“My movies always come to me as a series of images,” says the writer-director Gregg Araki. One of the starting points for his latest, Kaboom, was a mysterious image of a naked youth moving down a corridor – seen initially in long shot, bathed in light like one of the aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
This turns out to be part of a dream recounted by Smith (Thomas Dekker), a sexually versatile college student with piercing blue eyes and a non-specific sense of dread. The film tracks his encounters with friends and lovers over the course of a few packed days, as he strives to solve a mystery and prevent his worst fears from becoming real.
At 51, Araki has been a prominent part of American independent filmmaking for over twenty years. Over the phone, he's laidback but easily roused to enthusiasm; his sentences are punctuated with “like”and “you know” but he rarely seems in doubt about what he wants to say.
Typically working with low budgets, Araki plans his films shot by shot, illustrating his scripts with drawings he compares to Egyptian hieroglyphics. “I think it comes from reading so many comic books when I was a kid.”
He adds that of all his films, Kaboom is probably the most influenced by this stylised, graphic novel aesthetic. “As a filmmaker I'm not very interested in documentary reality,” he says. “My movies are not at all about a handheld, shaky camera and no lighting.”
While writing the script, Araki let his imagination run wild, not knowing in advance where the plot was headed. “I know as a moviegoer, one of my peeves about ninety-nine percent of movies is, like, they're so predictable and so formulaic,” he says. “I know where the movie is going, and it's taking forever to get there.”
At the same time, he describes Kaboom as “the most autobiographical film I've ever made.” (After all, Smith is a cinema student, as Araki once was himself.) “I wanted to make a film about that time of your life when you're completely an unwritten book,” he says. “When you're starting school or college, and you don't know what you're going to be, or what your sexuality is, or where your life is going to take you.”
Araki says that he didn't want Kaboom to be “campy in a sort of wink-wink sense,” and gives credit to his actors for grounding the film in emotional reality. “It was really important, as outlandish and crazy as the story gets, that they believe in those characters and they believe in those situations.”
Comparing his own college experiences to those of young people today, Araki says that one major difference is a more relaxed attitude to different forms of sexuality. “I was always in that sexually ambiguous, experimental place,” he says, “but I think that mind space has become much more prevalent.”
Another obvious change is the rise of social media. Mobile phones and the Internet figure so prominently in Kaboom they help define the visual style. “Like, half the script is text messages and computer screens.”
At one point Smith suggests that cinema itself may soon be obsolete, but Araki doesn't entirely share this pessimism. “I hope there is always the option of the pure cinema experience of going to this church-like theatre with a bunch of strangers and having this ritual experience in the dark together – that everybody doesn't just end up consuming media on their laptop, on their own.”
Araki remains best-known for his 1990s films such as The Living End (1992) and The Doom Generation (1995) which typify the angry, punk-rock energy of the movement that became known as New Queer Cinema.
Kaboom returns to the same apocalyptic themes, but with a difference. “I'm older, I'm hopefully wiser, and I'm much more centred,” he says. “I think that sensibility is reflected in the movie, in the sense that there's kind of a warmth and a fondness to the treatment of the characters and also, particularly, their sexuality. There's a generosity towards them that is perhaps not in my earlier films.”
For Araki, the film captures both the excitement and the terror of being young and unsure of the future. “I remember, when I was in that time, being extremely angst-ridden and confused,” he says. “Everything seemed so catastrophic and traumatic."
“But from the vantage point of being older, you realise, those were, like, some of the best years of your life. Because it was really all about the experience of growing and changing, and these are the adventures that will shape you into the person that you're going to be.”
With thanks to Asha Holmes and the Melbourne Queer Film Festival.