Aug. 24, 2005 - Issue #514: Mysterious Skin
The Araki insurgency
Bad-boy director Gregg Araki grows up with haunting Mysterious Skin
The characters in Gregg Araki’s new film Mysterious Skin include a predatory, pedophilic Little League coach, an emotionally damaged teenaged boy who’s convinced he was abducted by a UFO when he was eight years old, another emotionally damaged teenaged boy who becomes a gay hustler, and that boy’s sad, desperate middle-aged johns. While there are moments of great beauty in it, the film is also painful, haunting and upsetting in its portrayal of the aftereffects of child sexual abuse. Araki doesn’t shy away from including some fairly graphic scenes of gay male sex, as well as a brutal scene in which Neil, the male prostitute, gets beaten up by one of his “dates.”
In other words, Mysterious Skin is not exactly what you’d call typical multiplex fare, which is why Araki—the bad-boy director whose nihilistic, outrageously campy, often juvenile films The Doom Generation, The Living End and Totally F***ed Up put him in the vanguard of the “New Queer Cinema” movement of the early ‘90s—is a little amazed that people are calling it his most accessible film yet. “It’s hardly what I was expecting would happen when I set out to make it,” Araki says via e-mail from the Los Angeles offices of Desperate Pictures, his production company. (True to his in-your-face directing style, he’s an all-capper.) “At screenings, I’ve had my usual devoted Doom Generation/Nowhere fans coming up to me telling me how much they love the film, but also grandmothers in their 60s, super-hetero Mormon guys, women of all age ranges and walks of life. I think the film really touches a universal chord, and despite some tough scenes and challenging subject matter, people really relate to the emotional journey the film takes you on.”
An adaptation of Scott Heim’s acclaimed 1995 novel, Mysterious Skin has many of the hallmarks of Araki’s past work: a casual, matter-of-fact approach to gay sexuality; an affection for trashy pop culture artifacts (the film opens with an image of a boy smiling rapturously as Froot Loops rain down on his face); a fondness for casting TV sitcom stars in unexpected, image-subverting roles. But there’s a new seriousness to Araki’s filmmaking—the characters aren’t cartoons this time out, but complicated, multilayered, suffering human beings, and the presence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (best-known until now as one of the aliens on 3rd Rock From the Sun) in the pivotal role of Neil is no smirky stunt, like the cameos by Lauren Tewes and Christopher Knight in The Doom Generation. On the contrary, Gordon-Levitt gives an astonishingly rich, subtle, charismatic performance that conveys the pain Neil has carried around with him for half his life without reducing him to a one-dimensional victim. There’s an extraordinary scene between Neil and a lesion-covered john (played with exquisite delicacy by veteran character actor Billy Drago) that displays a level of tenderness and emotional intimacy you’d never have guessed either Gordon-Levitt or Araki was capable of.
Here’s the rest of my conversation with Gregg Araki.
Vue Weekly: When you read Scott Heim’s novel, did you immediately know you wanted to make a movie out of it? Did you have a clear vision of how you could adapt it, or were there scenes that you really had no idea how you’d translate them to film?
Gregg Araki: I first read Scott’s novel back in 1995, but it took me several years to figure out a way to actually make it into a film. It was imperative to me that the child actors playing eight-year-old Brian and Neil be protected from the adult content and subject matter—but at the same time, those scenes with the young boys are crucial to the cumulative emotional impact of the story. After experimenting with subjective camera and point-of-view in other projects, I was able to devise a strategy using point-of-view camera, careful editing and storyboards that could get me the shots I needed without the young boys having to know what the story was about. (Their parents, of course, had read the whole script and I discussed how the scenes would be shot in detail with them.) So the young actors, Chase Ellison and George Webster, were able to perform their scenes, emotional beat to emotional beat, without really knowing the full story. Chase and George had separate scripts with them which allowed me to get the shots I needed. It never ceases to amaze me how natural and nuanced the young boys’ performances are—especially since I know, as the director who was there on set, that they don’t even know what they’re reacting to.
