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  • nickkarner

Nowhere (1997)

You know what I miss? The end credits roll call. In the final film of Gregg Araki's “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy,” Nowhere (1997), the dynamic bad boy of 90’s indie cinema goes for broke with a massive and sprawling ensemble piece about impossibly good-looking teens living their empty lives in the vacuous city of plastic, Los Angeles. I take notes infrequently, but when I’m tasked with keeping up with so many character names, the need to pause and rewind becomes essential.  The relatively quick task of watching an 82-minute film can drag on endlessly when trying to identify these young hepcats. Luckily, after the hilariously nihilistic final scene of Nowhere, I got a nice reminder of just who the hell these beautiful maniacs were. 

Gregg Araki’s Nowhere could very easily act as a more extreme companion piece to Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1990). Stylistically, the two films diverge wildly, but as portraits of youths in a very specific setting, they're simpatico. After all, both directors rose through the ranks of the indie film market around the same time, with Linklater finding success slightly earlier than Araki. Linklater “went Hollywood,” but has admirably remained true to his vision between his more standard studio efforts, like Bad News Bears (2005). I’m stunned at Araki’s perseverance in getting his early movies made. These were not commercially viable projects, but through sheer force of will and a lot of talent, he’s amassed an impressive body of work. As a pioneer of both “queer cinema” and non-commercial filmmaking in general, it’s downright miraculous he consistently made films near the end of the millennium on his own terms. It does seem as though the landscape of independent filmmaking has changed dramatically since his heyday. Whether or not he’s had trouble financing his more personal projects is unclear, although like fellow indie director Keith Gordon, he’s taken to directing a great deal of television to presumably keep the lights on. 

The Living End (1992) was the first film of Araki’s that I saw, having been made aware of it after seeing an interview with the director on public television. The story of two HIV-positive men going on a journey to infect other people felt shockingly dark to me. As a cult filmmaker of the highest order, films like Splendor (1999), Kaboom (2010), and the gloriously silly Smiley Face (2007) have a small but rabid fan base. The Doom Generation (1995) is widely regarded as a breakthrough for Araki, but his masterpiece remains Mysterious Skin (2004). If ever there was an example of a filmmaker transitioning into more mature work, this is the gold standard. Skin was a real coming out party, no pun intended, for a filmmaker who had indie cred but was always regarded as something of an outlier in Hollywood. Sadly, in what seemed like his attempt to repeat that film’s artistic success, he directed White Bird in a Blizzard (2014), which was disappointingly slow. It’s one thing to stifle your naturally exuberant instincts as a writer/director so you can produce something serious, but unlike Mysterious Skin, he wasn’t able to successfully merge his own sensibilities with another author’s work.

The trilogy consists of Totally F***ed Up (1993), The Doom Generation, and finally, Nowhere. As stated above, Doom is probably the strongest of these films, which I realize is a very subjective opinion. I’m a fan of Robert Altman’s mastery of ensemble pieces that don’t follow a traditional plot, so Nowhere completely works for me, yet I do tend to lean more toward works like Doom which tell a cohesive story. It also helps that it features three main characters, rather than nearly a dozen, like Nowhere

The throughline for the trilogy is actor James Duval, whose frequent appearances in Araki’s films make him a sort-of good luck charm for the director. Duval may still be best remembered as one of Randy Quaid’s kids in Independence Day (1996), but his work in May (2002) and particularly Donnie Darko (2001) shouldn’t be overlooked. His character isn’t the same in each of the three films, but he does appear to be Araki’s alter ego, living and reacting to the chaos happening around him. 

For a film that frequently explores the subject of death and the end of the world, Nowhere is often hysterically funny, with an irreverent wit. After a familiar camcorder blue screen accompanies Duval’s moody narration, “L.A. is like...nowhere. Everybody who lives here is lost,” a nifty credits sequence against a steamy white backdrop begins, with the actors’ names floating across the screen. In a knowing and brilliantly cut sequence, we find Dark (Duval) masturbating in the shower, indulging in various sexual fantasies to, ahem, achieve his goal. The depiction of his mind quickly shifting from one sexual partner to another is a sharp observation of the way the mind is constantly racing and its own unsurprising need to stave off boredom. In the first of many amusing cameos by adult actors, Beverly D’Angelo shows up with a green face mask to interrupt Dark and warn him: “You pump your handle too much! It’s gonna wither and fall off.”

