Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Mysterious Skin

Mysterious Skin, 2004
Dir: Gregg Araki

There's no real narrative uniqueness to this, per se, but what I really liked was the awkwardness that Araki used in his editing. The way he uses some of his transitions never lets you get a bead on any one character, and in that way, they start to resemble actual human beings instead of movie tropes. But the most important thing is that it keeps you in the moment. None of the characters really have any deep thoughts or regrets about the recent past (what happens in the film), although Brian (Brady Corbet) and Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are dominated by the most powerful experience of their childhood, albeit in different ways (Neil becomes highly sexualized while Brian is lost in repression, both sexual and of memories). Even the kid actors, who probably had no idea what they were supposed to be reacting to in the context of the film, do a great job of this.

Neil's encounters with older men in Kansas and New York are vivid but he soon moves on to the next one, even if he can be disturbed by ones like the AIDS backrub guy. And even when you'd think he'd reconsider his habits, like after being sexually assaulted, nothing makes you assume he is going to stop. Brian might have been the more easy character to have fall into a caricature, considering his nerd/ufo thing, and Araki probably felt more astute in fleshing out a character like Neil given his own background and earlier films, but it never becomes something silly. His journey to recover his memories becomes more about finding himself, and Neil.

Even the smaller characters are given moments. I especially liked Eric (Jeff Licon), Neil's friend, who is also gay and obsessed with Neil, but Neil ignores him sexually in favor of his tricks. He has to deal with his two best friends, Neil and Wendy (Michelle Tratchenberg), leaving separately for New York while he stays in "Buttcrack" Kansas. Brian's search for Neil eventually leads him to Neil's mom's house where he meets Eric, and they develop a friendship, and it plays itself out very organically. The other interesting character for me was Avalyn, a woman who Brian contacts because, like him, she "believes" that she has been abducted by aliens. Her actions after they meet might suggest that she was sexually abused as a child herself, and her deal with the TV special and aliens is just an attempt to reach out to someone like herself: vulnerable. Her move on Brian is entirely warped though, as she thinks for some reason that Brian has turned out more like Neil.

This film could have easily been something lame, and in the hands of another director, it probably would have been. The Hollywood way would have externalized all the inner drama of two sexually abused young men, and then had this gift-wrapped confrontation at the end with the culprit to make everything OK. But that's not how the world works. Instead, Araki internalizes the exteral, investing meaning in actual melodrama, in the present day (whether in the time of the film or in the two young men's memory of their abuse), and no one is demonized in the film, not even the abuser. It was just something that happened. And in terms of that "confrontation," the one that happens turns out to be one that you don't expect. The boy's little league coach (Bill Sage) is shown to us only in memory, which is clear as day for Neil, who confesses that he still loves him in a vulnerable moment ("That summer is a huge part of who I am..."), while for Brian the hazy pictures in his head make him think that the figure of the coach is an alien. Brian's outburst at his father, who is not around much in the present and seemed oblivious to the warning signs that Brian was showing in the past, is the the releasing of a valve into true feeling, maybe even ones that Brian didn't even think he had. And in the end, when Brian and Neil return to the place of their abuse, all they can do is confront the fact they've both been fucked up by this person who left town years ago. But that really doesn't happen either. When Brian has a nervous breakdown after realizing what actually happened, Neil has no words of comfort for him. It would be a lie. Now they both know.

Soundtrack is great too, with early 90s bands like Slowdive, Cocteau Twins and Ride.