Movies We Like
Totally F***ed Up
I grew up enjoying Gregg Araki's films, but I don't think I quite appreciated them until recently. I always saw him as a cult filmmaker--notable for helping to pioneer the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 1990s, but for also telling his stories with a gaudy, B-movie aesthetic that seemed equal parts Russ Meyer and John Waters. I didn't always relate to the lost, Los Angeles-inhabiting teenagers who made up the casts of his films, but I was fascinated by their world of drugs, sexual confusion, and goth/industrial music (and their complete boredom with all of it). Watching Totally F***ed Up now, I find myself compelled by all the same qualities, but also far more touched with Araki's understanding and concern for whom I can only describe as fairly typical teenagers.
The film focuses on a group of gay teens who all seem to have too much free time on their hands. They lounge around pools while chain-smoking cigarettes, take pills and stumble around in empty parking garages, and talk about their complicated relationships while playing children's board games. Andy, a firm believer that love does not exist, is starting to question otherwise after he meets an older college student who wants to be the next Dennis Cooper. Michele and Patricia want a baby, and decide to try their luck with a turkey baster and a bowl of their friends' semen. Tommy isn't looking for a serious commitment with anybody--casually hooking up with random strangers like it's the 1970s. Steven is a budding filmmaker documenting his friends' world, and undergoes a crisis with his lover, Deric, after an older man seduces him with a bootleg tape of a Nine Inch Nails show. "If it was any other band, I probably would have said no," Steven laments later.
Totally F***ed Up tells the stories of these characters in a series of vignettes between video clips of a documentary within the film. It plays out like something of a grittier version of The Breakfast Club with an avant-garde sensibility. Ultimately, it works because it feels real. The characters don't seem like far stretches from the actors playing them, and all of their awkward gestures and emotional outpourings are done with a searing realism of how young people actually talk. The documentary footage adds to the candid feel of it all. From a movie-making standpoint, it's dazzling in how it makes creative usage of a low budget. Araki explains on the DVD commentary track how certain scenes were lit with a car's headlights, and how most of the locations were "stolen" without shooting permits. The final result is a movie that feels refreshingly alive with spontaneity and youthful energy.
Released in 1993, the film also offers a fascinating glimpse at Generation X-era Los Angeles. An exterior shot of the now-defunct Tower Records is used (complete with an advertisement for Jane's Addiction's Ritual De Lo Habitual!), and the infamous Club Fuck is immortalized on film as well. Other locations that are still standing are interesting to see for how little they changed (the Arby's on Sunset, the entrance to Hollywood Forever Cemetery...). The LA-based industrial band Babyland makes a cameo, and many of the props used in the characters' apartments represent what was hip on Melrose Avenue at the time.
This was Araki's follow-up to the seminal The Living End, a film that explored the lives of two HIV-positive young men. It was a very politically-charged film that was groundbreaking for how it portrayed gay relationships. Totally F***ed Up barely touches on the AIDS issues that were especially prevalent in the late '80s/early '90s, instead focusing more on ideas of depression and suicide amongst young gay people. 17 years later it still holds up as an emotionally resonant film, but I wonder if we can watch it and see evidence of America's progress on attitudes towards homosexuality.