If you follow enough fired-up cynics on Twitter, you’d think that queer youth culture is suddenly going soft after decades of consistent, unified radical politics. There are surely some fruitful debates to be had about the ways corporate & police presence have been welcomed into Pride celebrations recently, especially when it comes at the expense of freer, kinkier expressions of queer sexuality. However, I’m a little more skeptical about the recent in-house dogpiling on “tenderqueer” Zoomers for their generational desire to see wholesome, conflict-free Gay Representation onscreen, as if that impulse is anything new. Politically edgier queer audiences have been debating Gay Assimilationists about the value of presenting “the right kind of representation” to the public at large since at least as far back as Stonewall, which has led to much controversy over “the wrong kind of representation” in movies like Basic Instinct, Cruising, and The Boys in the Band for presenting their queer characters as flawed & villainous when they had no wholesome mainstream counterbalance. I have to wonder how much that eternal controversy has dulled the career & reputation of queer provocateur Gregg Araki, whose signature works have been left to rot in censored, out-of-print obscurity since he first made a splash in the New Queer Cinema era of the 1990s. All those decades ago, Araki got enough pushback for making hyperviolent, oversexed queer art he describes as “too punk rock for gay people” that he thought it’d be easier to sneak his edgier, more outrageous ideas into his version of a straight film. Araki’s breakout 1995 road trip flick The Doom Generation is even subtitled “A heterosexual movie by Gregg Araki,” a cheeky in-joke about how it’s easier to get away with making his provocative, overtly queer outsider art within a heterosexual dynamic, since there’s much less pressure to deliver “the right kind of representation” in that context. Or, as Araki put it in a recent interview, “I made this heterosexual movie, but in a very punk rock bratty way, made it so gay.”
That hetero cosplay may have landed Araki easier production funding, but the prudish straights in charge of mainstream movie distribution were not fooled. The Doom Generation has been heavily, viciously censored since it first premiered at Sundance, with its various R-rated home video cuts removing up to 20 minutes of footage so that what’s left onscreen is borderline incoherent. Although some of those Blockbuster Video-friendly edits removed scenes of cartoonish ultraviolence, you will not be surprised to learn that a majority of what has been removed is its queer sexual content, which drives most of the relationship dynamics between its trio of disaffected Gen-X leads. So, it’s a huge deal that The Doom Generation has been recently restored to fit Araki’s original vision nearly three decades after its film festival premiere, re-released into a post-She-Ra, post-Steven Universe tenderqueer world that’s just as squeamish about the wrong kinds of representation as it’s always been. Its theatrical victory lap is a bittersweet blessing for me personally, in that I wish it was around in my life when I was a John Waters-obsessed edgelord teen, but I also cherished getting to see it for the first time with a rowdy crowd of queer weirdos who hooted & hollered the entire screening. Laughing along with like-minded genre freaks made every horned-up, airheaded line reading hit way harder than it would have if I watched it alone on VHS in the 90s, with or without the prudish MPAA censorship. There was something heartwarming about sharing that experience with multiple generations of in-the-flesh human weirdos who might be inclined to snipe at each other for minor political differences online but can’t help but cackle & gasp in unison at campy, radical queer art when it’s presented IRL. It’s just not that often that boundary-pushing queer art survives the controversy cycle to reach queer audiences in the first place, and it turns out that costuming itself as “heterosexual” can only help it get so far.
Internal gay debates about positive representation in American media may have not changed much in the past few decades, but to be fair neither has America at large. If The Doom Generation lives up to its “heterosexual” subtitle in any authentic way, it’s in its depiction of an apocalyptic USA in cultural decline. It’s one the best movies out there about how boring, rotten, and beautifully cheap life in America can be, defining US culture as a putrid pile of junk food, junk television, fundamentalist Christians, and Nazi right-wingers. Set in an America where everything costs $6.66 and is protected by loaded gun, the film responds to the nation’s final moments before Rapture with pure Gen-X apathy, shrugging off every grotesque fascist afront with a Valley Girl “Whatever!” worthy of Cher Horowitz herself. Rose McGowan & James Duvall star as a pair of aimless, politically numb punks whose teenage puppylove is disrupted by the intrusion of Johnathon Schaech, a leather-clad agent of chaos. After the third-wheel interloper makes them accomplices in the brutal (and somewhat accidental) murder of a gas station clerk, the trio go on a cross-country, Natural Born Killers crime spree touring the nation’s cheapest fast-food joints & honeymoon motels. The reluctant throuple’s initial sexual dynamic starts as adulterous betrayal, but quickly devolves into a bisexual free-for-all that edges the audience to desperately want to see the two male leads kiss (and more). Only, Araki interrupts the gay male tension in that central threesome with a violent reminder of just how broken & violent life in America can be, concluding their road trip with a shock of strobelit Nazi brutality that fucks everything up just when it things are starting to get properly heated. The Doom Generation might feature characters exploring the boundaries of their emerging queer sexual identities, but it’s also honest about how horrific it can feel to do so among the straight Christian psychopaths who run the USA – something all generations of queer audiences can relate to, no matter how sensitive they are to onscreen sex & violence.
I could go on all day about how sexually, politically transgressive The Doom Generation is in both its modern & retro American contexts, but really its greatest strength is that it’s extremely cool. McGowan’s Gen-X punk uniform of plastic gas station sunglasses, see-through plastic raincoat, and blunt, dyed goth bob looks just as hip now as it ever did. Every motel room & dive bar interior is a gorgeously cheap fantasy realm of D.I.Y. decor & artifice, so much so that I mistook the out-of-context screengrabs I’ve seen over the years for a momentary dream sequence instead of the overall art design. Decades before anyone would think to tweet “Give Parker Posey a sword,” Gregg Araki gave Parker Posey a sword, casting her as a crazed lesbian stalker in a cheap drag queen wig. And yet Duvall’s performance stands out as the coolest detail of all, nailing the kind of puppydog himbo humor that would have made him a beloved Keanu Reeves-level cult figure if this film were given the proper, uncensored distribution it deserved. It’s not often you see a movie combine the finer points of Heathers, Freeway, Blood Diner, and Terminal U.S.A. into one toxic Gen-X gumbo, even if it’s one that crassly force-feeds the concoction to its audience through an unwashed beer funnel. I was overjoyed to gulp down The Doom Generation unfiltered with a full crowd of fellow filth-hungry weirdos, if not only for the reminder that radical queer art has always been controversial by nature, and America has always been an apocalyptic cesspool. At the same time, I also left the theater angry that the film hadn’t been funneled into my brain sooner, and that so much of Araki’s back catalog of bad-representation punk provocations are still not readily accessible to the modern public. Here’s to hoping that titles like Nowhere, Splendor, and Totally Fucked Up get this same digital-restoration victory lap soon—theatrical re-release and all—before Christian America gets the Rapture it so desperately wants.