Gregg Araki’s Splendor

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

In the Grass
his heart you know he’s gay." That thought came after seeing Gregg
Araki’s Splendor, a "heterosexual" romantic comedy with bisexual
allure. Showing off a triangulated love affair involving a woman and two men,
Araki photographs the men so erotically that masculine charms outweigh the plot’s
deliberately, deceptively feminine emphasis.

A young Los Angeles actress,
Veronica (Kathleen Robertson), faces the camera and narrates her live-in relationship
with a blond punk drummer Zed (Matt Keeslar) and a dark-haired writer Abel (Jonathan
Schaech) she met at a Halloween disco bash. Veronica enunciates a lusty, infatuated
view of these men–Araki’s view–which, thank God, is nothing like
Catherine Breillat’s in the supposedly feminist Romance. Veronica
(seeing through Araki’s eye) revels in male sex appeal instead of reviling
it. The central recurring scene is of Veronica, Abel and Zed tangled together
in postcoital bliss–Splendor. Their radiant, tumid triad suggests
a circuit of carnal happiness in a current that runs between male poles.

To call this a breakthrough
would be to disregard the inherent richness in such movies as Ernst Lubitsch’s
1933 Design for Living (Araki’s inspiration) that also mixed the
meanings of playful male and female eroticism. Lubitsch’s trio of lovers
included a dashing young Gary Cooper whose relaxed glamour was that film’s
(subliminally) bisexual bonus. Araki keeps the surface sexual activity just
as orthodox as Lubitsch, except for a scene where Araki’s threesome get
stoned and Veronica eggs the two males on to kiss each other for her own amusement
(Abel is hesitant, Zed is willing and…)

Touting the joys of heterosexual
happiness, Splendor can be seen as a development of Araki’s usual
provocative innuendoes from the gay-themed road picture The Living End
(which flouted AIDS panic with a desperately horny pair of male lovers on the
lam) to the increasingly bisexual content of his movies that came after (climaxing
in the 1997 Nowhere, the summit of his "Teen Apocalypse Trilogy").

Araki’s day-glo punk
esthetic has mellowed into neocon conventionality–enshrining marriage,
parenthood and a pop-art version of middle-class comfort. It’s difficult
to say what’s more important to Araki’s sensibility: California, pop
culture or sexual license. His films all mix movies, music, sexual allure into
a casual ebullience expressive of particular social manners–a sun-drenched
way of life, a permissive way of seeing things. Splendor indulges the
flesh and spark of sexy youth culture unabashedly; the story’s sensual
ease seems, unmistakably, California’s contribution to American fantasy
as much as Araki’s contribution to modern movies’ discourse on youth
mores. There’s more authenticity in Splendor’s turn toward
orthodoxy than in the facetious chaos of American Beauty. Araki depicts
a desire for normalcy that, however reactionary, is a human and probably sincere
expression of the longing he knew to be inside L.A.’s postpunk rebellion.

Always a student of French
New Wave rigor, Araki has learned to complicate sub-cult, young adult hipness.
In the iconoclastic 1974 film Going Places, Bertrand Blier dared to have
Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere jump each other’s bones–the randiest,
classiest buggery until The Living End. But Araki avoids that now; he
means to transgress in the opposite direction. Not a farcical anarchist like
Blier, Araki aspires to a classical romantic schematic. Instead of going places
new, he retreats to a version of Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman–the
1961 musical-comedy experiment of Anna Karina sleeping with both Jean-Paul Belmondo
and Jean-Claude Brialy in order to become pregnant. Essentially Godard puzzled
over the complexity of Karina’s female desire, but Araki uses a woman’s
perspective (Veronica) to chart desire’s fluidity–his own.

Whatever Araki’s current
sexual interest, he’s a genuinely impressive filmmaker–that’s
what makes Splendor’s heterosexual burlesque both worth pondering
and challenging. His talent and always-clever satire of commonplace hip sentiments
don’t need the insulting condescension that reviewers have heaped upon
Rose Troche for her amateurish Go Fish and atrocious, doctrinaire Bedrooms
and Hallways
. Araki isn’t banal enough to pose as a gay standard-bearer.
Seeking an exploratory approach to sexual identity while avoiding Gus Van Sant’s
refusal, Araki uses Splendor’s farce only to confound typical expectations
of what a straight or gay movie can be.

A New York- or London-set
film about a menage a trois would undoubtedly be grungier or perhaps emotionally
violent (or arch like the sluggish Bedrooms and Hallways). But California-born
Araki–inheriting the Beach Boys’ sunniness, L.A. punk’s impudence
and the modern legacy of Hollywood glitz–has a culturally induced view
of such unorthodox relationships as a plausible pop fairytale. This makes Splendor
irresistible at the same time it is facile and superficial. Its romanticism
is most acute when Zed presents Veronica with a stuffed animal embroidered "I
Wuv Ewe" or snuggles next to her–and Abel–to speak from his heart.
These youth-worshipping images seem both emotionally and erotically charged–a
polymorphously perverse playpen.

