Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mysterious Skin (2004)

Greg Arraki's Mysterious Skin hovers over those bittersweet and languid teenage years- that time when life seems ruled by a complicated matrix of desire, ambition, and boredom. It's a world where the everyday comfort of mom's apple pie meets the mundane pleasures of the jaded, adolescent prostitute. Arraki's misfit teens long to escape from these small-town banalities, but even in their moments of triumph, they find themselves drawn back to the meandering joys and sorrows of their suburban upbringing.

At the heart of the film lies the troubling decade-old legacy of sexual abuse secretly inflicted on several young boys by their little league baseball coach. For sullen Neal, these events served as a sexual awakening, and he eventually finds himself working as a hustler- partially as a big "fuck you" to society, but also as a mechanism through which he attempts to reconcile his conflicted feelings about the unspeakable bond he shared with his coach. Prone to nihilistic angst and random acts of self-destruction, his devil-may-care attitude nonetheless endears him to his fellow teenage outcasts, a motley crew who hopelessly lust after the affections that Neal is only able to share with older men.

Meanwhile, geeky Brian leads a sheltered life at home as he prepares for community college. His seemingly quiet demeanor hides a roiling psyche, for his dreams abound with haunting visions of the sinister moments of darkness that he has repressed from his childhood memories. After watching a television special about UFO's, he becomes convinced that he has been abducted by extraterrestrials, and he sets out in search of the truth that only Neal can help him discover.

The film's exploration of child abuse is terrifyingly powerful, and Arraki boldly chooses to present this subject without the shrill menace that dominates more traditional after-school-special approach to such issues. Instead, he coats his scenes in a glossy, almost romantic sheen, and the result feels much more true to the nightmarish fantasy world into which young Neal and Brian have been shepherded.

The film abounds with such darkly romanticized imagery, and Arraki uses these moments of to construct a mythic cycle of boredom and cruelty that fuels the American youth's Promethean yearning: a young boy is left without a ride home after his little league baseball game is cut short by a massive downpour; trick-or-treaters kidnap and torment a developmentally disabled child; two teen boys kiss in order to antagonize the grizzled truck driver sitting next to them at a stoplight. Through episodes like these, Mysterious Skin transforms suburban America's treasured icons into sinister pressures that compel the adolescent outsider to abandon his small-town roots in order to construct a more desirable identity. However, such efforts at cultural betrayal are doomed to fail, and Arraki's characters must eventually abandon their fantasies and confront the internal forces that have shaped their troubled worldviews.

At times, the film's dialogue and scenario begin to feel a little hokey, but Arraki manages to get away with it because this kind of melodrama makes sense in a world framed by teenage insecurities. The mostly age-appropriate actors are fittingly awkward, and their moments of unabashed rage and desire feel true to life. Or at least they did for me. Watching Mysterious Skin, I found myself drifting back to those pointless teenage years, that first time getting drunk, those gothy posters in the attic hangout, and that desperation to become somebody else. I can only hope I haven't been too successful.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Myth of America

I first noticed the Myth of America a few weeks ago, when I was home in San Diego. It came to me while I was jogging around the neighborhood where my father has lived for the last 20 years. As I made my may towards the local elementary school, I passed a middle-aged woman chatting happily with friends as she pushed a trash barrel down her driveway, a group of children on rollerskates who were shouting to another group of kids who were up in a tree, and a lanky teenage boy washing an old car in front of his garage. Touring the neighborhood like this reminded me of so many seemingly similar episodes from my own upbringing , but something about about still struck me as strange. I kept thinking to myself, this can't possibly be real. It was almost too perfect in its encapsulation of the America that's packaged and sold on television and in movies (and in dreams). It's the suburban paradise that is as inescapable and tragic as it is stirring and romantic.

I recently had three back-to-back encounters with this Myth of America. The first was during a sunny afternoon at Disneyland, where I met my old friend "Samantha" in front of Pizza Port in Tomorrow Land. She just graduated from college and has been living in Canada with her boyfriend, but she was in California with her family, who had been on a cruise down the coast for the past week. We talked briefly about art projects and old friends, and she showed me some of her new watercolors- there were some really lovely landscapes, which surprised the hell outta me because her old stuff had been so dark (it's probably why we had become such good friends in the first place).

We met up with Samantha's brother and father, and got in line to ride on Space Mountain. Samantha's brother started talking me up right away about politics and film and all the other wild things going on in the world. He was opinionated but also very affable and inquisitive- he reminded me of myself in his eagerness to argue issues both profound and mundane. His unabashed curiosity, happy-go-lucky demeanor, and "Bank of Dad" t-shirt all made him seem like a kid stuck in a grown man's body, though this effect was probably heightened by the fact that we were at Disneyland. This certainly isn't to say that he was childish- it was more like he reminded me of yet another Myth: that apparently ordinary youth who makes striking brilliant remarks without seeming to recognize the impact of his words. Or maybe his underlying maturity had something to do with the fact that he was a few days away from leaving for a tour of duty in Iraq.

Samantha's father was a also an army man, though his fighting years appeared to be behind him, and he stopped every half an hour to buy one of the crusty $3 churros from the colorful carts strategically positioned throughout the park. I used to love the things as a kid, and I can hardly remember a trip to the zoo or to a baseball game that does not involve me immediately begging my parents to buy me one. I've gotten over them, though (along with most other processed sugar injections), but I certainly appeared to be in the minority at the park. I know it's a cliche that American has gotten so incredibly fat, but it was still eye-opening to be surrounded by people who were from outsdie of image-conscious California. I made me wonder when I abandoned dreams of cotton candy and churros and cinnamon buns and instead started to see a single piece of chocolate or a plate of fresh fruit as dessert. Had I bought into some other Myth of eating "just right" and depriving myself of the good stuff, or had the wool really been pulled over the eyes of the many people lumbering after the disgustingly sugar-coated, fried wads of fat that had been squeezed into the shapes of various Disney heroes?

I drove Samantha back to her hotel room after it started to get dark. We were both pretty exhausted from walking around the park all day, and we agreed that it wasn't as fun as either of us had remembered. Samantha's brother and father stayed behind to watch fireworks and have a father-son moment that Samantha said would probably turn out to consist of the two of them talking about guns for an hour. She told me that things had been tough on her brother for a while, as he had learning disabilities and had struggled through college. He was struggling now, too, though that was mostly because he was queer but had stopped dating because of the whole Army thing. It's this inevitable melancholy that is probably the most terrible- and the most beautiful- thing about The Myth.

I had my second Mythic encounter the next day at Hansem Dam Park in Los Angeles. I had just gotten out of my car and was looking for some friends amongst the various picnickers who were tending barbecues and kicking around soccer balls. As I made my way out of the parking lot, I heard a scream and watched as a pair of horses raced across a dirt trail. A man in a cowboy hat was on top of one, trying desperately to catch up with the young girl on the horse in front of him. She had apparently lost control and was holding on tight and screaming bloody murder as her horse thundered through the park. An older man- her father?- started shouting to her in a frantic mix of Spanish and English, and at one point he told her to let go. She obeyed and was immediately thrown beneath the horse's hooves. She didn't move or scream anymore after this, and a delirious woman ran to her side, shrieking like a banshee. I thought I heard the little girl groan as I approached, but I couldn't be certain.

Her family gathered around her, and everyone was shouting at each other in Spanish, though they still said "911" in English, and a few of them quickly pulled out their cell pones. Lifeguards arrived in pickup trucks, and there were ambulances, firetrucks, and police cruisers too. One of the firetrucks made its way down a baseball field, and the fireman got out and cleared the area so a helicopter could land right in the middle of the outfield. My friends and I watched as the ambulance rambled down to the baseball field and the girl was rolled out on a stretcher before being whisked off into the sky. I checked the news for the next couple days, but I couldn't find anything about what had happened to her.

My met The Myth for a third time amongst the rolling canyons northwest of the city. My friend Ryan had been trying to get me to go riding with him for the past few weeks, as he has also just bought a motorcycle. I'd been feeling much better about my bike ever since I finally took it to a mechanic for an overhaul, so I shot up the 134 to meet him in Calabasas near where his parents live. He led me through a series of winding country roads where motorcycles outnumbered cars 10 to 1. The dusty hills reminded of the ones that I had spent so many hours staring at during my youth, whether it was hiking the trails near my father's house, traveling down the lonely stretches of the Del Dios mountain highway, or on trips to the apple orchards of Julian or the sweltering paradise of Palm Springs.

We stopped for a break at a little biker grill along the main passage through the canyon, and it had that same hardy roughness that I would expect to find at Robin Hood's den of thieves. It was a place for tough-guy types and their badass middle-aged girlfriends to eat burgers and throw back beers and relax to classic American rock music. I remember wondering to myself, is this America through Republican eyes? The mix of easygoing comfort and exotic beauty reminded me of the times I've visited my family in the South.

We eventually shot off on our bikes again, this time racing towards the Malibu coast. When we emerged from the canyon, we were hit by a blast of crisp ocean air that rushed off the various beaches and coves. We stopped to eat lunch at Neptune's Net, where I ate the "famous" fish and chips and Ryan had the fried calamari. We sat outside and watched as suntanned surfers emerged from the coast with their longboards and other bikers arrived and dismounted from their steeds, which came in so many beautifully different colors and sizes and styles. In a very anti-Mythical moment, both Ryan and I agreed that Japanese and European bikes are much more elegant than their American counterparts.

The whole time, I kept asking myself where this other America hides. Is this land of surfers and motorcycles and glorious meandering hillsides still there when I go back to my little apartment in the city? Does it vanish when I look away, or when I wake up in the morning? I also wondered if this Myth shares in the same sadness that hangs over the other Myths I encountered that weekend. Perhaps I've sacrificed something to maintain this bikers' paradise along the coast. Or maybe- and this seems much more likely- someone else has.