The Doom Generation (1995)
“Heads or tails?” “Whatever.” Holy shit! Just make a fucking decision! This tiny exchange speaks volumes about the ennui felt by the three teens featured in Gregg Araki’s breakthrough picture, The Doom Generation (1995), part two in his “Teenage Apocalypse” trilogy. If Totally F***ed Up (1993) featured aimless young people squabbling and bitching about their miserable existence while still concluding that life is worth living, Doom is aptly named. The turmoil and social unrest in America, especially when it comes to disaffected youth, has always fascinated Araki. Representing the confused and angry youth are our three “heroes:” Jordan White (Araki’s alter-ego James Duval), Amy Blue (Rose McGowan, in a breakout role), and Xavier Red (Johnathon Schaech, that prick from That Thing You Do!). Perhaps a bit too on-the-nose, the surnames nevertheless represent their wildly divergent personalities. Jordan is innocent and naïve, Amy is moody and sullen, while Xavier is passionate and dangerous. Together, they travel across a rural hellscape where ‘the mark of the beast’ constantly appears and the end of the world, according to many signs and billboards, is nigh at hand.
“Ever feel like reality is more twisted than dreams?” Jordan asks Amy. Considering Araki’s stylistic choices for his first “major” film, this query is wildly appropriate. There are many films - often independent since the demographic for art films tend to be more forgiving than commercially-minded audiences - that can operate on a dreamlike logic. A movie can drift and indulge in flights of fancy, but for Araki, his depictions of violence often swerve into a dimension of the surreal. The Doom Generation is much more grounded in reality than the third and final part of the trilogy, Nowhere (1997), but that doesn’t stop him from depicting impossible situations like severed limbs and heads continuing to live far past their expected expiration date.
Araki makes two things very clear in the opening titles. This is “A Heterosexual Movie by Gregg Araki” and one of the presenters is the aptly named “The Teen Angst Movie Company.” The meta, tongue-in-cheek tone is set immediately. The importance of the ‘heterosexual’ title card shows the irreverent director acknowledging his status as a proponent of the ‘New Queer Cinema” movement who is not averse to exploring different facets of sexuality, whether straight, gay, or...other. The intense strobing effects that bookend the film drop us straight into an inferno of sin, where we find ourselves in a club, presumably named Hell since we see a flaming sign reading “Welcome to Hell” while the soundtrack blasts the same sentiment.
How do you open a movie? The way Stanley Kubrick ended his final one. “Fuck.” The camera settles on a close-up of Rose McGowan, whose utterance of that single profanity tells us just about everything we initially need to know about her. She’s tough and takes no shit from anyone. She’s got so much moxie that she brushes off a straight-up superhero when Peanut (Black Lightning himself, Cress Williams) asks if she has any crystal. He wanders off as her space cadet boyfriend Jordan moves into her orbit. He’s always on her case, albeit in a gentle way, to be less antagonistic toward other people. She informs him that Peanut has “the intelligence of a stool sample.” Ah, insults in Gregg Araki films sound like no other.
They abscond to “Heaven,” which seems to be a drive-in movie theatre, where Jordan is unable to have sex with Amy in her car. He moodily claims he “doesn’t want to catch AIDS,” but Amy reminds him that they’re both virgins. Glad he didn’t meet the leads from The Living End (1992) if he’s that paranoid. A gang of toughs beat the hell out of a scruffy loner, who busts his way into her backseat. Before the chowderheads outside can pummel her precious car further, she floors it, complaining that this unexpected interloper is bleeding on her upholstery. McGowan is absolutely fierce, having a blast with Araki’s pungent and foul dialogue.
She calls this sexy weirdo an "anus face," - his name is Xavier but, since Jordan can’t handle that, he'll simply go by ‘X.' Amy and X come face to face, sharing an intense moment of electricity. She allows him to ride along and they head over to a Quickiemart, although not the one managed by Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, since I assume this is a Howard Johnson’s/Stuckey’s situation.