VW: What do you think is the most significant thing your involvement added to the story? What part of the novel did it pain you the most to have to leave out?
GA: The film is, of course, tighter and the action is more compressed than the novel, which has more time to ramble and develop characters and situations. But it’s very, very faithful to the book and I really wanted to preserve as much of the incredible story that Scott created as possible. In a weird way, the story is almost ideally suited to the directness and intimacy of the cinematic medium. The power of the novel is that it is told in a series of first-person accounts of what Brian and Neil go through, and in that subjectivity, it sheds a light on a world you could never even imagine. In the past, most clichéd “TV-movie” depictions of this subject would show a shot of a closing door and violins playing on the soundtrack just as the abuse starts to happen. But Mysterious Skin puts the audience in the place of the kids—we see the world and all that happens through their eyes. That’s what makes it so devastating—just as the young protagonists are powerless over the events that happen, the audience sitting there in the dark is also in a similar state of emotional vulnerability..
VW: You edited the film as well, and you’ve given it some very unusual, “soft” editing rhythms. I don’t know how to describe it technically, but it’s as though, when you cut from Neil’s storyline to Brian’s storyline, you pause and take a little breath first before gently switching over. Am I imagining things, or is that an effect you were consciously trying to achieve?
GA: The melancholy, measured pacing and style were all really straight out of the book, and my number-one priority was always to be faithful and true to Scott’s original vision—the contrast between the aesthetic beauty of how the book was written and the darkness of the subject matter is what makes the novel so riveting. So I told my DP and my designers that I wanted Mysterious Skin to be “the most beautiful film ever made.” All the imagery is very carefully lit, composed, colour-designed, edited, et cetera. Plus there’s the unbelievably gorgeous score composed by ambient legend Harold Budd and ex-Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie. So the movie becomes this dreamy, otherworldly experience—like a great Wong Kar-Wai or Terrence Malick film.
VW: It seems appropriate to set this story in the ’80s; in the present day, UFO abductions just don’t seem as potent or scary a cultural image compared to 15 or 20 years ago when all those Whitley Streiber books were on the bestseller lists. Are alien abductions no longer a resonant metaphor for our collective fears?
GA: I think they’re a beautiful metaphor for that kind of powerless feeling one has when something much larger than oneself just takes over. That’s why the scene with little Brian on the roof staring up at the UFO is one of my favourite scenes in the film. It’s like a visualization of this huge, monumental thing totally dominating and taking over little Brian’s entire life. We purposefully designed the UFO so it would look like a kind of cheesy “flying saucer”—the kind of spaceship an eight-year-old boy would conjure up in his imagination. I love the way it’s so gigantic and he’s so small and helpless—it’s a great pictorial representation of what’s going on with Brian psychologically.
VW: Do you think of your depiction of the Little League coach as “sympathetic”? His behaviour is obviously very predatory, but there’s something haunting about Bill Sage’s performance that makes it hard to simply write him off as nothing more than a monster.
GA: Bill Sage does a phenomenal job with an obviously very difficult role. One of the things I love most about the book is the way Scott gives depth and humanity to all the characters—the coach, the tricks Neil sleeps with, even the smallest supporting characters are real human beings with flaws, insecurities and human frailties. That makes Mysterious Skin so much richer and truthful and powerful than if it were a simplistic tale of black-and-white good guys and bad guys. Estimates run as high as one in four children are victims of sexual abuse. One in four! And the way that abuse happens is exactly how it’s presented in the film—it’s not some creepy monster in a van that snatches your kid at a playground. It’s someone the kid knows and trusts—a coach, uncle, stepfather, priest. People want to pretend this kind of abuse doesn’t exist. Well, sadly, it does exist and it happens every day, all over the world. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to this problem, but at least the film sheds a light on the subject and lets people talk about it. V
Written and directed by Gregg Araki • Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet and Michelle Trachtenberg • Opens Fri, Aug 26
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