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Chris Knipp
06-12-2005, 12:49 AM
GREGG ARAKI'S MYSTERIOUS SKIN: A REVIEW

BY CHRIS KNIPP

Gregg Araki sadder and wiser

[Warning: SPOILERS]



At the age of eight, Brian and Neil have each gone through an experience that has dictated the nature of their adolescence. Brian, a loser at Little League baseball, becomes convinced he's been abducted by aliens, which would explain his blackouts and nosebleeds in childhood, but still leaves him troubled by dreams that he writes down yet can't understand. Neil, the star player on the baseball team, is well aware he had a sexual relationship with their coach at the age of eight, and as a teenager has become a gay hustler picked up by older men. The experience of one boy is the key to the other's behavior. They may be two sides of the same damaged ego. In most of the movie they circle around in their separate dysfunctional orbits till they meet and a tender, sad epiphany happens.

As a closer look at pedophilia, [i]Mysterious Skin (which is now rated NC-17) contains elements that are unthinkable in mainstream terms. To say this is not a movie for everyone is putting it mildly. But for those who can stick with it, it proves thought-provoking and original. The story offers alternative versions of what happens when a thirty-something man with access as a Little League coach seduces or abuses eight-year-olds. Using flashback scenes and voiceovers, the movie shows this happening, and then cuts forward to the present life of the boys in their late teens. The line between seduction and abuse seems defined by the sexuality and degree of willingness of the child. Since the tough, cocky Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) declares he always was attracted to much older guys and came for the first time while spying on his mom having sex with a dumb hunk of a man, he would describe the coach's action as seduction. The coach's behavior leaves more delicate youths clearly traumatized. For us the coach may be weird and sick, but we see him through Neil's eyes as ingratiating and good looking -- we may be horrified, but he isn't demonized onscreen. Neither is he an object of bleeding heart sympathy. Though the boys react differently, they wind up equally damaged by what the coach did.

This is not only heavy stuff but, except for the continuing gay focus, it's also in striking contrast to director Gregg Araki's earlier movies. Well into his forties now though he may not want to admit it, Araki has decided to turn serious. Movies like The Living End, Totally F***ed Up, The Doom Generation, and Splendor were wild personal improvisations that made Araki the enfant terrible of the New Queer Cinema in the Nineties. They presented post-AIDS issues in an outrageous, sexy, and liberatingly funny way. Araki's images were bright colored, ugly-beautiful, and intensely lit, and his gay idol and muse was the impossibly handsome James Duval. This time the risk-taking young actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the Duval role, but it's all different, beginning with Gordon-Levitt's scrawny hardness. Mysterious Skin is an adaptation from a novel by Scott Heim. It's set in a realistic (if sometimes dreamy) context in Heim's actual birthplace, the little town of Hutchinson, Kansas, and in New York City.

This time Araki moves us toward painful clarity rather than mad apocalypse. When Neil becomes a hustler, he begins by "having" every man in the one-horse town, picking them up in a desolate park. Neil's promiscuous, alcoholic mom (Elizabeth Shue), to whom he's unnaturally close, has hardly provided a model of caution or restraint. His best friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) says he has a big dark empty space where his heart should be. But when he and Wendy move to New York and he enters a more dangerous round of johns, encountering violence and Kaposi's Sarcoma, it becomes clear that he's not quite as tough or as experienced as he seemed.

The bespectacled, geeky-cute Brian (Brady Corbet) stumbles, remaining at home like a little boy to the age of nineteen, but eventually trying to track down what really happened to him, which leads to becoming best friends with Neil's former sidekick the openly gay Eric (Jeff Licon) and at Christmastime culminates in a reunion with Neil. Leading up to this Brian has gotten involved, to his ultimate distress, with a young woman named Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) who claims to have been abducted by aliens herself. It's she who urges him to investigate the other boy he keeps dreaming of.

