If you’re still holding on to your teenage angst and you feel like we’re getting closer to the end of the world as each day passes, then Gregg Araki’s Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy might pique your interest. In these three risqué yet revolutionary films, each protagonist (all played by actor James Duval) struggles with understanding their sexualities, dealing with depression, and navigating the pitfalls of adolescence in their own eccentric universes.
Spoiler alert! I will be discussing the plots and endings of all three films, so I would like to warn that the movies will be spoiled in this article.
With that being said, these films are hard to watch for some as they contain graphic violence, strong language, and sexual imagery. If you’re a film buff, they might not necessarily be your style either as these films border the line between “camp” and “clinically insane.” Araki is no stranger to criticism; one review claims that his films walk a tightrope between “cinematic trash” and “cultural treasure,” but if avant-garde cult classics are your cup of tea, you’re in the right place.
Araki’s trilogy aided in the creation of the New Queer Cinema era which emerged during the dawn of the 90s. The term for this movement was coined by academic and film critic B. Ruby Rich to describe the decade’s influx of independent filmmaking that expressed queer themes and championed queer characters. Araki’s films, like others at the time, encompassed the pride and struggles of American LGBTQ+ youth on film. This on-screen liberation allowed queer representation to break free from vilification or stereotyping. What I admire about Araki’s approach in contributing to the movement is how his characters are not defined by their sexualities. Each eccentric character in his filmography is their own person with their own quirks and attention-grabbing attributes. Whether the discussion about their sexuality is broadcast throughout the film or not, their sexual orientation is not the extent of their characters, nor is it the foundation of their personalities.
After hearing about the trilogy from the “underground” internet-dwellers that still lurk on Tumblr (myself included), I was surprised to see that the three films do not directly coincide at all. There is not one continuous story that follows the film in different stages, none of the characters are the same, the plot is different each time, etc. The main constant between the films is the actor James Duval, who portrays all three protagonists, Andy, Jordan, and Dark. It’s similar to the stylings of Ryan Murphy’s off-beat horror TV anthology American Horror Story, in which a new conceptualized story is delivered every season with a majority of the same cast each time.
I still felt there was a reason that the film series was considered a trilogy and took on the moniker Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy. I think Araki explores an exciting approach to non-linear storytelling both in each film itself and the series as a whole. In the beginning title sequence of Totally F***ed Up (1993), the film is described as “fifteen random celluloid fragments” in which a linear plot takes the backseat to an experimental and gradual display of emotional turmoil. In The Doom Generation (1995), time seems to be a thing of the past entirely, as the main trio find themselves in a near post-apocalyptic reality where everyone they meet is mysteriously odd and either falls in love with them or wants to kill them for some reason. With how much is jam-packed into only 78 minutes of film, Nowhere’s (1997) timeline of events take place in one completely bizarre day described by one of the characters as “the day of the rapture.”
Though growing up gay in a major city in the 90s is a feat of its own repeated throughout the films, the main characters also battle more internal struggles. The first film of the trilogy, Totally F***ed Up, stars a brooding teenager named Andy who plays the role as the existential friend of the group. Spending his days and nights with a friend group made of queer kids who all have a sweet tooth for drugs and want something more out of life, Andy carries the burden of his confusing sexuality with his proclamation of being “totally f***ed up.” What he values more than the clarity he seeks in life, is happiness. After his seemingly sudden death, Andy’s friends watch the footage he’d left behind in a friend’s video project where each friend was interviewed about their thoughts and opinions on life itself and life as a queer person. Through the multicolored static veil of the television screen, they see and hear their close friend admit that “all he ever wanted was to be happy in life, even for one second, and to enjoy life while he is still young enough to fully appreciate it.”
This feeling of frustration in searching for a seemingly unattainable happiness also appears in the third film of this series, Nowhere. In this film, our protagonist Dark Smith is a teenaged outsider with a ragtag group of friends, a polyamorous and pansexual girlfriend, and a secret bewildering crush on the new boy in town, Montgomery. Dark carries the eerie yet comforting feeling of knowing he’ll die young. To revel in his acceptance of what he believes to be his future fate, he films everything around him on a cheap camcorder. Throughout the film, we follow him and his friends along quirky misadventures to the party of the year, but it’s there that Dark’s relationship with his girlfriend begins to crack.
