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Chronic Youth Film Festival Presents Gregg Araki’s Nowhere + Discussion on Film Music

Nowhere (1997); image courtesy of Barbican

Outcast adolescents beneath the underdog take centre stage in Japanese-American director Gregg Araki’s youth-oriented films. Notorious for being violent and provocative, his indie films have remained elusive for the past 30 years, but have gained respect underground for heralding the New Queer Cinema movement. His cult-classic Nowhere (1997), which was previously only accessible via VHS and pirated copies, was recently screened for the first time in the UK in 4K restoration to close the Chronic Youth Film Festival. The premiere was followed by a panel discussion about music in film with speakers Simon Raymonde (musician and producer best known for his work with the Cocteau Twins), Estella Adeyeri (who formed the heart of London’s DIY punk scene in 2013 with Black feminist punk band Big Joanie) and James Belmont (arts and culture journalist and keyboardist for Swim Deep).

Nowhere is the final film in a group of Araki films dubbed the ‘The Apocalypse trilogy’, each film portraying a live-fast-die-young apathy that comes from feeling so much in a world that cares so little. Set in a hyper-stylised LA, the film follows a group of juvenile delinquents on their way to the biggest party of the year. Araki invites us to experience a surreal landscape, wherein violence is unsparing, sexuality is uninhibited, substance abuse is rampant, and oblivion is incoming. Audiences witness this absurdity through the eyes of Dark Smith (James Duvall), who serves as a vehicle of truth as he attempts to find love and meaning. 

Whilst Nowhere’s provocative scenes could seem pretentious or empty, they attempt to point towards wider sociological concerns beyond the immediate shock factor of the subjects. Araki’s provocation is like an erupted reaction against homophobic and backward attitudes at the time; be it the AIDS crisis, the bigoted and hateful policies by Republican senators like Jesse Helms, or the damaging subjugation of young people at a fragile and formative age. Despairing youths in Nowhere resort to seeking refuge in religion, trying to find human connection, pursuing a hedonistic treadmill, or suicide. A scene which stayed with me is when characters watch a parodic televangelist in their bedrooms: the assertive voice booms and promises an HD heaven that beguiles them, which vividly portrays the susceptibility to lean towards sturdy answers in moments of collective torment.

Despite heavy subject matters and the assaulting way they are expressed, Araki balances high-tension scenes with humour and moments of tenderness. Graphic scenes of nipple piercings being torn off contrast the hilarious and quotable dialogue; a moment of tender human connection offers a brief respite before taking a sharp turn towards a Kafkaesque bloodbath—the audience all laughed, expecting nothing less from Araki.

What makes Nowhere resonate with audiences is Araki’s lovingly curated soundtrack—the perfect backdrop for feral youths trying to find meaning in a concrete jungle. The centrality of music is a defining feature in Araki’s films, as he states in an interview that his approach to filmmaking goes hand in hand with the punk, post-punk and shoegaze music he was exposed to. In Nowhere, music functions to illuminate different layers of the character’s psyche. All the characters have a gravitational charm that we can’t take our eyes off, but as soon as we pin them down to predictable archetypes, they start unravelling. Beneath the strength of their image is a walking bleeding heart as exemplified by James Duvall’s character, who seems nihilistic and angsty but is fundamentally governed by a palpable yearning and vulnerability. The songs by The Jesus and Mary Chain featured in the soundtrack are his coexisting self in musical form: they sound intense but are also underscored by a pliant loneliness. 

Following the screening was a panel discussion which discussed how Nowhere’s music allows the film to be cemented in the audience’s memory long after they leave the cinema, showcasing how two art forms can meld to bring out each other. Araki’s passionate digging for music is demonstrated by the inclusion of Radiohead’s ‘How Can You Be Sure’ alongside other B-side tracks; and bands feeling an understanding with Araki’s musical sensibility sent unreleased tapes, like Scylla’s ferocious track ‘Get a Helmet’ which features in the film. Speakers elaborated on the profound relationship between film and music in creating the emotional journey: the ambience of the track ‘Lovers Who Are Seekers’ by the Cocteau Twins is a continuation of the film’s dreaminess. Speakers then talked about their new projects, including Simon’s memoir which details his musical and cinematic upbringing as well as anecdotes with David Lynch, Estella’s third album with Big Joanie and performances in Shaka Khan’s Meltdown and Decolonise Fest, and James Belmont’s upcoming album with Swim Deep in June. 

As a footnote, speakers discussed how we must ensure that these films never fade into oblivion. It’s reassuring that there’s been a big market for collecting physical media of underground works recently, like the vinyl revival and Blu-Ray labels working to buy the rights to films. It’s so important to reissue these films, especially in the case of Nowhere because it deeply resonates with audiences 30 years later.

The feeling of impending doom in Nowhere is not so dissimilar to ours; our generation is often deemed apocalyptic, our culture exhausted, and our extinction imminent. In Nowhere, the universal sense of apocalypse can’t contain itself, as manifested in the appearance of surreal aliens. Furthermore, Nowhere’s world which exalts the presentation of self over connection is doubly resonant today: the explosion of social media and late capitalist culture has resulted in a peculiar obsession with physical perfection, much like Alan Bloom’s sentiment in “The Closing of the American Mind” that many people have an image of physical beauty but very few have an image for the beauty of the soul. Nowhere was also prophetic on a positive note: its playful sex-positive attitude is shameless and effortlessly non-binary, empowering gender fluidity today. 

That the film is so topical shows the value of cultural institutions sharing artworks, but the silencing of artistic expressions is commonplace today; the Barbican’s previous censorship of Pankaj Mishra’s talk received backlash for silencing expression of solidarity with Palestinians. A recent article elaborates that cultural institutions today are neoliberal vehicles driven by capital sponsorship and corporate patronage. The Barbican Youth Programmers, who curated this festival, spoke of the urgency to ask more from our cultural institutions that tend to separate art from politics. Maybe in a peaceful age, we might have looked to art as ornamentation or remained unaware of our political loyalties, but in our times, that aesthetic distance and naive worldview are so misplaced and unjustifiable. Now, more than ever, we need to give a voice to narratives that resist and reshape the life around us. In the space that Nowhere creates, young generations can feel they haven’t got "nowhere" to go. 


Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor


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