Araki's previous daring obviously still shows in the bold and emotionally complex treatment of pedophilia and its aftereffects. The coach's seduction-entrapments are made clear, if not shown graphically -- and the treatment avoids gratuitous moralizing, though remaining far away from advocating NAMBLA precepts. The material here relates to recent movies like Capturing the Freedmans, L.I.E. and Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation that deal with issues of gay coming of age in a context of abuse and pedophilia, but it's more searching and sexual than they are. The actors are good, particularly Gordon-Levitt and Corbet. Not all elements are perfection, though. The story itself suffers from a certain aimlessness and lack of detail. Shouldn't the possibility that seduced youths may grow up into their own careers of youth-seduction have been alluded to? The contrasting oscillation between the two main characters doesn't always work. The secondary characters tend to be one-dimensional -- a sign that Araki's improvisatory background doesn't always serve him in the new more realistic context. But the originality is still there, and the element of dreaminess introduces a poetic quality that's almost worthy of Gus Van Sant at his best. The final epiphany brings clarity, but no healing. One walks out not so much angry as stunned and horrified.

hengcs
07-08-2005, 07:04 PM
My only comments are:
WOW ... Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance was superb!
;)

Unfortunately it is not a mainstream movie ...
Hence, I think his chances of being nominated for any mainstream acting awards are reduced ...
;(

I, however, do not quite like the "alien take" of the movie ...

Chris Knipp
07-09-2005, 12:39 AM
I, however, do not quite like the "alien take" of the movie ...

Do you want to talk about that?

I haven't read the Scott Heim novel but since it's "acclaimed" and the "alien take" is its premise, even Gregg Araki couldn't slice it up. It seems to me the contrast of the cynical and the blocked out personalities is what the story has going for it; without them, what would there be? Hence I think Brady Corbet's performance is just as signnificant as Joseph Gordon-Levitt's, though Gordon-Levitt is a magnetic actor for sure.

hengcs
07-09-2005, 11:19 AM
As I have watched the movie quite some time ago, this is what I can vaguely recall ... *guilty grin* ... maybe I should watch it again?! hiaks hiaks ...

The main reason that I do not like the "alien take" is because:

-- The entire movie comes across as a bold, thought provoking critique of society, plagued with plight, humanity and realism ...
In essence, I deem it as daring, disturbing and dark!!!

-- However, the "alien take" (at least the way the movie is filmed) has overshadowed the initial intention (if any at all) to add that slice of "sci fi", supernaturalism and hence, unrealism to the movie. Worst of all, it actually peppers the movie with "comical" moments which I do not really appreciate. In my humble opinion, it actually veers the audience off track in terms of mood and feel ...


** Noteworthy, when the film was featured in San Francisco International Film Festival (as a "surprise" film), many audience walked out way before the film was over.
;(


** Once again, I hope more people in the voting committee (for main stream awards) would recognize Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance and at least get him nominated ... winning is not the point ... but I think he should not be penalized simply because of a daring role in a daring film!

Chris Knipp
07-09-2005, 01:16 PM
I definitely agree with you that this film's content especially in the first half hour or so, but at the end too, is rough to watch for many people; it was even for me. If Gordon-Levitt gets recognition for this or not, he will probably do well over time. He is one of those actors willing to take risks and explore new territory and sooner or later that will pay off for him in solid respect for his work as an actor. About the movie's sci-fi content, I can only repeat to you that though I didn't read the book, this is the essential element in it.

[* * * * *WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS* * * * *]

I think the two characters allow the book -- and the movie -- to explore two contrasting responses to the trauma of being sexually abused. One is to embrace it wholeheartedly and seek a life of dangerous sex; the other is to black out and shut down and wander through life in a daze. The experience of exploring what really happened to him is Brian's way of slowly coming to terms with the trauma. The alternation between the two lives is the way the story is put together. I think it's quite valid. Personally I find the idea of alien abduction is pretty hokey too, it's not anything that personally appeals to me very much, but in the screenplay, it works pretty well.

hengcs
07-11-2005, 02:37 PM
Hi,
I agree with the author's notion of contrasting 2 characters by having one embracing reality and one escaping reality.

