Upon it’s 1997 release, director Gregg Araki (one of the founding fathers of the New Queer Cinema) described Nowhere as “Like a Beverly Hills 90210 episode on acid.”
And, to be honest, no further description is really needed for the film. This simple tagline, in essence, describes the plot (young people talk about sex and take drugs and suffer existential angst) and the aesthetic (the trippy surrealism of A Clockwork Orange crossed with the dirty, dreamscape of Natural Born Killers). The final film of The Teenage Apocaplypse Trilogy, Nowhere, is the kind of film where the reasons why some will hate it are the exact same reasons why others will love it.
Nowhere follows Dark Smith (James Duval) and others in his group of friends during a single day in Los Angeles. Dark is totally infatuated his lover Mel (Rachel True) and tries to persuade her to stop sleeping with other people and become his monogamous girlfriend. Mel, however, believes that ‘you’re only young once’ and is thus sexually involved with, among countless others, a girl named Lucifer (Kathleen Robertson). Meanwhile Dark himself finds himself suddenly intrigued by the shy and enigmatic Montgomery (Nathan Bexton). The day culminates in a wild party after a whirlwind of kinky sex, intense violence, hallucinogenic drugs, romantic misunderstandings and alien abductions.
During the film’s opening few moments I had some serious misgivings. I was completely ready to sit back and scoff and judge. It opens with a blue screen and voice-over. “L.A. is like nowhere… Everyone who lives here is lost” mumbles Duval’s Dark (who looks and sounds like a cartoon caricature of a young Keanu Reeves throughout the movie). The soundtrack is filled with sonic foreboding over the credits and the surreal sexual imagery of Dark’s fantasies as he masturbates in the shower. At this point I was simply expecting 80 minutes of whiney teen angst and annoying self-importance. I should never have doubted auteur Gregg Araki, who judges the tone just right and interrupts the scene with a welcome moment of comedy.
The rest of the film is tinged with exactly the right level of humour, never taking itself too seriously, throwing in as many laughs as isnecessary to counter the more serious themes and commentary. The dialogue is filled with droll nuance (“I love you Mel, like totally true and pure…” whispers Dark, “I just wish we didn’t get together with so many other people and stuff…”) which is heightened by the aptly zealous performances.
That’s not to say it’s all fun and games – there’s a tenderly handled and sincerely heartfelt moment in which Cowboy (Guillermo Diaz) begs his junkie boyfriend to go clean, and one very serious subplot involving a terrifying rape sequence. The narrative thus, despite its sprawling nature, remains compelling. One could look at this as essentially a sort of adulterated retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with everyone fancying each other, and narcotics substituting the magic. Indeed there does seem to be method behind the madness: one might notice, for example, that all the adult characters in this movie are actors from sitcoms and comedies from the 70s and 80s. Dark’s Mum is Beverly D’Angelo from the Vacation movies, one of his friends’ parents are Christopher Knight and Eve Plumb from The Brady Bunch, John Ritter from Three’s Company plays a televangelist. This is not just a bunch of cameos, Araki is quite deliberately trying to achieve something with this – mainly to demonstrate that the kids (and the audience) see the adults as (literally) yesterday’s joke.
But this also illustrates one of the film’s main problems: the extent to which it is engorged with ideas. I spotted possible references to Kafka, Warhol, Babyland, Stephen King, Nietzsche, David Cronenberg & c and I’m certain that if I were to watch it again, I’d notice even more. There is various religious imagery throughout including blatant graffiti that says “REPENT NOW” and “GOD SAVE ME”, a subplot involving a televangelist, and a discussion about judgement day. And it’s surely the only film you’ll ever see in which a bitching session between three teenage girls is interrupted by a giant lizard obliterating them with a ray gun. In all honesty, the plot is a little all over the place (with at least one subplot that seemed to me totally superfluous) and the ideas aren’t always coherent. But, of course, it all comes down to taste – one man’s ‘too far’ is another man’s ‘ambitious’; one man’s ‘messy’ is another man’s ‘complex’.
I guess one could also criticize the film for how much it’s aged, but personally I saw that more as a virtue. It’s aesthetic and general demeanour is so 90s that it hurts and that’s not a bad thing – it could almost serve as an artefact, a time-capsule (albeit a time-capsule opened whilst under the influence of magic mushrooms). The soundtrack is a major factor in this with tracks by Radiohead, Elastica, The Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack, Catherine Wheel, James, Marilyn Manson, Suede & c.
It’s of credit to Araki that despite the many bizarre events (visions of zombie clowns carrying dead dogs) and wildly absurd sets (a bedroom that features lyrics to the song ‘Dismal’ on all four walls, floor and ceiling), that there is still something incredibly human about the film. Indeed, the final scene manages to pack both an emotional punch AND one of the most surreal moments in the film – Araki’s final punch-line, a wonderful moment of gross hilarity.
While it’s certainly not perfect and it’s a film that perhaps seems more influential (particularly if you look to something like Donnie Darko, which is appears to be covered Nowhere’s fingerprints) than it really is, it’s still one hell of a ride – entertaining, disgusting, funny and moving.