Queer Images, Queer Sounds: The Musical Landscape of Mysterious Skin and the Films of Gregg Araki

ICA Cinema

24 Sep 2013
ICA Cinematheque series Amour Fou continues on Tuesday 24 September at 6.30pm with Mysterious Skin (2004)

ICA Cinematheque series Amour Fou continues on Tuesday 24 September at 6.30pm with Mysterious Skin (2004), a provocative and audacious work from director Greg Araki that boasts bravura performances and a striking soundtrack courtesy of The Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd. For this guest ICA Blog post, Picturehouse London Cinemas and Acquisitions Coordinator Paul Ridd explores the use of music in Araki's films.

At a first listening, music in the films of Gregg Araki appears to function in affective synthesis with events unfolding on screen. Frenetically edited scenes of extreme violence are accompanied by tonally equivalent thrash metal, energetic sex sequences with the intensity of punk, and romantic interludes with the evocative melodies of either alternative rock or emotional pop. Mysterious Skin (2004), Araki’s faithful adaptation of Scott Heim’s 1996 novel, is the first instance in which Araki has utilised a fully-realised, non-diegetic score, but it appears superficially no exception to this rule. Events by turns romantic, traumatic and erotic are accompanied by the ethereal sound of a fully electronic score by former Cocteau Twins guitarist/drummer Robin Guthrie and experimental musician Harold Budd. Its various musical motifs, tinkling keyboard refrains, broad guitar melodies layered with distortion, and haunting ambient cues, skilfully echo shifting moods and emotions in each scene. The result evokes an intense subjectivity in keeping with a cinematographic strategy that persistently utilises narrow point of view shots, along with a plot entirely built around the personal experiences of its two central characters Neil (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet), the now teenaged victims of child sexual abuse. The former is shown embarking on a career as a hustler in his hometown and later New York, while the latter endeavours to uncover the mystery of his ‘lost hours’ which he at first attributes to a possible alien abduction. The pair are finally reunited in the climactic scene in which both share collective grief at the memory of their childhood sexual experiences.

However, the superficially conventional nature of this narrative and its accompanying score is questioned by a closer examination of Araki’s previous films. Observing his complex, often ironic appropriation of cinematic iconography, character types and genres, reveals his cinematic language to be rather more complex and reflexive. Furthermore, his eclectic choice of specific types of alternative rock and pop to complement his cinematic universe – genres that are often seen to be challenging the status quo of the popular musical mainstream – mirrors a visual aesthetic that is at once deeply invested in conventions and in radical opposition to their ideological frameworks and ramifications.[1]

This piece will therefore explore the extent to which Araki, as one of the leading figures of the New Queer Cinema movement, in his use of music can be understood to be ‘queering’ the use of rock and pop in mainstream narrative cinema (where ‘queering’ here is used as a sexually weighted synonym for ‘questioning’). With a special emphasis on exploring the often arguably subversive aesthetics of the music he chooses, the piece will then focus on an exemplary close reading of the music used in Mysterious Skin. The aim will be to explore some of the ways in which, in common with a variety of other musical forms, “music can be seen to function as a technique for conceiving, configuring, and representing queer subjectivity…inviting individuals to question subjectivity as it is composed according to the structure of "compulsory heterosexuality" in phallocentric, patriarchal culture.”[2]

Araki first achieved popular attention and critical notoriety after his third feature The Living End (1992) was identified by critic B. Ruby Rich as a key film in the newly emerging New Queer Cinema movement.[3] Rich described the film as an example of a “Homo Pomo” style, an aesthetic characterised by “appropriation, pastiche, irony, as well as a reworking of history with social constructionism very much in mind.”[4] For Rich, these new films stood out as formally radical – by turns “irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive” – and also confrontational in their presentation of sexual identities which challenged heteronormativity. But their challenge was also crucially addressed to the promotion of positive images of gay men and lesbians, characteristic of previous assimilationist strategies in cinema.

These strategies, which had frequently characterized the work of politicised gay and lesbian filmmakers of the 1970s and 1980s, were built upon efforts to counter negative stereotypes in mainstream cinema which presented queer characters as either comical or invariably lonely, repressed, deviant, and often killers. The response was to present positive images nonetheless built on heteronormative models such as the harmonious gay couple or the hopeless romantic consumed with a desire for monogamy.[5] By contrast, New Queer Cinema directors such as Tom Kalin, Todd Haynes and Araki, assumed and twisted homophobic stereotypes, by pitting sexually charged gay killers against oppressive and dull representatives of ‘straight’ society.

