‘Shooting tadpoles at the moon’: Introducing the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy

In the early to mid ’90s, I hit my teen years: the impressionable years in which many of us begin discovering the art that shapes our tastes and aspects of our personalities for years to come. During this time, much of (what would become) classic Gen-X art hit the screens and airwaves, with major titles and underground ones alike. While popular movies like Singles and Reality Bites would be used to define Gen-X to the masses, the anarchic works of Gregg Araki – particularly the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy – are what speak to my sensibilities as a Gen-X/Millennial cusper with a love for independent and outsider art.

I’ve never been drawn to the mainstream much, even in my youth. Punk rock and alternative music drew me in early on, alongside a penchant for independent labels and artists that began even in my elementary school years. My introduction to independent film came a bit later, but watching late night cable TV showings of Corman and Cannon flicks primed me for a discovery of lesser known and less mainstream films in middle school – and established an eventual love for low-budget genre film and a variety of weird indies from yesteryear through today. So, naturally, my adolescence defining Gen-X art involved less Ethan Hawke and Christian Slater and more James Duval and Joey Lauren Adams. Of course, there’s a good deal of crossover between the more mainstream films of the era and the underground that includes the aforementioned names and many more – and some of the films that feel more mainstream now when, looking back, generally weren’t all that mainstream. But suffice it to say, the dialogue, topics, and style of Araki remain decidedly unique and clearly not something that one could ever group as typical, generic, or conventional. 

While I came to the first installment of the trilogy, Totally Fucked Up, a little later, the second film, The Doom Generation, provided my introduction to Araki soon after it came out on home video. Somewhere around age 14, give or take, I sought a copy of the film after hearing about it through some random magazine at the bookstore. Captivated by an early object of my teen lust in Rose McGowan and enamored with the aesthetic described in the pages of that magazine, I was denied the opportunity to rent the film, so I found a store willing to sell me a copy and watched it as soon as I got it home. My fear of having my parents discover and watch a film I would be unallowed to watch, much less own, led to me throwing the VHS away… but the film left an undeniable mark on me and my future preferences in film – and art, in general… and, if I’m honest, my sexual desires and development.

With this and the next two pieces in this blog series, we won’t be reviewing the films in any traditional way nor following one set format. I want you to come along on my personal teenage apocalypse journey where I’ll reflect on the films, the era, and my own adolescence in what will surely be equal parts film criticism, general conversation, and editorializing – along with some surprise interviews and bonus material (much like my own personal Criterion release). In my next installment, I’ll explore the effect of The Doom Generation on my tastes, my sexuality, and my sensibilities quite a bit more, but we begin this series with the first film in the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy. That film is 1993’s Totally Fucked Up, Gregg Araki’s fourth feature and the follow up to his seminal New Queer Cinema genre-defining picture, The Living End.

“Don’t touch me unless you mean it!”
Totally Fucking Landmark Film

A coming out party for landmark Gen-X filmmaker Gregg Araki, as well as numerous cast members including underground Gen-X icon James Duval, Totally Fucked Up is an extremely important film in understanding Gen-X art, modern queer cinema, and independent film of the ’90s through today. Araki described the film – quite accurately as “a rag-tag story of the fag-and-dyke teen underground…. a kinda cross between avant-garde experimental cinema and a queer John Hughes flick.” Driven by aesthetics, dialogue, and the soundtrack, Totally Fucked Up is a highly influential film and one that helped to define what people think of when they think of Gen-X on the whole and modern indie film alike.

With a sense of anarchy, a series of vignettes, verite-style confessional interviews ala MTV’s The Real World, and a focus on developing characters through a combination of their interactions and sharing of their innermost thoughts with one another, Totally Fucked Up‘s tone may feel common and familiar when looking back, but the film employed quite a fresh and unique approach in 1993. Fans of the great Kevin Smith will see a decided stylistic similarity to parts of Clerks; while only a year later, the camcorder style Araki employed would also be seen used satirically in the film most people associate most closely with Gen-X, the previously mentioned Reality Bites. Totally Fucked Up was most certainly a reactionary response to the Reagan/Bush era, like many other films in this period, especially those often thought about as quintessential Gen-X entries – but the style was fresh. Araki blended what was going on around him with new low budget techniques and an influence from more classic Queer Cinema.

Film history considers Araki a godfather of New Queer Cinema, with this film and his previous, The Living End, cited among the early films of the movement, along with My Own Private Idaho, Swoon, and Poison, among others. While the previous Queer Cinema movement has extreme diversity in themes, artists, and ideas, it generally defined itself in more traditional male/female and gay/lesbian type terms. This new Gen-X brand of sexuality demonstrated by artists like Araki in this New Queer Cinema movement is where the lines began to blur. While our modern understanding of non-binary genders is certainly different and broader than in the ’90s, there’s a great deal more bisexuality and fluidity in New Queer Cinema than in previous movements. Totally Fucked Up is a good place to look for this exact type of blurred line, something Araki will explore more as this trilogy moves forward.

James Duval’s Andy is one of six central characters of the film, but he’s likely the most captivating and empathetic of them all. It’s with him that we really explore the ideas of a less stringently defined version of a gay man. While every bit of literature or synopsis will describe the six main characters as four gay men and two lesbians, Andy tells the camera that he thinks he’s bisexual, noting that women are soft and beautiful… even if he’s never “dorked” one. He admits that kissing women makes him hard and that he really enjoys touching them, while he also notes that the idea of butt sex – something traditionally associated with gay male sex – grosses him out. His version of being queer is certainly not the same as a stereotypical gay man, especially one in the early ’90s. It’s this sexual fluidity that feels new compared to queer films before this time. Despite being far from an expert and only marginally more than a novice on the subject, it seems to me that this type of sexual fluidity is largely what really bridges this story from just a queer film to a Gen-X queer film – and why it has been described as an important one in the formation of what is considered the New Queer Cinema movement.

“The population just keeps getting stupider and stupider!”
Totally Fucking Poignant Today

“Let me tell you what the problem with the stupid fucking world is. All the stupid people are breeding like mad having tens and tens of kids, while the cool people aren’t having any! So, the population just keeps getting stupider and stupider! I mean, it’s no wonder the whole world’s going down the toilet.”

Jenee Gill’s Patricia is dead on. A large amount of the cool people beginning with Gen-X and continuing through newer generations have been choosing not to have children. Some just aren’t interested. Some think the world is so beyond repair that it’s irresponsible to do so. Whether gay or straight or whatever, many of the free thinkers and people worth our time have decided against having children, something that wasn’t as prevalent in previous generations, it seems. Thus, it’s the brainwashed masses that procreate at larger numbers and continue to populate the world. While her proclamation that it’s making the world stupider may or may not be entirely accurate, it’s certainly worth considering. 

Whether true or not, Patricia’s statement is indicative of something that defines Gen-X and a sensibility of Gen-X that I most certain have embedded in me… that is, Gen-X is a truly cynical bunch. And why wouldn’t we be? (I know, I’m not truly a purebred Gen-Xer and I most certainly have certain Millennial sensibilities, but in the case of this particular I’m squarely part of the conversation.) Gen-X is the generation that first really experienced the failure of The American Dream in a way that hadn’t been experienced before. Gen-X began to see education devalued and investment in real estate no longer be a sure bet, and watched the aftermath of Satanic Panic and the bogus propaganda of the Reagan/Thatcher era send residual waves through our culture. The Cold War loomed while the economy boomed… but that boom was wildly overrated, as it widened the gap between the haves and have-nots to a size no system had ever seen. “Big C” Capitalism had its believers, but Gen-X was the generation that began to call it on its bullshit. Call it cynicism or call it realism, either way Patricia’s statement exemplifies this attitude, an attitude that the punk rock scene I grew up in really pounded into me before life merely proved it to be true.

And, as much or more than anyone else, it was the queer youth like those in this film, who felt the brunt of the scare tactics, militarism, and callous ideals that pushed the outsiders further to the fringes and held the oppressed down. Araki’s films arguably were not highly influential beyond the style of this particular era, but on furthering the themes of alienation of youth, non-hetero, standard, and sometimes vague or fluid sexuality, self-exploration, and animosity or aggression against a world rejecting these youth, Araki’s influence continues to stand out.

“There’s gotta be something for people to cling to besides TV right?”
Totally Fucking Rock ‘N’ Roll

Before I move past this film, a decidedly important one, but also one that’s admittedly my least favorite of the trilogy, it’s important to discuss Araki’s impact on defining Gen-X film as a category distinguished in part – sometimes in large part – by the soundtrack. In the case of most of Araki’s films, especially in this era, the shoegaze sound is prominent. Whether songs from a variety of bands or ones written for the film itself, this type of indie rock is a specific and noticeable sound. Additionally, there are great industrial punctuations in Totally Fucked Up, as with Ministry’s “Just One Fix” and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult’s “The Devil Does Drugs.” The presence – and sometimes prominence – of the music of cool and catchy underground alternative bands is an important fixture in Gen-X film. In fact, filmmakers like Araki and others, both independent and more mainstream, could easily be seen as some of the more important tastemakers of the era.

The music of Totally Fucked Up reflected some of what had started to get heavier play at MTV at the time. Even more so, it seemingly set the tastes for what MTV and alternative radio would be leaning on in the coming years. Perhaps there’s a bit of a “chicken or the egg” conversation to be had here, but it’s undeniable that the music presented by filmmakers like Araki as in the Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy (i.e., films of the era that simply oozed “cool”) really helped to set the tone and set the trends for what was to become cool.

“Like they dropped a neutron bomb and nobody noticed”
Totally Fucking Summary

With The Doom Generation as a sentimental favorite and Nowhere being pure insanity, Totally Fucked Up is the film in the trilogy I probably have the least affection for. Yet, in terms of its expressiveness and influence, there’s so much about the film that is long lasting and still reflective. As an essential part of the Gen-X film and art catalog, its importance to the foundations of New Queer Cinema are clear (but you can definitely trust the originator of the term, famed scholar and critic B. Ruby Rich on that more than a novice like me). A time capsule of the early ’90s, a powerful tome on being an alienated outsider, and a relatable story about people searching for love – Totally Fucked Up is totally fucking good and a totally great place to start this apocalyptic journey.


Stay tuned for more insight on Gregg Araki’s Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy!