Life

How Now Apocalypse Creator Gregg Araki Foresaw Our Pansexual Present

The queer filmmaker was dreaming up sexually fluid characters well before Gen Z started breaking binaries.

Avan Jogia and Beau Mirchoff in Now Apocalypse
Avan Jogia and Beau Mirchoff in Now Apocalypse. Starz

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Now Apocalypse, cult queer filmmaker Gregg Araki’s recently launched series on Starz, features quite the assortment of identity-hopping, adventurously shagging, punchline-prone misfits. There’s handsome lead Ulysses, a hookup-chasing drifter who wrestles with remarkably perverse alien premonitions—or, perhaps, his own weed-induced delusions. There’s also an astrobiological theorist who considers monogamy to be “a form of social control,” her beefcake boyfriend who seeks sexual guidance at a male support group called Circle Jerk, and an aspiring actress who tells her libidinous female acting coach, “I’m a millennial, so sexual fluidity is kind of a requirement.”

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Some have pointed out that the show’s unapologetic, caveat-free depiction of youthful fluidity, polyamory, and pansexuality feels very au courant, what with recent studies finding that only 48 percent of Americans aged 13 to 20 identify as “exclusively heterosexual,” and that only half of those under 30 are satisfied with a strictly monogamous relationship. But here’s the thing: Araki, a sharp-sighted 59, has actually been priming us for this—what he describes as his “queer Sex and the City meets Twin Peaks, with an alien”—for the past quarter century. That the world of Gen Z more closely resembles the anything-goes paradigm of desire celebrated across Araki’s subversive oeuvre is a testament to his trailblazing instincts. I’d even venture that his once-radical sensibility helped to conjure, at least to some degree, our more pansexual present.

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Now Apocalypse’s most obvious touchstone is Araki’s own Nowhere (1997), which happens to have been my entry point into his candy-colored universe of free-spirited outsiders, doomsday prophecies, and sharp witticisms. When a college teacher presented it as part of her “Media and Youth” curriculum, I very unexpectedly found myself speechless. At the time, I couldn’t think of another movie that presented LGBTQ personal awakenings as devoid of panic, labels, or any tired coming-out tropes. The impeccably soundtracked film, which features a racially and ethnically diverse cast of future-breakout talent—Ryan Phillippe, Rachel True, Guillermo Díaz, Rose McGowan—centers on the hopelessly romantic Dark (James Duval). He’s an earnest bisexual film student searching for the yang to his yin in a depraved L.A. on the brink of annihilation—Godzilla-like space aliens, smarmy televangelists, and all.

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With this final chapter in his teen apocalypse trilogy—along with 1993’s Totally F***ed Up and 1995’s The Doom Generation—Araki laid the blueprint for a novel kind of queer character on American screens. In a post-AIDS, pre-smartphone climate, when nonhetero and nonmonogamous expressions of sexuality were regarded as offensive if not downright dangerous, Araki gave a voice to anarchistic youths who never associated sex with fear or guilt, nor cared to define or justify their omnisexual urges. They were simply too preoccupied by their campy run-ins with laser pistol–wielding creatures.

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Rather than reinforce the fixedness of gay-straight and male-female binaries, Araki’s tongue-in-cheek films have long praised those who refuse to be boxed in. Nowhere, for instance, is sprinkled with sensuous suggestions of bisexuality—from a recurring game of Twister to a heartthrob with different-colored eyes. Araki’s outsider status within both mainstream hetero and homo circles is evident in how he has long eschewed labels in his personal life, with some even calling his own bisexuality into question. “The reaction from the gay community was kind of hypocritical and weird,” he told the New York Times around the release of Kaboom, also about a bisexual college protagonist prone to mind-blowing hedonism and end-of-world hallucinations. “The fact that I was so judged by a community that doesn’t want to be judged themselves.”

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Throughout his filmography, Araki has consistently gotten at the truth of his characters by way of their sexuality. From The Living End to White Bird in a Blizzard, his acid-tongued marginals navigate their way around real and intangible threats, safely outside the confines of hetero normalcy. But when Araki first broke out with the Sundance-screened The Living End, a bleak road movie about two HIV-positive gay fugitives fleeing a hostile world as they act out their most lustful fantasies, his defiant queer stance was considerably more radical. At the time, AIDS was at the forefront of people’s consciousness, and Araki dedicated the film “to the hundreds of thousands who have died and the hundreds of thousands more who will die because of a big White House full of Republican f***heads.”

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That same post-punk rage permeates Totally F***ed Up, which begins with an article citing high suicide rates among gay teens. Araki referred to its follow-up, The Doom Generation, as his “Nine Inch Nails movie,” acknowledging his indignation at the ruling classes’ widespread apathy if not flat-out bigotry. After all, these were the years of Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the peak of the Westboro Baptist Church’s “God hates f-gs” picketing histrionics. A time when consenting Texan adults could be arrested and fined under existing sodomy laws for having sex in their home, when revealing your same-sex attraction on a syndicated talk show could have you murdered, while doing so at a bar in Wyoming could have you beaten, tied to a fence, and left for dead, as per Matthew Shepard’s 1998 murder. Couple that with an emerging Y2K panic, political conspiracies, and fears of climate change, and it’s not much of a stretch to understand why Araki’s anti-establishment teens are haunted by the menace of an apocalypse.

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And yet, in the pre–Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, and L Word ’90s, when LGBTQ characters were mostly allowed to exist as sympathetic victims or neutered supporting players, Araki’s punk-rock sensibilities were in a league of their own. This is a guy whose films’ copyright infringement disclaimers would end with “Plus we will pee on you.” His provocative and often abrasive characters couldn’t be propped up on pedestals, which irked those campaigning for virtuous LGBTQ depictions. Fights breaking out at gay bars over The Living End are now the stuff of indie-film lore, and I’m sure Araki wears Roger Ebert’s thumbs-down review of The Doom Generation as a badge of honor.

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Now Apocalypse picks up where Nowhere left off, from the sensitive lost-boy protagonist who refers to himself as an “ever-oscillating Kinsey 4” right down to the rendering of Hollywood as a totally surreal cesspool of self-absorption. Many see this as Araki’s long-overdue showrunner debut, coming two full decades after he initially envisioned Nowhere for television. More than ever, Araki’s updated narrative feels relevant to modern teens, who are considerably more attuned to an ever-expanding spectrum of sexualities and identities; to smart storytelling served up in bright, pop-art packages; and to former tween stars all too eager to torpedo their chaste brands (see: Now Apocalypse’s Kelli Berglund and Avan Jogia).

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While the L.A. of Now Apocalypse flaunts more porny Instagram filters and a less-grungy alterna-culture than Nowhere, its goofball characters still seek out that same romantic utopia amid the chaos of modern life, with an explosive alleyway handjob or two thrown in along the way. Co-writer (and Slutever sex columnist) Karley Sciortino as well as actor Avan Jogia both grew up admiring Araki’s early work, and today’s more permissive TV landscape has now given them the chance to update the Teen Apocalypse playbook for our unnerving Trumpian present. With it, Araki hopes to penetrate the mainstream “beyond little art cinemas in SoHo” to reach homes from rural Arkansas to Russia, he told Build Series, where non-normative folks still fall into the realm of the gutsy.

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Over the five first episodes I’ve watched, Now Apocalypse serves up an endearingly twisted and often ridiculously funny Hollywood parody—a reminder that the industry has come full circle on Araki. Within the teen movie pantheon, he was long the black sheep, unwilling to play by the rules that had schoolyard jocks and trust-fund preppies ensconced at the top of the hierarchy. Within sci-fi geekdom, his supernatural premises were too half-baked and satirical to muster any serious study. And within the LGBTQ film circuit, his “irresponsible movies” about queer villains were once seen as detrimental to the cause. But by keeping at it undeterred for three decades, his Arakian signature has inspired multiple generations of filmgoers to live by their own rules—even if that means not having any at all.

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