The production design perfectly encapsulates the world of angsty teens with very little to be angsty about. Dark’s room has records and video equipment strewn about it while a gigantic mural of a black and white Dark with two revolvers pointed at his head looks down on all. He gets a call from his crush Mel (the always charming Rachel True, The Craft, Half Baked), who wears a polka-dotted pair of overalls that perfectly frame her against an equally polka-dotted wall of rainbow colors. She invites him out to a weird-ass L.A. coffee shop since “I just got my period. I’m in full-tilt pig mode.” He doesn’t have time since he has to finish his documentary project on someone he really cares about. That someone is Mel, whom he convinced to doff her top, after which she warns him, “I don’t want every Wally on campus oggling my chimichangas.” They all appear to be college students, but nearly all of them never seem to attend class. Mel’s girlfriend Lucifer (Kathleen Robertson, sending up her 90201 image) is constantly engaging in an increasingly antagonistic tit-for-tat with Dark. They trade barbs like “felch me” and “cram it, fur burger,” while also introducing “squirtle fungus” into the cultural lexicon. 

Dark, whose romanticized sensitive streak causes him to explain his name as “Dark, like the absence of light,” agrees to come along, where they pick up cute but shy Montgomery (Nathan Bexton, Go). At the goth-style eatery, complete with grey walls and black tableware, we meet a various assortment of trendy misfit teens. As Dark speaks at length about mortality, having had, as he incorrectly pronounces it, “a prenomination of death,” spunky Alyssa stumbles in, played by Jordan Ladd, who’d later appear in several solid horror flicks like Cabin Fever (2002), Satanic Panic (2019), and even as one of the first victims in Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007). Montgomery asks if she’s supposed to be in “Thermonuclear Catastrophes Class.” She speaks at length about it being “Armageddon Day” according to a radical religious sect in Southern Cambodia. 

At a nearby table, three ladies, including the brainy Dingbat (Christina Applegate, wrapping up her long-running stint on Married...with Children and who's had a very resilient career) and the sweet Egg (actress turned novelist Sarah Lassez, "Psychic Junkie") get ready to “scarf.” They ravenously attack a delicious-looking piece of cake and then discuss whether they’ll be purging it later. Ah, bulimia humor. Applegate is quite funny, saying she promised her mom she wouldn’t for a week. At the other table, Mel wants to burn off her calories by rollerblading while Lucifer figures she can do a bunch of speed and not eat for 3 days. Is it just me, or do these kids really have their act together in the most horribly unhealthy ways possible? Dark isn’t interested unless it involves sad music and dark eye makeup, stating he’d “rather have my ball hairs burned off with an acetylene torch.” 

The fabulous Guillermo Diaz shows up wearing suspenders and no shirt as the flamboyant musician, Cowboy. Diaz’s performance here is arguably the best in the film as far as emotional depth goes. While the characters around him are appropriately phony and worry about meaningless shit, his few scenes reveal a depth of character and genuine pathos. I think of Diaz as particularly notable since he’s an openly gay man who can play straight astonishingly well. I realize that’s a pretty silly thing to say, but having seen him play tough guys in so many films and shows, like Freeway (1996), Half Baked (1998), Weeds, and Fresh (1994), it truly came as a shock to me that he could play such a wide variety of characters with such ease. 

Cowboy’s band is called Girl+Animal=Sex and he’s handing out flyers for their new gig, which will be played at The Butt Crack. The opening acts, by the way, are Sandy Duncan’s Eye and Jayne Mansfield’s Head. These kinds of details just feel like Gregg Araki amusing himself at his typewriter. Cowboy is a bit preoccupied since his boyfriend Bart (Jeremy Jordan, the troubled pop star/actor) has been hanging around with drug dealer Handjob (Alan Boyce, the forgotten Permanent Record). 

Egg catches the eye of a Baywatch actor, here credited as The Teen Idol (Jason Simmons, a literal Baywatch actor who later appeared in Sharknado), who is described as the “total definition of yummy.” Alyssa’s palm itches, leading to the introduction of her twin brother Shad (Ryan Phillippe, the teen idol who has commendably tried several times to re-brand himself as a character actor) and his girlfriend Lilith (Heather Graham, whose career blew up in 1997 thanks to Boogie Nights). They’re sex-crazed maniacs and Shad is delighted when a chicken-eating fortune teller (Charlotte Rae) predicts “Death” is in his future. 

Although L.A. has been the location for thousands of films, these characters seem to exist in their own universe. Whether being empty and pretentious, like the teen idol who later plies poor Egg with alcohol, then rapes and abuses her in a starkly brutal scene, or faux tough like Alyssa’s biker boyfriend Elvis (actor/stuntman Thyme Lewis, Days of our Lives), these people live in their own world. Even their dialogue sounds intentionally phony. Alyssa to Elvis: “Where you been?” Elvis: “Places.” They later abscond to another ridiculous set, which consists of a bare room, save for a statue of Michelangelo’s David, a white couch, and a random book by Nietzche. Elvis needs to be tied up and spanked, and Alyssa is ready and willing to oblige. In a bizarre, almost supernatural detail, Alyssa and Shad, being twins, share each other’s senses and emotions, so as Shad has intense sex with Lilith, he can feel Alyssa screwing Elvis. 