This reclamation and subversion extended further to incorporate traditional film genres. Haynes’ Poison (1992) adopted the tropes of documentary, 1950s B-movie sci-fi and the prison potboiler to present three gay stories; Kalin’s Swoon (1992) functioned as a queer thriller remake of Hitchcock’s desexualized Rope 1948) with its accurately homo-erotic account of the Leopold and Loeb murder case; whilst The Living End was an overtly gay road movie in which two HIV positive men fall in love and go on the run after one of them commits a number of murders.[6] New Queer Cinema films thus succeeded in reclaiming materials used by ‘straight’ cinema—stereotypes, stories, genres—to subversively rework their connotations, altering their political and social implications.

The protagonists in The Living End for example are both recognizable gay representational archetypes. The withdrawn, shy film critic Jon (Craig Gilmore) can be identified as the “sad young man,” whilst the volatile, violent hustler Luke (Mike Dytri) is the “Macho”[7] he falls for. Luke’s appearance in particular establishes a self-conscious link with iconography associated with earlier Hollywood pin-ups Marlon Brando and James Dean,[8] an iconic trope continued on to the sultry appearance of Xavier Red (Jonathan Schaech) in The Doom Generation (1995). The stylized photography and mise-en-scene of both films meanwhile recalls ostensibly heterosexual ‘on the run’ thrillers from À bout de souffle (Jean Luc Godard, 1960) through to Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) and Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994). The acting is awkward, stagey and often campily theatrical, whilst the set design is primitive, and often overtly artificial. This, alongside frequent heavy-handed references to Araki’s cinematic heroes Jean Luc Godard and André Bazin, persistently draws attention to the films’ constructed nature. The effect is to create a pro-cinematic universe, in which previously ‘closeted’ icons and narratives are given a ‘queered’ life of their own. As critic James M. Moran puts it, the result “inverts the conventional paradigm of the homosexual narrative as subcultural and connotative by making it dominant and denotative.”[9] The overt self-conciousness also functions to highlight the extremely constructed nature of conventional narrative forms, and by implication, the lifestyles and heterosexist ideologies they persistently serve to promote.

Such reflexive and referential strategies continued into Araki’s subsequent ‘Teen Apocalypse Trilogy’, with (alongside The Doom Generation) Totally Fucked Up(1993) and Nowhere (1997) playing on the tropes of ‘straight’ teen movies and hit TV shows such as Beverly Hills 90210 (1990-2000). But these films shifted emphasis onto presenting a polymorphously perverse, queer sexuality in opposition to the divisive delineations of ‘straight’ and ‘gay’. The opening sequence of Nowhere for instance depicts hero Dark Smith (James Duval) masturbating in the shower. His erotic stimuli, appearing as a series of eroticised cut-aways, flits between fantasies of his girlfriend Mel (Rachel True), handsome new boy at school Montgomery (Nathan Bexton), and a pair of dominatrix lovers, Kris (Debi Mazar) and Kozy (Chiara Mastroianni). Mel meanwhile, in the course of the film divides her affections between Dark, her blue-haired girlfriend Lucifer (Kathleen Robertson) and a pair of twin surfer boys. She never recourses to describing her sexual preferences according to any form of categorisation, instead proclaiming “I firmly believe that human beings are built for love and for sex, and we should dole out as much as we can.”[10] As critic Andrew Aisbong describes, Araki’s queer protagonists thus “strive to adapt themselves to all the possibilities, dashing madly amid the vibrant colours and breathtaking velocities generated by existence in worlds in which the multiple ‘becomings’ dreamt of by French philosophers of post-Oedipal desire Deleuze and Guattari appear to have become a reality.”[11]

Central to the musical landscape of these films is a liberal use of heavy metal and punk, but predominantly shoegaze, a sub-genre of alternative rock. In mainstream generic equivalents to Araki’s aesthetic, specifically the contemporaneous mid-90s explosion of the teen movie, uses of such musical genres regularly function to stylise or glorify proceedings. More often than not existing outside the space of the film, hip tracks are nevertheless invoked to enhance a sense of youthful excitement, virility or anger, and by implication sell soundtracks to the films’ corresponding youth markets. By contrast, Araki features such music almost exclusively within the diegesis of his films. It can be heard in concert scenes, parties, bedrooms and in cars, and is thus a crucial part of Araki’s cast of young queer characters’ interior and exterior world, serving to evoke a type of musically-enhanced realism. One only has to consider extreme examples, such as the aggressive thrash metal which plays over the climactic party murder scene in Nowhere, or the boom-boxed version of ‘The Stars and Stripes’ the gang of thugs use to accompany their murder at the end of The Doom Generation, to see that Araki’s characters are as affected by the music they listen to as they are by the saturation of pop-cultural images that effects their appearance and dialogue. This is certainly the case in Mysterious Skin.

