Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin: Independence, Rebellion and Social Engagement
Queer director Gregg Araki’s 2004 adaptation of Scott Hein’s 1995 Book Mysterious Skin of the same name is an example of the controversial and lengthy cinematic endeavours by the the ‘father’ of the so-called New Queer Cinema. This type of cinema has been described by Glyn Davis as ‘wilfully different’ and ‘independent’, mirroring the wave of protests surrounding queerness and its inclusion within the Hollywood cinema industry, in terms of representation and work-force. Mysterious Skin as ‘gay psycho drama’ tackles taboo subject matters of child sexual abuse and alien abduction by employing, as David Jenkins puts it, ‘dream-like textures and ironic juxtapositions of David Lynch’, and making acclaimed director Gregg Araki one of the most relevant directors that acknowledge the importance of representing minorities on the big screen.
New Queer cinema is an example of alternatives to Hollywood, and its roots stem from defiance against the heterosexual monogamy that governs our contemporary society, flaunts ideals of freedom of expression by defying the formulaic nature of Hollywood genre, and, above all, accuses Hollywood films to ‘downplay politics in favour of melodrama.’81 After nearly a century of demonstrations, abuses and controversies, scarred, to name a few, by the Stonewall Riots on June 26, 1969 and the outburst of AIDS in the 80s, seen by politicians and religious leaders as the ‘proof of God’s despisal to homosexuals’, the birth of New Queer Cinema, founded by self-identified queers who struggled to find a voice in the industry, forever marked the cinematic cultural landscape of the 90s until today. New Queer Cinema rages against a society, mirrored on film by the Hollywood industry, that ‘downplay[s] politics in favour of melodrama’, as Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin put it, that does not forget to represent minorities on screen, but actively opts for marginalising those individuals and groups that could, in any way, challenge heteronormativity and that advocate for the re-distribution of power in society.
Gregg Araki is an example of contemporary American filmmaker that actively defies the idea that Hollywood’s ‘heterosexual monogamy is almost always the implied endpoint of […] cinematic relationships’ and the clichéd stereotypes that characterise past examples of homosexuals on screen. As much as Mysterious Skin does, Gregg Araki’s earlier works such as Three Bewildered People in the Night (1987), The Living End (1992), Totally F***ed Up (1993) and The Doom Generation (1995) offer mesmerising narratives that aims at misleading and dazzling viewers by thwarting genre conventions, seemingly thoroughly embracing the caper idea of Queer Cinema, whose word ‘Queer’, originally used by activists to pinpoint a ‘community of difference’, where diversity thrives and inclusion is the defining character90. At the beginning of Mysterious Skin, Brian (Brady Corbet) tells us: ‘The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life. Five hours. Lost. Gone without a trace.’ In a dreamy retro flashback, we witness Brian seeing an UFO disc and, later, we are told that he believes he has been abducted by aliens. And, slightly after, Neil (Joseph Gordon- Levitt), ponders: ’The summer I was eight years old, I came for the first time’, while looking at his mother making out with her boyfriend leaning on the garden swing set. Since the outset, we, as viewers expect a narrative that deals with the past memories, sufferings and the repercussions of troubled childhoods that stem from a sick society.
In the opening scene of the film, coloured cereal hoops fall on little Neil’s face and its dreaminess and surreal imagery sums Mysterious Skin’s artistic and social relevance in the cinematic landscape. We are soon to discover that Neil and Brian, at the age of eight, have been repeatedly abused sexually by their baseball coach during the summer of 1991. The traumatic experience will lead Neil to become one of the most popular hustlers in the city, suffering from abuses and experiencing a certain detachment from his friends, family and love more generally. Brian, on the other end, inexplicably experiences nose-bleeds and casual fainting, due, as we discover at the end of the narrative, to the shock of being sexually abused. Mysterious Skin mixes drama with comedy, stark visuals with dream-like sequences, blood with coloured cereal hoops. In other words, ‘we’re never exactly sure whether it’s a harmless daydream or an awful nightmare’, but the bond between characters and viewers grows staggeringly until we are left with tears welling over our eyes. The cinema of Gregg Araki expresses its social engagement and stark rebellion against norms and the shared state of mind of disheartening apathy between one another that alienates human being, through avant-garde use of cinematographic trappings and ‘ethereal’ soundtrack. As Benshoff an Griffin put it, ‘[b]oth postmodernism and queer theory focus on permeable boundaries, the blurring of styles and genres, and more generalized border crossings – whether those borders be sexual, regional, national, ethnic, or racial.’ Mysterious Skin and most of Gregg Araki’s cinematic achievements are an example of queer theory applied to film, which revolts against heterosexist mainstream Hollywood films.