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[FILM] Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin"

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  • madchinaman
    Just making the movie that he wanted to make With Mysterious Skin, indie director Gregg Araki shocks with a different kind of story. But don t worry; it s
    Message 1 of 1 , May 25, 2005
      Just making the movie that he wanted to make
      With 'Mysterious Skin,' indie director Gregg Araki shocks with a
      different kind of story. But don't worry; it's not like he's all
      grown up.
      By Mark Olsen, Special to The Times

      Gregg Araki insists that he never went away, never stopped working.
      It has been several years since the release of the writer-director's
      last feature film, and many of the reviews for his
      latest, "Mysterious Skin," have hailed Araki's comeback.

      "Everybody thinks I took a vacation" since the last
      feature, "Splendor" (1999), he says, laughing, "but I've just been
      working the whole time. I did a TV pilot, which turned out really
      great, but like 99% of pilots, it didn't make it to series. People
      think you haven't been working, when really you've spent all this
      time doing this thing nobody sees."

      "Way back in the mid-'90s," as he says, when he burst onto the
      scene, Araki was the bad boy of the ascendant "Queer New Wave" group
      of gay-themed filmmakers. Now in his mid-40s, he has perhaps
      mellowed some, and "Mysterious Skin" certainly is devoid of the self-
      conscious irony and candy-coated pop culture saturation that were
      hallmarks of such earlier films as "The Living End," "The Doom
      Generation" and "Nowhere." Nevertheless, Araki balks somewhat at any
      notion that he's "matured" during the prolonged interval between
      features. He orders a tofu scramble for a recent late-afternoon
      lunch, and proceeds to add brain-scrambling amounts of hot sauce.

      Elaborating on the time elapsed since his last feature, Araki
      says, "I'm a true indie-indie. It's just me. I don't have a company.
      I don't have any employees. So I'm always developing a bunch of
      stuff at the same time. I'm always working on five projects at once.
      And when one project becomes active, when things start happening,
      everything else stops and I become focused on just the one thing."

      An adaptation of the novel by Scott Heim, "Mysterious Skin" tells
      the story of two young men in the small town of Hutchinson, Kan.,
      and the ways in which sexual abuse at the hands of a beguiling
      Little League coach many summers before has scarred them in
      distinctly different ways. For one of the boys (Joseph Gordon-
      Levitt) the abuse becomes a crucial marker in the process of his own
      coming out; however, he has emotionally hardened into a ruthless
      street hustler. The other boy (Brady Corbet) has sublimated his
      experience so completely he believes he was abducted by aliens.

      Araki came across the novel in 1995. After that, he kept crossing
      paths with the project, such as when he recommended Heim to the
      Sundance Writers Lab. Although he was keenly interested in bringing
      the book to the screen, it wasn't until that ill-fated television
      pilot that he solved what he saw as very specific problems in how to
      shoot the film, in particular how to present the scenes involving 8-
      year-olds in a way that was emotionally powerful and darkly
      disturbing on screen while innocuous and harmless to the young

      "It helped me doing the pilot because I was working a lot with
      subjective camera and point of view and eyelines," explains
      Araki. "It was through the visual planning of that, that I figured
      out a way to shoot 'Mysterious Skin.'

      "It was really important to me to keep the scenes with the small
      children, because for me that was one of the things about the book
      that made it so unique. It was really important to me to do those
      scenes, but I didn't want to traumatize a child actor. I figured out
      how to shoot those scenes using subjective camera, so the kids could
      basically be protected from what the movie is about."

      As editor of his own pictures, Araki was able to precisely modulate
      between the dramatic demands of his script and the practical demands
      of his production. "It was very tricky," he says. "Obviously, the
      parents knew what was happening. I storyboard all my movies very
      carefully, so it was all very controlled and very planned out.

      "It was almost like shooting two different movies. I wrote this
      whole alternate script so the boys' lines had a motivation, and
      moment-to-moment had the right emotional beats, but I knew as the
      person shooting and editing it exactly what I needed from each shot,
      and I knew exactly what parts of what shots I was going to use.

      "It was all carefully planned to keep the kids protected."

      The story changes his style

      While many viewers may see "Mysterious Skin" as the first film from
      a "new" Gregg Araki, for the director himself any perceived changes
      in his filmmaking style were simply in service of the story.

      "I loved the book so much, I really wanted to make a faithful
      adaptation of the story. I really wanted to bring this story to the
      screen in a way that was true to what the book was about. It wasn't
      like I wanted to make a Gregg Araki movie and throw in a couple
      things from the book."

      As for those reviewers who have used the occasion of even positive
      notices for "Mysterious Skin" to bash his earlier work, the director
      is unbothered.

      "It's a little weird for me, that certain reviewers, who will go
      unmentioned, feel the need to embrace 'Mysterious Skin' at the
      expense of my other movies. I'm just happy for 'Mysterious Skin,'
      but if people don't like my other movies it's not like I lose sleep
      over it."

      Those earlier movies were filled with depictions of fluid sexuality,
      cartoon violence, drugs, stylized sets, and in-joke cameos from such
      tabloid-infamous figures as Heidi Fleiss and Traci Lords, as well as
      actors plucked from retro pop-gems "The Brady Bunch," "The Love
      Boat" and "Three's Company." If the overall effect could sometimes
      be likened to downing too many Pixy Stix too quickly, the
      affectation of ironic nihilism and despair in the films now seems
      time-capsule quaint.

      Though he is hesitant to use the "m" (for mature) word, Araki can
      see the ways in which audiences may be shocked by the emotional
      wallop of "Mysterious Skin," and, not surprisingly, he enjoys the

      "I like that it was a real departure for me, and that people didn't
      expect it. I really appreciate that aspect of it, that I've never
      done a serious drama before. I do think that the film totally makes
      sense with all my other movies, there is a thematic similarity and
      the sensibilities of Scott and myself are really attuned to each
      other. It's not as if I've directed 'Chicago.' "

      And though he is "at peace with it," Araki hopes the day will come
      when he will be seen simply as a filmmaker and leave the "Queer
      Cinema" tag behind. "All of us at the time — Tom Kalin, Todd Haynes,
      myself — we always said this is not a movement, we never planned
      this. A true new wave, like the French New Wave, they sat around and
      planned to change cinema. Whereas we were just independently doing
      our own thing.

      "It's stayed with us to this day. Literally every interview
      for 'Mysterious Skin' has asked about the Queer New Wave. And it has
      been a huge benefit, but it's also sort of insulting, like I have to
      exist only as this identity. I understand why it happened, the
      dynamics of how it happened, but what I've always said is it's
      something we never came up with, it's not our idea."

      Following one more forkful of hot sauce to stoke the fires, Araki,
      with slight exasperation, says, "I'm just the wrong person to talk
      to about these things. I remember when 'The Living End' came out, my
      producer at the time said, 'You're this gay punk filmmaker that
      really [upsets] gay people.' "
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