In one scene Neil and his close friends Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Erik (Jeff Licon) are shown driving aimlessly around their Texas hometown as the Curve track ‘Galaxy’ plays on their in-car stereo. The song is driven by a pulsating beat while its indiscernible vocal line slurs and lingers sardonically on blue notes. Pumped up by the song Wendy enthusiastically cries out “I can’t believe I’m finally getting out of this fucking nowhere town.” Later, in New York, Neil discusses the events of a previous night with Wendy, when a client was shocked by his reluctance to wear a condom. The ponderous song ‘Dagger’ by Slowdive plays in the background as Wendy warns him (with the cinephilically and queerly loaded line of dialogue) “Be careful, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

In several instances the sources of such songs is initially rendered unclear. At one point an entire scene plays out between Brian and Erik in which the pair discuss the former’s alien abduction theory in an attic bedroom (the walls incidentally lined with Slowdive and Cocteau Twins posters). In the background can be heard the song ‘Drive Blind’ by Ride, its volume implying its presence in that space. However, a cut to Neil sprawled on a couch in his New York apartment listening to headphones reveals the song to be in reality playing in his ears. Earlier he is shown listening to the Cocteau Twins track ‘Crushed’ through the same headphones on a subway train as he reads a letter from Erik, read out by Licon on the soundtrack. With a cut to a montage of Brian and Stephen’s developing friendship the music rises in volume. It becomes non-diegetic commentary on the playfully clichéd images of the pair bonding over homework, eating lunch together and watching television, only to diminish once again with a cut back to Neil.

Such instances serve to unite the film’s divergent narrative strands, the two separate lives of Neil and Brian, much in the same way as the score behaves in a variety of cross-cut sequences. Rather than establishing cues associated with the two characters individually, a musical sequence will often play continuously over two separate narrative instances and spaces. But the effect goes further when we consider the relation between the songs used, their effect on characters and crucially, the musical shape of the score. The creative presence of Guthrie and persistent melodic similarities to the forms evoked by shoegaze, render the score in effect a pastiche of the songs the characters enjoy. It is a musical aesthetic which is constantly influencing the construction of their identities and conception of their environment. The reference to the ‘constructive’ effect of shoegaze is extended further in that the characters of Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and Erik (Jeff Licon), are both named after songs by Slowdive. Thus we are encouraged to associate music which ostensibly appears to be performing narrative work with the interiority of characters within the film, resulting in a heightened subjectivity.

In contrast to metal and punk, which have been both been extensively discussed in queer musicology writing (due for the most part to the diverse sub-cultural communities the genres have a tendency to create around them), the shoegaze genre has been awarded remarkably sparse critical attention. This is surprising considering the potential avenues it opens up for discussion with regard to its proprietors’ appropriation and mutation of conventions upheld by traditional, phallocentric rock music. Instead, reception of the experimental, immersive music of foundational shoegazers; Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, as well as such protégés as Curve, Slowdive and Ride (all of which are heavily featured in Araki’s work), is divided rather uneasily between the aggravation of rock critics - who scorn complexities of form and act as harbingers of the potential emasculation of their macho fetish object - and the indifference of music theorists, uninterested in the perceived crassness of popular music genres.

The sound is characterised by heavy guitar distortion, a pounding bass line, leisurely (often simulated) drum beat and melodious vocal lines. The latter are frequently so heavily layered and manipulated as to render lyrics incomprehensible and the voice made indistinguishable from other instruments. This characteristic unity and equality of separate parts immediately distinguishes the music from the clear individuation of conventional rock tracks.[12] Furthermore, the negation of lyrical clarity in favour of the use of the voice as a quasi-instrument with affective and meaning-formulating qualities of its own liberates the music from monolithic signification. The music is freed not only from the lyrical world of mainstream rock (pre-dominantly occupied with the expression of masculine bravado and desire), but also in more psychoanalytic terms, from the gendered restraints of language. As music theorist Freya-Jarman-Ivens describes “the issues surrounding the uses of language are deeply embedded in the human psychic make-up, with language figured as part of a fundamentally patriarchal structure: the symbolic realm, which incorporates law, culture, and religion... although female subjects must in some way negotiate entry into the symbolic order, their fundamental exclusion from it is also implicit.”[13] This liberation extends to the characteristic androgyny of lead singers, both in appearance and sound.

If we listen for example to the aforementioned featured Cocteau Twins track ‘Crushed’ we find that lead singer Elizabeth Fraser’s wide ranging vocal levels achieve a level of emotional communication, sophistication and variation entirely without lyrical clarity. An ecstatic verse section is followed by an impatient, almost sarcastic chorus, an effect achieved by Fraser’s voice shifting from staccato high in the first to a droning lower register, drawing out blue notes, in the second. But the quality of the sound goes further than expressing a linear progression of emotions. As Richard Dyer has argued, the conventions of popular song are designed to reach a sense of security and self-containment. This is achieved through the adoption of a strict, in some senses ‘narrative’ structure (AA BA), in which the original melodic phrase is inevitably returned to, whilst the ‘harmonic anchor’ of the song, its tonic note, is invariably also its last. This structure, along with lyrics placed within “a conceptualisation of love and passion as emanating from ‘inside’ the heart or the soul"[14] are symptomatic in popular music in general, of a refusal to engage with the body as the site of erotic pleasure and desire. He further argues that rock’s appropriation of the physicality of rhythm is rendered solely phallic as “thrusting, grinding...not whole-body”.

Such conventions encourage music to signify monolithically. Whether operating according to the terms of a phallocentric sexuality or more broadly functioning to teach the culturally learned codes of passion, such music can in a sense be seen to be ‘telling the story’ of heterosexual couplings and, by implication, the subsequent forward-moving hetero narratives they initiate (attraction, sex, child-rearing, death).  By contrast ‘Shoe-gazing’ stands apart from this effect precisely because of its immersive qualities. By provoking a more bodily interaction with form (in contrast to cerebral rock and pop), the music defies narrativity to instead provoke immediate and transcient bodily interaction with musical media.

The majority of Budd and Guthrie’s score for Mysterious Skin is built around variations and fractions of a central theme which recurs in its entirety at two crucial moments in the film. The first is during an early scene in which Coach Heider (Bill Sage) photographs and records the voice of the eight-year-old Neil (Chase Ellison) in his apartment. The second is in a scene directly following the older Neil’s encounter with Zeke (Billy Drago), an AIDS afflicted client in New York, in which he is shown running through a deserted street alone. Both instances use the non-diegetic, highly romantic theme to evoke an intensely subjective sense of Neil’s euphoria. In the first instance this is provoked by his burgeoning love for the Coach, in the second by the intimacy of an encounter which has provoked both a sudden awareness in Neil of his body’s frailty and a fear of his own mortality.

The theme comprises four oscillating triplet cells, in classical music termed ‘Ostinato’, which form the basis for Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ to name a famous example.[15] In the Beethoven piece the minor ostinato functions as grave accompaniment for a mournful melody which eventually enters. Both are eventually resolved as the bass line and the melody return to the tonic note. Here no melody arrives. Instead, the line is not only inverted (from the Sonata’s repeated upward 5-1-3 to a cascading 3-1-5) and transposed from a minor to a far more jubilant major key, but also functions as the sole, repeated melody. The theme further defies formal expectations by modulating in its third cell to a new key (implying a new tonic note), only to return back to the original cell to begin the cycle again. The set of triplet figures thus defy formal conventions by establishing the potential for melodic development which is left unresolved. Therefore, in keeping with the minimalist work of modern composers such as John Cage, Philip Glass and Arvo Part, an unending, trance-like effect is achieved.

There is of course an immediate irony in invoking a very traditional, archaic classical structure using solely electronic instruments. But this is not the first time Guthrie has done so. In fact, repetitive, tumbling triplet figures are a consistent feature of many Cocteau Twins tracks, from ‘Sugar Hiccup’ to ‘Crushed’. Such figures are symptomatic of Shoe-Gazing’s propensity towards repeated cells as well as their engagement with and manipulation of established formal structures in music.

However, in contrast to the breathtakingly rapid and stylised cutting and aestheticised movement of characters in Araki’s earlier films, where this kind of musical figuring functions as a kind of affective equivalence to constantly morphing sexual roles, here the use of music is rather more complicated, precisely because of the sequences in which it is notable by its absent. The ‘Mysterious Skin’ of the film’s title can have myriad interpretive connotations, but in the context of the relation between music and image here it can be read as relating to the fragile bodies of the two central leads. The opening section of the film, which presents in parallel the childhood experiences of Neil and Brian accompanied by their voiceovers, is its most musically full, establishing motifs which will recur throughout the rest of the film. A variety of warm cues play out for almost its entirety, by turns upbeat and ominous. They are nevertheless unified by an almost consistent upward progression of often only two notes, the inverse of the central theme. By contrast music slowly begins to evaporate from the soundtrack as the body of Neil comes under increasing threat and violation in the course of the film (culminating in a traumatic rape sequence), and Brian begins to move away from his alien-fantasies towards a more concrete realisation of the truth. In this way the Araki appears to illustrate a dialectic between the idealistic qualities of the music and the frailty of the physical body.

By exploring the musical aesthetic of Araki’s soundtracks, specifically his preference for a specific type of alternative rock, this piece has attempted to map an equivalence between the polymorphically perverse, constantly transformative quality of his characters’ sexuality and the nature of a musical style which privileges sensorial engagement with musical affect over cerebral connection with repetitive forms in mainstream rock. However, the change in the use of such music in Mysterious Skin to the use of a non-diegetic, subjective score which nevertheless appears to emanate from the musical world of the film, problematises this conception.


[1] It is possible to talk about Araki in very auteurist terms, as James M. Moran puts it “Recycling and recombining images and angles from film to film, Araki has been able to achieve a remarkable intertextuality within his oeuvre, constructing a cinematic universe with an atmosphere and logic unique to his sensibility.” James M. Moran “Gregg Araki: Guerilla Film-Maker for a Queer Generation,” Film Quarterly, 50, no. 1 (Autumn 1996): 20.
[2] Judith A. Peraino, “Listening to the Sirens: Music as Queer Ethical Practice,” GLQ 9, no. (2003) 433.
[3] She linked Araki’s film with, among others, Todd Haynes’ Poison (grand prize-winner of the 1991 Sundance Film Festival), Christopher Munch’s The Hours and Times (1991), Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), Laurie Lynd’s R.S.V.P. (1991) and the Pixelvision videos of Sadie Benning.
[4] Quoted in Michelle Aaron, New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader, (New York: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 3.
[5] I would give here as an example of the former, the couple presented in hit French comedy La Cage aux Folles (Édouard Molinaro, 1978) and the latter, the figure of Omar (Gordon Warnecke) in My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985).
[6] It is worth noting that these murders are of a police officer and two violent homophobes clad in T-shirts advertising the two contemporaneous independent hits Sex, Lies and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989) and Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant, 1989).
[7] Richard Dyer, The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations (London: Routledge, 1993): 38.
[8] As well as of course the macho, muscle men iconography of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964).
[9] James M. Moran, “Gregg Araki: Guerilla Film-Maker for a Queer Generation,” Film Quarterly, 50 no. 1 (Autumn 1996), 19.
>[10] Oppositional forces to such transcient, but nonetheless frequently highly romantic groupings appear in various guises. A gang of fascist bikers torture and castrate the hero of The Doom Generation Jordan White (James Duval) just as he is about to engage in a ménage a trois and consummate a burgeoning homo-erotic attraction to Xavier. Dark’s frustrations at his girlfriend’s promiscuity and longing for monogamous union in Nowhere are temporarily relieved by Montgomery’s willingness to “promise never, ever to leave”, only for the young man to promtly explode and morph into a bizarre alien creature. Varying from the extremely distressing to the comical, these forces are nevertheless presented in very heteronormative terms.
>[11] Andrew Aisbong, “Unrecognizable bonds: Bleeding kinship in Pedro Almodóvar and Gregg Araki,” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 7, no. 3 (2009): 186.
[12] Whether we hear The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or Oasis, we can invariably anticipate allotted time for the virtuoso guitar riff, the extended drum solo and the vocal theatrics of the lead singer.
[13] Freya Jarman-Ivens, “Queer(ing) Masculinities in Heterosexist rap music” in Queering the Popular Pitch, eds. Sheila Whiteley and Jennifer Rycenga (New York, London: Routledge, 2006), 205.
[14] Richard Dyer, “In Defense of Disco,” in Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture, eds. Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 410.
[15] The pattern can also be found repeatedly used in Mozart’s Alberti Bass which often forms the basis of his piano sonatas.

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