Saturday, July 22, 2006

Mysterious Skin (2004)

Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004)

We live in an age where queer cinema, or at least the more conventional branch of a genre that is vast, is gaining a wider audience. Films like Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Bennett Miller's Capote (2005) have made dents on the public consciousness and were recognized by the Academy, achievements few queer films have accomplished. Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin is a gay-themed film that has achieved considerable merit. It is probably not as renowned are as laureled as the film previously mentioned, but it bears an authentic feel, a relentless spirit that is quite exhilarating. It is no mere love story, nor shallowly conceived propagandist feature. Instead, the film takes a growing American concern and builds upon such concern, turning it into a richly visualized tapestry of themes that swells with dormant energy waiting to erupt when relationships are made clear and revelations are unleashed.

Mysterious Skin is adapted by Araki from a the novel of the same title by Scott Heim. It focuses on two teenagers who played at the same little league baseball team during when they were still little kids. The two teens have separated ways, but a distinct memory from the past continue to haunt them: the memory of their baseball coach who molested both of them. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)'s memory of that event is clear cut and very detailed. While he works as a baseball game commentator, his income comes mostly from prostituting himself to different men. Brash, careless, somewhat insensitive, Neil moves to New York, still sporting that same attitude and same dependency on his ill-reputed source of income. Brian (Brady Corbet) remembers the events quite differently. He remembers it as a myserious blackhole in his childhood memory. When triggered with that lack of memory, his nose suddenly bleed. He becomes infatuated with alien abductions when he watches a television show on the topic, leading on to a belief that he might have been abducted by aliens, connecting that belief to his mysterious dreams and psychosomatic manifestations.

One thing that struck me as odd in Mysterious Skin is that it is hued with bright or striking colors. It has an appearance of a manufactured television sitcom. Araki understandably differentiates his two main characters. Neil's episode is far more drawn towards reality. His concerns are more familiar as it is what television talk show dramas are made of. his tale feels more cautionary but doesn't pin down on that childhood event as the impetus for the character's brash attitude. Araki is careful to steer the film from being didactic. Instead, Araki focuses on the inference that the childhood event has changed Neil, not in the creation of his sexual preference, but towards his life choices: that candy, videogames, and later on five dollar bills, hundred dollar bills that have control of his decisions.

Bryan's tale is more difficult to pull off. It mixes a slight scraping of sci-fi with the uncomfortable discovery that the erasure of memory is due to the fact that the mind has conveniently blocked off any triggers to that traumatic event. It is subtly comedic in its approach, as with the scenes depicting Bryan's unconvincing friendship with his fellow alien afficionado from another town. But Araki does not go for laughs but for that incessant need to recover a missing piece of one's childhood. In a weird way, you'd want to feel for Bryan; that it is best for him to believe in aliens rather than being revealed a miserable fact in his childhood. The little paces of Bryan's self-discovery culminates in Neil's revelation where Bryan folds and degenerates into a little child again. That end scene, both painful and freeing, is wonderfully filmed. The visuals become much more muted, probably in recognition that the stories have evolved from sitcom fantasy to something more serious. The blocking, the direction, the handling of the actors' mannerisms and actions, are all masterfully realized giving off an expected yet totally poignant coda to the tale.

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