Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 8:11 pm 
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Published on CineScene.

Gregg Araki sadder and wiser

At the age of eight, Brian and Neil have each gone through an experience that has dictated the nature of their adolescence. Brian, a loser at Little League baseball, becomes convinced he's been abducted by aliens, which would explain his blackouts and nosebleeds in childhood, but still leaves him troubled by dreams that he writes down yet can't understand. Neil, the star player on the baseball team, is well aware he had a sexual relationship with their coach at the age of eight, and as a teenager has become a gay hustler picked up by older men. The experience of one boy is the key to the other's behavior. They may be two sides of the same damaged ego. In most of the movie they circle around in their separate dysfunctional orbits till they meet and a tender, sad epiphany happens.

As a closer look at pedophilia, Mysterious Skin (which is now rated NC-17) contains elements that are unthinkable in mainstream terms. To say this is not a movie for everyone is putting it mildly. But for those who can stick with it, it proves thought-provoking and original. The story offers alternative versions of what happens when a thirty-something man with access as a Little League coach seduces or abuses eight-year-olds. Using flashback scenes and voiceovers, the movie shows this happening, and then cuts forward to the present life of the boys in their late teens. The line between seduction and abuse seems defined by the sexuality and degree of willingness of the child. Since the tough, cocky Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) declares he always was attracted to much older guys and came for the first time while spying on his mom having sex with a dumb hunk of a man, he would describe the coach's action as seduction. The coach's behavior leaves more delicate youths clearly traumatized. For us the coach may be weird and sick, but we see him through Neil's eyes as ingratiating and good looking -- we may be horrified, but he isn't demonized onscreen. Neither is he an object of bleeding heart sympathy. Though the boys react differently, they wind up equally damaged by what the coach did.

This is not only heavy stuff but, except for the continuing gay focus, it's also in striking contrast to director Gregg Araki's earlier movies. Well into his forties now though he may not want to admit it, Araki has decided to turn serious. Movies like The Living End, Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, and Splendor were wild personal improvisations that made Araki the enfant terrible of the New Queer Cinema in the Nineties. They presented post-AIDS issues in an outrageous, sexy, and liberatingly funny way. Araki's images were bright colored, ugly-beautiful, and intensely lit, and his gay idol and muse was the impossibly handsome James Duval. This time the risk-taking young actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the Duval role, but it's all different, beginning with Gordon-Levitt's scrawny hardness. Mysterious Skin is an adaptation from a novel by Scott Heim. It's set in a realistic (if sometimes dreamy) context in Heim's actual birthplace, the little town of Hutchinson, Kansas, and in New York City.

This time Araki moves us toward painful clarity rather than mad apocalypse. When Neil becomes a hustler, he begins by "having" every man in the one-horse town, picking them up in a desolate park. Neil's promiscuous, alcoholic mom (Elizabeth Shue), to whom he's unnaturally close, has hardly provided a model of caution or restraint. His best friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) says he has a big dark empty space where his heart should be. But when he and Wendy move to New York and he enters a more dangerous round of johns, encountering violence and Kaposi's Sarcoma, it becomes clear that he's not quite as tough or as experienced as he seemed.

The bespectacled, geeky-cute Brian (Brady Corbet) stumbles, remaining at home like a little boy to the age of nineteen, but eventually trying to track down what really happened to him, which leads to becoming best friends with Neil's former sidekick the openly gay Eric (Jeff Licon) and at Christmastime culminates in a reunion with Neil. Leading up to this Brian has gotten involved, to his ultimate distress, with a young woman named Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) who claims to have been abducted by aliens herself. It's she who urges him to investigate the other boy he keeps dreaming of.

Araki's previous daring obviously still shows in the bold and emotionally complex treatment of pedophilia and its aftereffects. The coach's seduction-entrapments are made clear, if not shown graphically -- and the treatment avoids gratuitous moralizing, though remaining far away from advocating NAMBLA precepts. The material here relates to recent movies like Capturing the Friedmans, L.I.E. and Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation that deal with issues of gay coming of age in a context of abuse and pedophilia, but it's more searching and sexual than they are. The actors are good, particularly Gordon-Levitt and Corbet. Not all elements are perfection, though. The story itself suffers from a certain aimlessness and lack of detail. Shouldn't the possibility that seduced youths may grow up into their own careers of youth-seduction have been alluded to? The contrasting oscillation between the two main characters doesn't always work. The secondary characters tend to be one-dimensional -- a sign that Araki's improvisatory background doesn't always serve him in the new more realistic context. But the originality is still there, and the element of dreaminess introduces a poetic quality that's almost worthy of Gus Van Sant at his best. The final epiphany brings clarity, but no healing. One walks out not so much angry as stunned and horrified -- and impressed at Gregg Araki's new maturity as an artist.

┬ęChris Knipp 2005

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