“His fuckin’ head was in the relish and onions and it was talking!” Whoa, now! We’re getting ahead of ourselves here! Still, it’s an important moment that reveals the unpredictability of Araki’s vision. At the (non) Kwik-E-Mart, the total for chili dogs and a cherry slushie is $6.66. For a moment, we assume X has simply stolen their money and run off. Rose is speeding, by the way, so she won’t be needing any sustenance. The store owner (martial artist Dustin Nguyen, 21 Jump Street, VIP) has a short temper and breaks out a pump-action shotgun. X swoops in and ends up blowing the owner’s head off with his own gun. Now, we’ve all heard of someone getting their head blown off.
From Maniac to Scanners to Drive, there are various ways one’s skull can be destroyed, but Araki comes up with a truly jaw-dropping moment. The head, intact mind you, flies through the air and lands in the aforementioned relish and onions. Suddenly, its eyes twitch and a substance resembling guacamole comes pouring out. Somehow, this dude’s head is still kicking, so to speak. They bail and find out later via a contemptuous and finger-wagging news broadcast hosted by Lauren Tewes and Christopher Knight that the owner’s wife, played by comedian Margaret Cho, killed herself and her children in a ritualistic suicide. It sounds gruesome and in some ways it is, but it’s presented more as black comedy than outright horror. By the way, IMDB lists Nguyen’s character name as Quickiemart clerk, but the news anchors let us know it’s really Win Cok Sok. To slightly jump ahead, we see various outlets, like the news and even the FBI, discuss these dangerous youths as being on a ‘crime spree,’ but all of this is merely a red herring. Araki is likely commenting on the itchy trigger-finger of adults and authority figures quick to condemn teenagers for simply being young.
The King and I’s “Getting to Know You” might as well be playing as they arrive at their love nest-style motel and discuss their family life. Jordan’s parents live in Encino, enough said; Amy’s mom used to be a heroin addict, now she’s a scientologist, while her deceased father was an alky pig who always tried to molest her. X tops them both by claiming his mother shot his dad then turned the gun on herself when he was 12. He’s practically chuckling to himself.
Something awakens in both Jordan and Amy, who are pissed about the whole murder thing but now feel somewhat trapped in their situation. Amy takes a bath while Jordan pees, then they have wild sex in the bathtub while X watches from behind the door, jerking off and licking the cum off his hand. This movie doesn’t hold back.
It’s burger time, so they head over to a day-glo dinosaur-themed joint called CarnalBurger, where Amy is accosted by a psychotic drive-thru employee named Bartholomew (Nicky Katt, so great in The Limey) who says she’s an ex-girlfriend of his. This is the first of many occurrences where someone claims to be a former lover of our supposedly virginal heroine. To both McGowan and Araki’s credit, it’s left deliciously ambiguous whether she’s really been involved with these psychos or if they’re all just insane. As a woman, and a liberated woman at that, The Doom Generation takes great, sick pleasure in various people and even government organizations attempting to punish Amy for simply living her life on her own terms. They quickly drive off, with Bart wielding yet another shotgun.
Later that night, X seduces Amy, mainly by showing her his Jesus tattoo, conveniently located on his penis, and they head over to the car for a quickie. Meanwhile, Bart tracks them down and shoves the gun into Jordan’s mouth, wearing a freaky doll’s mask in the process. There’s once again a scuffle and X ends up shooting Bart’s arm off. Amy screams at him: “Do you have to kill someone every time we stop the fucking car?!” X, in a relaxed and faux distressed tone: “I’m bummed to the max.” Unfortunately, it turns out he’s had some practice, relating a chilling story about crushing the skull of a parking cop who dared to give him a ticket. One wonders why Amy and Jordan continue to travel with the obviously disturbed X, but his mysterious and seductive manner draws them closer.
X doesn’t get what Amy’s problem is. “You act like someone ate your pet hamster!” Jordan doesn’t seem all that bothered by X, finding him to be like them: lost. Still, X could be a little more polite. After paying $6.66 once again for some breakfast, he demands; “Go get me some Zagnut bars, wench!” I mean, I love Zagnut bars as much as the next guy, which I assume is a lot, but still, manners! They end up at bar that I assume is named Obey, not the best environment for these types, and another (probable) ex-lover surfaces. Former indie queen Parker Posey (genius in all of the Christopher Guest movies) is Brandi, “your eternal love slave.” She doesn’t like the look of Jordan and informs Amy that ‘I’m gonna lop his dick off like a chicken head.” In a rapid sequence that intercuts Mortal Kombat footage from the game console nearby, Brandi accidentally skewers her male compatriot and she, like Bart, vows to kill Amy the next time she sees her.