Dark waits for a bus and listens to the ridiculous yammerings of the Val-Chick's, here played by cameoing Rose McGowan, Shannon Doherty, and Traci Lords. A man-sized lizard appears across the street sporting a ray gun. Before Dark can get his camera out, it vaporizes the chicks, then disappears. Although some scenes have had a taste of the bizarre, this is the first scene which smacks of genuine surrealism. This lizard will continue to resurface multiple times throughout the film. 

The movie slows down a bit when Cowboy finds Bart hanging off the structure of a sign, completely wasted. Diaz is quietly moving as he begs his boyfriend to quit drugs, tears forming in his eyes. Meanwhile, we get a sweet moment where Dark and Mel sleep together, only for Mel to make her philosophy clear: "I firmly believe that human beings are built for sex and love.” She doesn’t want monogamy like Dark clearly wants with her. Dark bemoans the simple truth: “Life is soooooo complicated.” 

Egg, bloody and bruised, staggers around traffic and lurches through her bedroom window. The symbolism is pretty clear here as her room and wallpaper are decked out in virginal flowers. She switches on the TV and settles on an infomercial for evangelist Moses Helper (a fantastically committed John Ritter “Say Hi! to God”) whose religious mumbo jumbo has a dangerous effect on both Egg and Bart, who also stumbles into his own house. His chipper and vaguely Danish parents are played by The Brady Bunch’s Eve Plumb and Christopher Knight. Later, as Helper’s sermon intensifies, both Egg and Bart take their own lives, with Bart asphyxiating himself in the oven and Egg apparently slashing herself open, since we only see blood on the walls and her legs sticking straight up from behind her bed. 

Mel’s little brother Zero (Joshua Gibran Mayweather, Camp Nowhere, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh) has snagged his mom’s car and picks up his blond cutie Zoe (Mena Suvari, a few years away from her American Beauty stardom) so they can go to a party at Jujyfruit (Gibby Haynes, lead singer of The Butthole Surfers)’s place. In one of the film's eeriest moments, Zero hallucinates a creepy, zombie-like man carrying a dead puppy. They’ve got a bizarre puppy love thing going on themselves, with ridiculously mushy dialogue until they get their car jacked by a group known as The Atari Gang. “Get out of the car before I percolate you!” Zero fears his mother will “wire a car battery to my testicles,” but they're able to hitch a ride anyways. 

Most of the core cast, which includes Ducky (Scott Caan, years before the Hawaii Five-O reboot or the Ocean’s films), get together before Jujyfruit’s party to take ecstasy and play a kooky mix of ‘Kick the Can’ and ‘Hide-and-Seek.’ Montgomery is inexplicably kidnapped by the laser-toting lizard monster. Things get progressively weirder. 

At Jujyfruit’s party, Mel hooks up with those blond twins from that Old Navy commercial, here known as Surf and Ski (Derek and Keith Brewer) while Dark continues to behave as if in crisis mode. Shad and Lilith carry on slobbering all over each other, even after an earlier tryst in which they both went down on each other, with Shad eating a chocolate treat out of Lilith. Yikes. Ducky is Egg’s sister, so when he receives the news, on a cell phone (!), he freaks and tries to drown himself, only to be saved by Dingbat. Dark has said the “party’s about as fun as an ingrown butt hair,” but he agrees to grab Ducky a towel. In the kitchen, Handjob is accosted by Elvis, who beats him to death with a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. According to Dark, “It’s been a gnarly day.”

In the quietly tender final scene, Montgomery, who had been part of Dark’s fantasy in the opening scene, comes to Dark’s window, naked; a suction cup hanging from his head. He lays down with Dark in bed and explains that he was abducted by aliens and experimented on. He escaped, and now just wants to be with Dark. Dark tells Montgomery to promise to “never leave me.” It’s a nice moment that’s shattered when Montgomery begins to cough, leading to a seizure before his body explodes, revealing a gigantic alien insect. With a “so over it” attitude, the bug tells Dark, “I’m outta here.” He disappears, leaving Dark bloody and staring, wide-eyed, at the audience. 

Thanks to the outstanding but very expensive soundtrack, Nowhere has never been released as a Region 1 DVD, although it was released in the US on VHS and later in other parts of the world on various region DVDs. As far as ambition goes, Araki’s vision for a grand finale to his trilogy is well-earned and executed. He peppers the film with a dozen or more cameos from stars young and old, including Denise Richards, Lauren Tewes, and David Leisure. The kinetic editing, by Araki himself, meshes well with Arturo Smith’s colorful cinematography, which he'd employ later on the spoof Psycho Beach Party (2000). 

A cinematic satire is a deadly dance of death that can spell disaster if not done with absolute precision. I can’t say Nowhere is perfection in terms of who and what it’s skewering, but it’s head and tails above the outrageously phony depictions of wild teens in the reactive mainstream media. 


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