In such instances, Araki’s
talent overwhelms his politics, maybe even his conscious intentions. Of all
contemporary filmmakers, Araki’s got the wittiest use of color (even Almodovar’s
a distant second). His exuberant vision makes it possible for all viewers to
delight in his characters’ pop-saturated sex lives–Zed’s humpy
drumming, Abel’s rock-journalist intensity and, when Veronica’s affections
expand, a hotshot tv director named Ernest (Eric Mabius). This added complication
ends in a weak parody of The Graduate, but it’s forgivable when
you notice the new beau’s eyes match his baby-blue outfits. Standing together
on a Maui beach, Ernest and Veronica watch a pink and orange sunset–it’s
intentionally silly, but more persuasive than that; Ernest is the picture of
gap-toothed, yummy boyishness.

Araki’s plot says "het"
but his eyes say no. Perhaps Kathleen Robertson’s a lovely person in real
life, but onscreen she calls to mind the trite aspects of Jennifer Jason Leigh
and Alicia Silverstone (i.e., Jenny McCarthy). In her monologues, Veronica is
photographed with music-video light reflections in her pupils. Araki may mean
to suggest starshine, but she comes across as vapid, slightly cross-eyed, whereas
the boys seem soulfully sexy. Zed with the abs and Abel with the fur have a
strange meet-cute, pissing against a tree. (Keeslar, who gave an original, fully
defined romantic performance in The Last Days of Disco, is cast in perfect
sync with the intense, overripe Schaech.) They compete for Veronica, then share
her good-naturedly. Between both men in bed she looks, to the unsuspecting eye,
to be in clover; but though she’s in the middle it’s almost like she’s
not there. Araki’s apparent infatuation sublimates Veronica’s presence.
Confessing indecision to Mike (Kelly Macdonald), a lesbian sculptress best friend,
Veronica’s anguish seems merely theoretical. (Telling word-image match:
"It wasn’t like it was all about the money," Veronica describes
dating Ernest, followed by a shot of her high heels stepping out of his limo.)
Sex and luxe–a purely Hollywood complex about male-female relationships
that Araki passes off with aplomb.

Another complex ensnares
him, though. Abel, Zed and Ernest are such whiteboy icons you wonder if Araki’s
former Asian alter ego (James Duval) has been sublimated too? The racial narrowness
of Splendor’s fantasy alerts one to the movie’s drawbacks.
Araki’s openly erotic admission (an erotic fixation on the Other) takes
him past his usual balanced, social idealism; past good sense. By unapologetically
objectifying white males, Araki switches the domination usually intended for
females into a fantasy of possession, altering the standard movie effect of
white male superiority. But that’s a naive assumption. Certain movie performers
could always be cast for the fact of their sexual appeal (Brando’s the
great example, Keanu Reeves is a modern one), and the acknowledgment of that
appeal could open minds about the breadth of male sexuality. But Araki’s
daydream, not fully unleashed, loses its subversive suggestion. Splendor
glorifies its actors in a nearly unprecedented way (for an American film), but
it doesn’t look soberly or realistically at sexual relations or intimate
power plays. That’s how you know the film’s heterosexuality is a jest.
It’s beyond the provenance of criticism to judge Araki’s erotic taste
(sounds like a Ben & Jerry’s flavor). But at least it’s handsome.
Should Araki ever probe traditional white male heterosexual privilege more boldly,
the result will be more than just the ultimate teenage crush.

Coinciding with the upcoming rerelease of A Hard Day’s Night, check
out Richard Lester!, a documentary interview with the trendsetting, now
elusive director by Stacy Cochran, herself an original indie director of My
New Gun
and Boys. You can tell from the exclamation point Cochran
puts on her title that the view on Lester is respectful, perhaps even expressing
a longing for Lester’s now-missed iconoclasm and wit in this age of formulaic
music videos and vapid teen movies. Lester appears polite and modestly forgetful
about a career that changed the course of pop cinema. American-born, he went
to England in the same era as Kubrick and fashioned an equally idiosyncratic
and remarkable filmography. Cochran’s attentiveness to Lester’s style
adds insight to the unconventional, personal wit in her own young adult dramas.
And she sweetly shows herself a student of Lester’s in the film’s
shifting backgrounds and a comic routine in which she introduces her small crew
to Lester as an enormous big-budget retinue.

In Get Bruce, the
comedy writer Bruce Vilanch gets the celebrity profile his well-known clients
(Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Lily Tomlin,
etc.) think he deserves. Starting with Ann-Margret singing a title song calling
him "Dorothy Parker’s zaftig clone/Tallulah with testosterone,"
it peeks behind the lie of pop celebrity to reveal hype’s script doctor.
"You have to take [a star’s] attitude and choose words that suit that
attitude," says the t-shirt-wearing wag (one reprints Munch’s The
, which Vilanch calls "a recent portrait of Macaulay Culkin").
It’s like watching a Talk magazine article complete with gleeful
shots of (and protective comments about) Clinton. Crystal brags about an Oscar
parody he cowrote with Vilanch but not crediting its Talk Soup source.
Bruce himself respectfully credits Redd Foxx’s inspiration and Williams
does an X-Files routine that is the year’s funniest two movie minutes.