Amy tells Jordan: “I love you, fucker,” but she’s helplessly drawn to X. While Jordan heads off to the A&P for cigarettes and a light-up yo-yo, Amy and X engage in some twisted sexual games. She strangles him and they make violent love, which Jordan watches from an outside window and masturbates while a train rushes by and his yo-yo (the toy, not his dong) swivels around his ankles. Later, the elephant in the room is addressed as a threesome is discussed, with X describing it as feeling the other man’s cock through the woman’s inside.
As they travel farther into a desolate and far less-populated wasteland, X continues to ask interesting questions like, oh, I don’t know..whether they’ve ever “fucked an animal.” Jordan admits to having fucked a cantaloupe once. Before X can relate a likely disgusting story about a golden retriever, Amy hits a dog with her car. The poor pup’s sad eyes stare up at the trio and X, who shows his first real moment of twisted compassion, puts the dog out of its misery with his knife. They bury the dog and Amy, hiding her tears behind a pair of dark sunglasses, says simply: “The world sucks.”
They stop off at a record store and shoplift some cassettes while Amy gets bothered by, who else, another ex-lover, whom she claims to be unfamiliar with and refers to as “smegma breath.” The movie begins to wander as we’re not entirely sure where they are or where the movie is heading. They stop into a shed or a barn to get some shut-eye. Beautifully lit via makeshift campfire, the three begin to make love, but Amy suddenly needs to pee. She heads off into the darkness, but she won’t be back for the pleasure session that the movie appeared to have been leading up to.
The ex-lover and his Neo-Nazi buddies have followed the trio to their hideaway and the leader, George (Dewey Weber, a long way from being a Foot recruiter in The Secret of the Ooze) recites a nasty nursery rhyme that begins with: “Two little faggots...” In a legitimately frightening and nightmarish scene, the film begins to slowly strobe, increasing in frequency as the attack on our stars accelerates in its viciousness. X and Amy are tied up and George, wearing only a sock on his penis and a swastika painted on his chest, rapes her with a statue of the Virgin Mary, then produces a pair of gardening shears. Jordan, held by George’s Nazi youths, screams at them to stop, and George approaches, saying: “Kiss your puny, worthless cock goodbye.” He chops something off of Jordan, presumably his penis or testicles, then shoves it in Jordan’s mouth. Amy frees herself and stabs the three men repeatedly.
A sudden smash cut and we’re back in her car. X sits next to her, silent, and Jordan is nowhere to be seen. He offers her a Dorito, to which she says nothing, then she starts the car. They drive off into the distance in a wonderful crane shot while the credits roll, alternating between blue, red, and white.
In his first production shot on 35mm, this was also Araki’s first film utilizing a legitimate crew. The budget was nearly 1 million dollars, a fortune for such a down ‘n dirty filmmaker, and although the film only made a couple hundred grand back, it brought him, and his young cast, to the attention of Hollywood. His three stars would all have some mainstream success, with McGowan arguably being the most successful with Scream and Charmed, but Araki remained defiantly independent and dedicated to his vision.
His style, which includes a colorful palette and a brilliant use of close-up inserts, is much more polished here than in his previous efforts. He doesn’t lose the grit of his earlier work. Rather, he proves that he could retain his dark sensibilities while still making a so-called “real movie.” Cinematographer Jim Fealy deserves a great deal of credit for his expert use of light, although he’d only shoot one other feature: Araki’s semi-autobiographical Splendor (1999).
Amy refers to Jordan as the “bright red cherry on top of my sundae.” I’d say that fine line applies to The Doom Generation compared to the other two trilogy entries. While Totally Fu**ed Up is raw and Nowhere is ambitious, Doom remains his most focused and therefore most compelling work. His films may be “in your face” and certainly confrontational, but that doesn’t make them any less heartfelt or human. The Doom Generation shows us both the glory and the danger of the journey into the unknown recesses of the American dream.