Dark feels embarrassed both by his “old-fashioned” desire to be monogamous with his girlfriend—who clearly feels differently about the idea of monogamy in general—and his undisclosed romantic fantasies about Montgomery. The insecurity Dark experiences can be likened to those of the main character in the second film of the trilogy, Jordan Blue of The Doom Generation. Jordan’s insecurity is rooted in his disbelief that his girlfriend Amy truly reciprocates his feelings. He even goes as far as to ask if she loves him, pushing that “I love you” could mean "you'll do 'till someone better comes along," or "I can't describe how I really feel but I know that I'm supposed to say this," or "Shut up, I'm watching TV."
Another unique attribute of these three stories is their take on how they end, whether or not our characters get the happy ending they truly wish for. In typical Gregg Araki fashion, a happy ending tied nicely with a bow is completely out of the question. Andy’s character takes his own life after the stress of adolescence becomes too taxing, his first real boyfriend cheats on him, and the weight of the world comes crashing down onto his dismal shoulders. Jordan’s character is killed by a wild group of homophobic neonazis who ambush him and his friends. While sticking up for his girlfriend in danger, he is violently murdered, dying in the name of young love on a night of extreme misfortune.
Though Dark’s character is the only one to have “foreseen” his death, he is also the only main character to survive. After an intimate moment with Montgomery in which both boys confess their feelings for one another (despite neither of them previously identifying as gay), Montgomery spontaneously dies, spending his last moments in Dark’s embrace. What I find interesting about the three deaths are their correlations with how each character accepts or rejects their own identities. Andy previously strayed from love and when he found it, he let it crush him and absorb him completely, which led to him succumbing to multiple pressures already present in his life. Jordan never pondered exploring his own identity and stayed loyal to his girlfriend, even when she cheated multiple times. His loyalty was what ultimately pushed him to his untimely and obscene demise. Lastly, in Dark’s self-acceptance that his relationship with his girlfriend would never be the romantic monogamy he sought after, he was able to realize his true feelings for Montgomery—though he wasn’t able to revel in his joy for long.
If you’re familiar with queer tropes in film and television, then you’re probably wondering why the stereotypical trope of the gay characters dying or not getting a fairytale ending has come into play. I think this series might be an exception to that unfortunate norm. Araki’s brash, grotesque, and unsettlingly morbid tones serve as hyperbolic visual metaphors that convey the strife of the LGBTQ+ community. Usually I would never praise anyone for using shock value to draw in an audience, as I deem it as lazy writing and a poor way of grabbing the attention of viewers. However, the context of these films offer justification that other filmmakers cannot provide. At the time these films were made, on-screen LGBTQ+ representation was scarce, the effects of the AIDS crisis were still rampant, and suicide rates in gay teens in America were incresingly high. Araki takes these factors into account and translates them into apocalyptic worlds because that best expresses the fusion of wonder, fear, and the unknown within his community. The star of the trilogy, James Duval, describes Araki’s filmmaking style as the following: “It’s mixed with a lot of socially conscious issues and brings them into light. It really challenges the way people think and feel and see certain situations. It’s interesting because I think [The Doom Generation] is full of social issues but you don’t really see ‘em; they’re beneath the surface and subtle.”
Araki’s graphic imagery can feel like overzealous layers of fondant and icing sitting on top of an ample slice of cake. Not everyone is willing to cut through the layers to get to the real meanings of the films, but maybe that’s for the best. Perhaps it’s Araki’s intention for a select few to enjoy his work, those who can appreciate his deviation from the cinematic status quo and his fantastical fight towards equality on the silver screen. His films are not for the faint of heart; upon first watching them I wasn’t sure why his following was as big as it was. I’d heard from naysayers before that his acclaim comes from the unique and grand set design and the eccentricities of the characters’ respective appearances. I wanted so badly to leave it at that, to leave it at “Yeah, these movies are overrated.” But I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop thinking about them and wondering if I could decipher anything substantial under the gaudy guise of glitz and gore.
If you’re up for the challenge, I would recommend at least reading more about the films if you are unable to stomach the chaos of the trilogy. I found the trilogy to be entertaining, thought-provoking, and in some ways relatable with the state of the world today. As Dark’s character says best, “It's like we all know way down in our souls that our generation is going to witness the end of everything. You can see it in our eyes. It's in mine, look. I'm doomed. I'm only 18 years-old and I'm totally doomed.”