diverse LGBT community? How many think pieces will it incite? In this regular column, we’ll look at depictions of queers in cinema and ask, Was It Good For The Gays? Today we look at Gregg Araki‘s 2004 drama,Mysterious Skin.
Filmmaker Gregg Araki made a name for himself in the early ’90s for his controversial, often bleak films about those living on the fringes of society. His breakout film was 1992’sThe Living End, a comic drama about two HIV-positive drifters who murder a homophobic police officer and, in turn, live a life together on the road. He followed that with his “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy” (comprised of Totally Fucked UpThe Doom Generation, and Nowhere). The films received mixed reviews, but they established Araki as a starkly fascinating artist working within the New Queer Cinema movement. Mysterious Skin, which he made in 2004, is arguably his most well-received feature, but it doesn’t shy away from the dark and controversial nature of his earlier work.
Mysterious Skin is an odd choice to examine in the context of this column, which is something I learned as I watched it for the sole purpose of analyzing it here. I admit that I tried watching it about a decade ago; I didn’t remember much about it as I rewatched it, only that I didn’t care for it when I first saw it (which is why I never finished it). This time around, I remembered how deliberately unsettling it is. I’m not particularly squeamish, but the film’s aggressively disturbing subject matter hit me pretty hard in its opening act — which is, of course, the point.
The film, based on the novel by Scott Heim, follows two young men, Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet), who are linked by an unfortunate event: they are both sexually molested by their baseball coach as eight-year-olds. Both Neil and Brian respond to the abuse in startling different ways. Neil, who at an early age was beginning to experience his own attraction to members of the same sex, responds to his coach’s advances as sexual initiation; he, in turn, becomes a hustler in his rural Kansas town as a young adult, and expresses his attraction to middle-aged men by offering his body for money. Brian, on the other hand, represses the memory of the abuse; he blacks out and doesn’t have any memory of it, but select images of the event makes him believe he was the victim of an alien abduction. He spends his young adulthood on a quest for answers, looking up to the stars for clues as opposed to within his own memories.
Even though Gordon-Levitt and Corbet get equal billing, it’s Neil’s storyline that is the most prominent (I don’t think it’s because Gordon-Levitt was already famous by the time the film was made and Corbet was not). While Brian’s response to his childhood drama is through a somewhat infantile obsession with UFOs and aliens (which masks a fear of sexuality, proven by his response to a botched attempt by a fellow “abductee” to make a move on him), Neil’s sexual compulsion and attraction to men roughly the same age as the man who molested him is a direct response to the abuse he suffered as a child — abuse he misconstrues as a normal, healthy sexual experience.
Neil acts out, then, on his sexual attraction in ways that are unhealthy and, likewise, removed from any personal emotional connection. He participates in risky sex with his johns, which one could argue is a testament to his upbringing (at least in terms of his geographic location, as well as his generation — the film takes place in the late ’80s and early ’90s at the height of the AIDS epidemic, although his Kansas hometown seems worlds away from the gay meccas on either coasts). When Neil does join a childhood friend in New York City, where he continues to perform sex work, he gets a rude awakening of the plague’s impact. First, he goes home with a man who forces him to wear a condom; second, he meets another gentleman whose torso and back are covered with Karposi sarcoma lesions. The latter doesn’t want sex with Neil; rather, he wants a back rub — the sensation of having someone’s hands on his body. It’s a delicately intimate moment, one that Araki doesn’t milk for all its worth. And it’s a great representation of the film’s qualities as a whole.
The experience with the second man broadens Neil’s perspective on intimacy and sex, which until that point was solely about physical desire and little to do with the humanity of his various partners. By the end of the film, Neil chooses a new line of work (as a cashier, which is admittedly less exciting than being a prostitute), but it doesn’t have a happy ending. Neil’s picked up by another older guy, who takes him to his home in the depths of Brooklyn, forces him to snort cocaine, and then violently beats and rapes him. It’s a graphic, startling scene, but the film doesn’t offer it as a lesson of morality — i.e. this is what happens to young men who pursue a life of sex work. Rather, the film as a whole simply depicts the horrors of life that befall those who are unfortunate to experience them. It’s not a cautionary tale, it’s not a representation of the queer experience. Rather, it’s a brutally honest story of two individuals who, by the end of the film, come back together in a shared realization of how their shared childhood trauma deeply affected their lives.
The film ends with Neil and Brian meeting as young men, returning to the home of the predatory baseball coach who abused them. It’s where Brian has his revelation of what exactly happened to him, and when Neil understands, perhaps for the first time, how the event influenced his life entirely. The film raises many questions without offering answers. Compared to the rest of the films covered in this column, Mysterious Skin feels like an extreme outlier as it doesn’t have an agenda whatsoever. Its characters aren’t supposed to represent anyone; rather, they are just fictional lives in a deeply affecting story — one full of pain and heartbreak and confusion. Despite the discomfort it brings, Mysterious Skin is a film worth seeing, as it shows how a perfect cocktail of misunderstanding, trauma, and self-repression can have dangerous effects on the psyche.

* * * * * *

N.B.: I hope this doesn't come off as anything other than honest. I don't identify with "queer" politics. I'm fine with people who do, happy for them to believe, speak, and behave as they wish, and support them in all of that. It just isn't me. What is? The bond with my best buddy, lover, and soulmate. Not to get too new-agey, it feels as if we've been through other lives together, in other places and times. So when I see movies about guys who love each other, and who act on it in a sexual way, I don't look for political correctness, I see it through the experience of Scooter and Bubba.

No comments: