In a world that is unpredictable, each and every Christian calendar year manages to end predictably: with an assault of end-of-the-year lists, where people who relatively matter — like Pitchfork Media — and people who don’t — your Tumbling cousin — rate and rank the best and the worst to happen in various cultural formats, from music to books to memes, most of which you’ll forget when it comes time to do it all over again the next year. There are four such lists in this issue of the City Paper.
But when I saw that director and Baltimorean John Waters had drawn up his own for the top films of 2011 for Art Forum, I perked up. Until I saw:
5. Kaboom (Gregg Araki) A sexy, well-written, end-of-the-world comedy that succeeds beyond all expectation. Doomsday never looked so hot.
You’re wrong, John Waters. So wrong. Like, I can’t believe how wrong you are. And it pains me to have to tell you this, because when I was first seduced by the trailer for Kaboom at the turn of the year, I really did think it would be as wonderful as you have promised everyone who has read your list.
I am unabashedly a fan of Gregg Araki. Of the 11 titles that IMDB gives him credit for, I have seen six of those, including a worn VHS copy of The Living End. He often mixes B-movie exaggeration with genuine poignancy, and over the years, he’s developed a neon-pop style that glows colorfully in his work, whether it’s the child molestation-rooted Mysterious Skin or the pot-fueled Happy Face. And he overloads his soundtracks with Slowdive and other excellent shoegaze bands.
Kaboom is Araki’s latest and, while it maintains much of the director’s technique, it certainly is not his best. Not by far. In the film, Smith (Thomas Dekker) is a tall drink of bisexual — or “sexually undeclared,” as he’s eager to explain — spending his first week at college hooking up with the fez-wearing London (Juno Temple), having random beach sex encounters with an older man, lusting after his glowing-blond dormmate, and trying to pin down his normal-guy crush. When his penis is at rest, he has weird dreams, made weirder by the puzzling notes left under his door and the animal mask-wearing thugs who may or may not be a figment of his imagination. Plus his permanently cat-eyed lesbian best friend Stella (Haley Bennett) has a demented girl-toy (Roxane Mesquida) with special powers in an episodic B-plot point. Man, being a freshman is hard.
On the one hand, Kaboom is yet another visit to youthful sexuality in a filmmaking career frequently devoted to that theme. On the other, it’s like an episode of Bizarro Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if those kids weren’t prevented by their television trappings from cursing and showing their tits. OK, yeah, it’s about college, and sexual identity, and hooking up, and whatever, but OK, it’s also about witches and cults and murder and stuff. And while the mystery behind “the New Order” seemingly pushes along much of the film, less attention is paid to it than who gets to blow their load into London.
I’m not debating the sexiness of Kaboom. A film about sex is obviously going to be sexy, and Araki often composes sweetly genuine postcoital conversations that are more honest than most depictions of doing it. Here is no exception; never before has a three-way felt like such a sweet gesture instead of a depraved gimmick.
But it’s all so glossy. Every line is a too-clever quip of the fictitious Juno variety, all even more unbelievable than the apocalyptic parts. The 18-to-19-year-olds of Kaboom confidently discuss sex with a self-assuredness shared only by the fictional stars of HBO, and they wear vintage outfits and goofy hats, cheap markers of a fashion sense that typically doesn’t develop until after at least one solid semester of higher education. Even the hippest of hipsters, the artiest of art kids, would never show up at a first-week-of-the-new-year party wearing elbow-length dress gloves. Or maybe I find this so bizarre because the parties in my humid Florida college town were just not weather appropriate for them.
And no one, ever, should tell someone that they “got your e-mail from Explosions in the Sky’s Facebook page.” Yes, this is a line in this movie. Actually, it might be the most realistic part of the whole thing, because it’s the kind of insecure and obvious name drop that a real 18-year-old would utter if they really wanted someone to like them based solely on something as superficial as their taste in music, and it is only after four years of college that you realize something like that is really just superficial. It’s like when I name-dropped Slowdive earlier.
On a legitimate level, there are other misfires as well. Roxane Mesquida and Juno Temple are both very pretty girls who are not the best actresses. The French Mesquida may just be lost in translation, but there is something about Temple’s English accent, which should be authentic since she hails from England, that sounds so off that it’s almost as if she’s just doing a poor job of faking it.
It could all be forgivable if it weren’t for the information dump that makes up the film’s final 10 or so minutes. It’s like hey, we’ve kind of hinted at all this stuff, and now we’re going to explain every tiny detail in a rush of plot points at the very end, including one bit about incest, and there will be no time to really address any of it before the credits roll. Looks like almost everyone has an ulterior motive and is connected to the New Order, and not the seminal New Wave band, as Stella points out.
The first time I watched Kaboom, probably in the spring or so, I was disappointed. When I rewatched it in preparation for this rant, I picked up on some bits I didn’t appreciate before, like how eating is involved in most of Smith and Stella’s conversations. Maybe John Waters, with his decades of experience as a filmmaker, was able to value the little things in ways that I could not. But I think he’s wrong. Kaboom blows.