Let me articulate what I was trying to say better ...

I feel that the director could have filmed the sci-fi aspect in a more "down-to-earth" or "realistic" fashion (oxymoron?!) as opposed to now, which comes across as "incredulous" or even "absurd".

In other words, this is what I feel/suggest: if we look at movies in the drama or sci-fi genre, there are many that are filmed that touches the audience (as opposed to them "disbelieving" or even "ridiculing" the protagonist).

I do NOT mind the director keeping the "alien belief" of the protagonist, but the obsession can be dealt with in a way most successful films did it (i.e., for a moment, we actually "believe" in the existence of aliens!) ... so that the entire movie can maintain a consistent style as well as a consistent mood, and most important of all, makes everything "realistic"!
;)

Chris Knipp
07-11-2005, 03:34 PM
I guess you mean that Brian's imagined experiences of aliens should have been actually shown. I would not have thought of that. Hmmmm......

hengcs
07-11-2005, 06:44 PM
Oh no ... that isn't what I am driving at ...
please do NOT allow any alien to really appear on this movie ...
;(

Hmmm ... let me re-articulate this again ...

I am trying to suggest that:
-- The director could use atmosphere, sound, lightings and/or a more believable approach (esp. in the overall tone) to depict the protagonist's and his female friend's obsession with "aliens".
-- As of now, whenever the two of them appear, the scenes simply come across as segments that are rather ridiculous and unbelievable!


Drawing an analogy, I actually felt that the film The Sixth Sense was more real and I was more terrified when it did NOT depict any ghosts earlier in the film. Somewhere near the end, it actually featured hanging bodies and ghosts. I was telling my friend, I would have liked The Sixth Sense much better if in the entire movie, there was no real depiction of ghosts or ghastly images.

Chris Knipp
07-12-2005, 02:23 AM
Mysterious Skin Revisited

Let's just take another quick look at Mysterious Skin and what it is and isn't. It isn't a movie about sci fi or the occult with or without visible aliens. It isn't about Brian and his aliens, because it's about both Neil and Brian, and the two characters have about equal weight, but Neil is a bit stronger as a character and the more powerful actor plays him. Insofar as it's about Brian, it's about Brian filling in the blank spots in his past and understanding why he's had all those blackouts. He has wanted to believe in alien abductions for a while when he was young because it seemed like an easy explanation for the events that happened to him which he has kept neurotically repressed since childhood. But as he begins to grow more mature, the thing he most urgently wants is just to find out what the heck really did happen -- which in the last scene he finally does. Mysterious Skin really has nothing to do with what The Sixth Sense is trying to do or vice versa: it's a very different kind of movie.

The primary subject of this film is child abuse, which isn't science fiction, it's grim reality -- though because they're kids, there's an element of innocent play in it too. Their helplessness, especially Brian's, is like being abducted by aliens and Araki has said he wanted us to feel that helplessness. But he also sought to make a movie that was dreamy and poetic, with harmonious color schemes and special composed music (some critics have said the movie is too dreamy and hence not scary enough). He says this in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine (http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/spring2005/features/wonder_years.php) which I would strongly recommend reading all of to anyone wanting to know what Araki was seeking to do:
I didnít want the movie to have this gritty handheld, pseudo-documentary look. I wanted it [to] be a gorgeous aesthetic experience, to feel like a Wong Kar-wai or a Terrence Malick movie in its visual splendor. . . I saw everything composed with a certain elegance.. . . . There are lots of close-ups, lots of POV shots, lots of putting the audience in the position of the characters. There was a consistent strategy that a lot eyelines were direct to camera, so there is this interplay that the audience ďisĒ the character. And the camera looks at the world with a certain childlike wonder. Even when the boys are older and Neil is in New York, we tried to make the camera look at the world as if through the eyes of a child, with wonder and innocence and also a real sense of vulnerability. The other thing is that I wanted the audience to feel helpless, sort of passive and helpless like the boys are in the film. For me itís important that the film be seen in a theater and not on DVD, because the experience of sitting in a theater, with this large image and this surround sound sort of taking you over suggests the situation of the boys. They donít really have control of their own universe and everything that is happening to them.
He wants you to feel both that dreaminess and that sense of helplessness of the child's point of view -- even with Neil in New York. And the movie really does make you feel helpless, and devastated by the experiences it shows, despite their dreaminess.

Of course it's true that the scenes between Brian and the girl (Wendy) are absurd. That's intentional, because their getting together is a mistake. Araki always has had comic and absurd elements in his films -- much more so in the past. He doesn't take the aliens seriously and neither should we. Wendy isn't ever really Brian's real "friend" and the relationship between them is tenuous -- a false start -- and rejected by Brian. His closest friend becomes Neil's former best friend, the openly gay Eric (Jeffery Licon). The final scene is the heart of the picture. Those are the "aliens," right there. They weren't "aliens" at all, they were just a sexual experience -- actually a couple of sexual experiences -- that had been too scary to think about.

It's also another aspect of the movie brought out by Araki in this interview that it's very faithful to the book it's taken from, much more so than the original screenplay the author, Scott Heim, presented him with at first. Hence Araki would not have wanted to alter the balance of elements, and, being primarily and always a Queer filmmaker, he would not have wanted to deflect the subject matter from homosexuality to science fiction.


P.s. That good Filmmaker Magazine site (http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/spring2005/features/wonder_years.php) suggests looking back at Donnie Darko to see how "Richard Kelly mixes sci-fi and fantasy to highlight the surreal nature of adolescent alienation." Might be a good comparison in this context. They also suggest L.I.E. (even more directly relevant) and My Own Private Idaho (also very relevant). This looks like a very useful site.

hengcs
07-12-2005, 03:39 AM
Originally posted by Chris Knipp
Mysterious Skin Revisited

... Mysterious Skin really has nothing to do with what The Sixth Sense is trying to do or vice versa: it's a very different kind of movie.

... Their helplessness, especially Brian's, is like being abducted by aliens and Araki has said he wanted us to feel that helplessness. ... He wants you to feel both that dreaminess and that sense of helplessness of the child's point of view

.... P.s. That good Filmmaker Magazine site (http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/spring2005/features/wonder_years.php) suggests looking back at Donnie Darko to see how "Richard Kelly mixes sci-fi and fantasy to highlight the surreal nature of adolescent alienation." Might be a good comparison in this context. They also suggest L.I.E. (even more directly relevant) and My Own Private Idaho (also very relevant). This looks like a very useful site.


Hi,
I guess I am really bad at expressing myself ...
;(

I understand fully that The Sixth Sense and Mysterious Skin are totally 2 different movies ... I only cite The Sixth Sense for 3 reasons:

(i) that a director does NOT need to depict the unknown (e.g., ghosts, aliens, whatever) to make the audience feel their existence ... because your earlier post asks me if I want the depiction of true aliens to reflect realism ... my answer is a clear no ... and I try to explain ... for instance, when the movie does depict the unknown, it may have the opposite effect (e.g., the later half of The Sixth Sense)

(ii) also, when I posted earlier, offhand I cannot think of any movie that hints at aliens but does not depict aliens ... can you?! ... maybe because most aliens movies are done by Hollywood?! ... and less so by the Chinese or Japanese ... the latter tend to have "ghosts" and "spirits" more often ...

(iii) finally, I want to highlight that in The Sixth Sense, I feel MORE HELPLESS when I see Haley in tears and scare, uttering,"I see dead people." (even though up to that moment, the movie depicted none) than in Mysterious Skin (for Brian). As for Mysterious Skin, I vaguely recall it does show a "bright white light" or even the shape of a "UFO" (any aliens?!) ... that is why I do NOT like it! Yet, I do NOT feel the LEAST bit of helplessness for Brian. Unfortunately, his geekiness plus the entire portrayal only comes across as absurd ... Pardon me for any recall error because I watched the movie a few months back ...


Thanks for bringing up L.I.E. and My Own Private Idaho. ;)
These 2 movies are closer to Mysterious Skin as a whole, but not what we were discussing initially (i.e., what I did not like about the "alien take").

I did NOT initially cite them as comparisons because my first thoughts were: I want to give you examples of "aliens" or "the unknown" without their depiction ... both L.I.E. and My Own Private Idaho do not even suggest at aliens.

-- Yes, I highly commend My Own Private Idaho for its dreamy sequences which definitely come across as MORE realistic than Mysterious Skin's aliens! This is exactly what I am driving at ... I want the entire movie to have a realistic feel (even if there are dreamy sequences/fantasy/escapism). Frankly, I still feel uneasy over Mysterious Skin's direction, it is not even close to a dreamy sequence. As mentioned above, I vaguely recall it even depicts some "bright white light" or a "UFO" (any aliens?!) ...

Regarding the hustling aspect in My Own Private Idaho, I also feel that it is more comparable to the main protagonist (i.e., Neil) as opposed to our point of discussion (i.e., Brian). In fact, I do not even think Brian's escapism or portrayal is anywhere near River Phoenix's character ... sorry

-- L.I.E. ... well, it definitely dwells with the intricate relationship between the young and the adult ... again, it speaks of both character but it does not really deal with aliens ... that is why I did not bring it up ...

Chris Knipp
07-12-2005, 02:39 PM
I really can't say any more about the alien issue -- not my area of expertise. I can only repeat that I think it's onlya small element of Mysterious Skin. Now it seems like whether an alien is shown or not doesn't even seem to be important to you, after all this, since you can't remember.

Whether the mood or directon of the movie is "dreamy" is another thing I'm not too clear on, though even Araki uses the word.

"I see dead people" was effective at the time, and Haley Joel Osmont is a powerful actor who I've even called "luminous" in reference to his presence in A.I. However, Shyamalan's way of working, though technically very accomplished, doesn't seem to have interesting ideas to back it up, and he's much more a "pop" director than Araki to put it mildly..... So the comparison is from left field.

River Phoenix's character in My Own Private Idaho is one of the best performances of one of the finest young actors of recent decades and (I agree with you on this) is far more interesting than either Neil or Brian in Mysterious Skin, and Van Sant's movie is also a better movie. L.I.E. covers the pedophilia/hustler territory and as you say, the adult/boy relationship as few other fiction films have done but I think Araki's visual style is more interesting and his whole approach more imaginative.

That might have opened up the context more, but unfortunately we began with a too narrow focus in this discussion, and now I think we've run out of things to say but I hope this eventually got us both to explain our thoughts more clearly.

hengcs
07-13-2005, 12:57 AM
Even I can't believe myself!
Guess what ...
I actually went to watch the movie again ... so that the discussion would be more fruitful ...

So, did the movie actually depict UFOs and aliens?
yup ... on several occasions

(i) During summer, Brian, his sister and his mother literally saw the UFO flying over their house ... and not just a blurred UFO ... but a rather detailed UFO ...

(ii) In another scene, he was touched by the "green hands" of aliens, only to wake up ...

(iii) The next scene is more "understandable" ... when the TV enacted the story of the girl who claimed she was abducted by aliens ... so they even featured three aliens and her elevating ...

(iv) When the girl brought Brian to the animal and insisted he put his hand into blah blah blah ... suddenly he felt the "green hands" of the aliens touch him again ...

that's about it ...


Despite my lament over the take of the aliens, I would still recommend the film -- go watch it!
;)

oscar jubis
08-23-2005, 08:21 PM
Mysterious Skin (USA, 2004)

I wouldn't have predicted he had it in him. Gregg Araki I mean, the guy responsible for lines like: "Dogs eating people is cool" and "I'd rather have my balls' hairs burned off with an acetylene torch". Not that his previous films evidenced a lack of talent_their mix of eroticism, low comedy and gore was original and amusing to contemplate. It's just that his adaptation of Scott Heim's novel is so assured, mature and responsible. I wish more people took an opportunity to watch Mysterious Skin, which deals so skillfully with the type of sensitive subject matter that scares off producers, distributors, and theatre owners. There are potential spoilers below.

Mysterious Skin concerns Brian and Neil, two boys who were sexually abused by the same baseball coach, and how each reacts to the abuse according to his personality, experience, the nature of the abuse, and the kind of relationship he had with the coach. It starts in the summer of '81, when Brian and Neil were 8 years old. Each takes turns telling his story, partly using voice-over narration. The stories remain parallel until December of '91 when Brian and Neil meet again as young adults.

Mysterious Skin is the rare film that tackles the trauma inflicted on Brian and Neil with the required gravity but without didacticism. It acknowledges that children are sexual beings without refuting their innocence. For instance, before any abuse takes place, Neil talks about being attracted to males and engaging in masturbation. The abuse robs him of the connection between sex and affection, and turns it into a compulsion and a commodity. There's at least some truth to his friend Wendy's assertion that there's a "bottomless black hole" where Neil's heart should be.

Brian's trauma is more pointed and acute_it was more of an assault than seductive entrapment. And he had a different personality and experience level, so he went into shock, developed psychosomatic manifestations, and recurring nightmares. These are primary conduits for Brian's processing of the trauma, presented by Araki as a mystery (hence the title) because Brian's psyche has repressed the memory of the event. The nightmare perp as dangerous alien. Several fantastic scenes depict these interior phenomena which lead Brian to contact a young woman who believes she was abducted by extraterrestrials and penetrated in some fashion. Early on, Araki indulges in a single scene in which the sci-fi imagery is taken outside Brian's head, when his mother and sister also witness a spaceship flying over their home. It can potentially lead viewers to think there's a supernatural element at play. I'll take it as a teaser for Araki's next project, a horror comedy titled CrEEEps! in which aliens visit spoiled teens.

Eventually, the grown but still sexually-avoidant Brian matures enough to take a path that will lead to a cathartic, therapeutic resolution of the mystery. This resolution is facilitated by Neil, and the reunion with Brian serves as his own corrective experience, one in which he regains his ability to express affection and compassion. Brian and Neil are lucky to have come together to have this healing at such a young age, and lucky to have Wendy and Eric as the friends who guide them there. An unexpectedly compelling and uplifting ending to a grim story.

Mysterious Skin is not perfect. I wish we had a deeper sense of who Wendy and Eric are, apart from their roles in the lives of the protagonists. I also have an issue with the delivery of the voice-over by both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet, who are otherwise very good. Gordon-Levitt's close-mouthed delivery and Corbet half-slurred/half-whispered one are "in-character", but often hard to comprehend. Overall, these are minor issues in a film I consider quite an accomplishment.

Howard Schumann
11-13-2005, 12:17 PM
I also really loved the film but I had some issues with it.

First the way the incident at the coach's house was described by Neil at the end of the film did not seem to be the devastating type of experience that would send someone into repeated blackouts. I don't want to minimize it of course but it didn't seem like all that much happened. In any event, who am I to say what might or might not be traumatic. The story says it was so I'll leave it at that.


I was also put off by the depiction of all the johns in the film as either old, ugly, fat, wealthy, or twisted or a combination of the above. Though I can't claim much experience on the subject, it always seemed to me that those who pay for sex, male or female, was a cross-section of the adult opulation and might include respected members of the community.

Also, the way the UFO abduction issue was handled seemed dishonest (though I acknowledge it is of liile interest to you). The implication is that screen memories of sexual abuse is a common explanation for this experience. While it is true that, the experiences are often traumatic indeed, this may be due more to auto-suggestion or programming received by the abductee than anything else. Yes it takes its toll and hypnosis is often used to flesh out the details.

The truth is that of the thousands of accounts of UFO-related abductions, no screen memories have ever been stripped away to reveal a past history of abuse. While it is true that some abductees are also victims of sexual or physical abuse, they usually have a clear memory of the abuse and feel the abduction experience to be unrelated.

My only point is that the film seems to imply that this is a common screen for sexual abuse but the case studies have never found that to be the case.

I thought the issue of UFO-related abductions (I don't like the term alien abductions because I think there is far more that is going on) in general was played for laughs and the young woman was depicted as being unstable. I think there is an ongoing mystery related to these reports and it doesn't deserve the kind of superficial treatment it is receiving in our mediaocracy.

Chris Knipp
11-13-2005, 01:33 PM
If I understood correctly the final sequence was not the only time Brian was abused. But even if it was, the creepiness of it would be enough to mark me; I don't have any trouble seeing how it might lead to blackouts. Of course as you imply it depends on the nature and sensitivities of the individual. Brian was confused and sensitive; Neil was consciously gay and had a bolder more assertive kind of personality, but the abuse made him hardened and cold. He became a prostitute. Brian became a very confused young dude. I think more often a sexually seduced youth may go on to be a similar kind of seducer as a grownup. In a memoir I read a writer recounts being repeatedly used sexually as a child for a certain period by a twenty-something gay man. He grew up straight, but, implanted by the pattern of sexually using a weaker younger person, became a serial sexual seducer of girl students as a college teacher. He realized this was a pathology, sought help, and managed to discontinue his compulsive behavior through therapy and a twelve-step program, possibly SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous). I personally knew a gay man who was seduced at 15 by a man of 25 or 30--and when he was in this thirties, he tried to have affairs with teenage boys. People who are abused/seduced seem to turn around and adopt the role of the abuser/seducer toward other people later on, and this is what I think the book/movie might have mentioned; but the material it gives us is certainly vivid and original; the contrast between Neil and Brian an interesting way of presenting the experiences.

I'd agree the alien abduction part isn't as serious as the rest. "Played for laughs" is pretty true. I don't know if that follows the novel or is Arkaki's old frivolity sneaking in. I think you're probably right that UFO's aren't the usual thing boys come up with to explain nblackouts following pedophile interludes. In fact it may be unheard of. But the movie/book isn't making general statements and can't be held up as a clinical discussion of the topics. So I can't agree with you that "the film seems to imply that this is a common screen for sexual abuse." I think that's a misinterpretation.

Mysterious Skin is consciously imaginative and fanciful, dreamlike, and highly visual. It's alluding to childhood sexuality, gayness, pedophilia, etc., but not trying to make general statements about them as in a study or documentary.


Anyway we agree that this is a good movie.

Howard Schumann
11-13-2005, 01:55 PM
The points you make are extremely valid so I don't think there is any argument there. I can understand how it would happen that someone who was seduced at an early age would continue that pattern when they reach adulthood themselves. That would have actually been a very telling point if made in the film.

I didn't get the impression that there was more than one incident in Brian's past but perhaps I missed something. I guess how people react to it is very different. I was sexually seduced by an older cousin when I was six but didn't think too much about it. I told my mother but she shrugged it off and didn't seem to attach any significance to it so I didn't either.

I know the film wasn't about UFOs but if they are going to be brought into the story, the material should be presented in a manner that is worthy of a serious subject, regardless what you think is behind them. I think perhaps we seem to agree on that.

I know it is just a story but I just wish that the buying of sex between willing partners wasn't treated in such a sensational way. Sure there will be creeps but what is missing is the reality that johns can be respected members of the community and don't have to be ugly and twisted old men.

Howard Schumann
11-14-2005, 06:35 PM
MYSTERIOUS SKIN

Directed by Gregg Araki (2004)

Five hours, from the time it was raining after a Little League game until he woke up in the cellar of his home with a bloody nose, are a blank to eight-year old Brian (George Webster). In Gregg Araki's powerful drama, Mysterious Skin, Brian accounts for his missing time by confabulating it with stories of alien abductions and sets out on a path to uncover long suppressed memories. This is not a film about alien abductions, however, but about inappropriate sexual seduction of children and its deleterious effect on their development. While it is often graphic and difficult to watch, it is a sensitive film, held together by authentic and heartfelt performances by Joseph-Gordon Levitt as Neil and Brady Corbet as Brian that allow us to connect with their open wounds.

Based on a 1996 novel of the same name by Scott Heim, Mysterious Skin opens as Brian and Neil (Chase Ellison) are on the same baseball team in their hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas. Neil is the star athlete on the team, while Brian is not as good, a fact repeatedly pointed out to him by his father (Chris Mulkey) who later abandons the family. Neil is the son of a single mom (Elizabeth Shue) who is more attentive to her many boy friends than to Neil. Although only about ten, he feels that he's gay and is flattered when the coach (Bill Sage) takes an interest in him and brings him to his house to introduce him to snacks, video games, and sexual activity.

The film then moves ahead ten years to reveal two boys who have gone in different directions. Neil has become a male hustler who prefers older men and has found a niche in the town park that is available to prostitution. Though he seems to be searching to recover the special loving feeling that he felt with his baseball coach, this proves elusive and he goes from one unloving john to another (typically depicted as old, fat, ugly, wealthy, or sadistic). His friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) describes Neil to his gay friend Eric (Jeff Licon) as a person with a black hole for a heart. To find more edgy experiences, Neil follows Wendy to New York but all he finds is more of the same and a lot edgier.

Brian, on the other hand, has become a deeply introverted teenager who accounts for his memory loss by assigning it to a UFO-related abduction, though he has none of the other common signs of alien abduction and is without physical evidence to prove it. He watches a television program about alien abductions and decides to meet one of the abductees on the program, a young woman named Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) with whom he visits and shares the dreams he has recorded in his notebook. Brian tells her of a dream he has had about a young boy on his baseball team and she encourages him to find out the boy's identity to shed some light on the missing time incident. When the young woman tries to seduce him, however, he recoils in horror. Eventually, Brian discovers Neil's identity by researching the team history at the library and the final sequence in the coach's empty house when Neil and Brian meet at Christmastime is memorable for its tender beauty.

Mysterious Skin is an honest and compelling film in which there are no good guys and bad guys, just flawed people who act out their deep-seated needs in a harmful sexual way. Although Araki doesn't stand in judgment of his characters or their behavior, the results of their actions are unmistakable. Although we watch Neil engage in self-destructive behavior, the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt is so revealing that we root for him in spite of reluctantly noticing the open pit into which he is falling. The only false note in the film is the implication that "screen" memories masking the repression of sexual abuse are an explanation of alien abductions. According to David Jacobs (Secret Life, 1992), of the thousands of accounts of UFO-related abductions no screen memories have ever been stripped away to reveal a past history of abuse. This is only a minor flaw, however, in one of the best films of the year.

GRADE: A-

Chris Knipp
11-14-2005, 06:47 PM
Excellent....and this is your point of view about the abductions issue. I would have mentioned that Brian discovers he is gay toward the end, and that this brings him some relief. There is one misprint: Though he seems to be to searching

Howard Schumann
11-14-2005, 07:00 PM
Originally posted by Chris Knipp
Excellent....and this is your point of view about the abductions issue. I would have mentioned that Brian discovers he is gay toward the end, and that this brings him some relief. There is one misprint: Though he seems to be to searching I didn't get that Brian discovers he is gay. What is the evidence for that, because he rests his head on Neil's shoulder?

Chris Knipp
11-14-2005, 08:16 PM
No, you're right, I went too far with that, Brian simply gets closer and closer to Neil so they become best friends, in Brian's view anyway, and towards the end their stories converge as Brian goes back to remember what experience he shared with Neil and the baseball coach. That coming together may be interpreted in vairous ways; that they're two sides of the same person, for one. Brian may remain almost as confused and unformed at the end, but he's just reunited in that one moment with Neil, facing which may finally allow him to become something. Brian's violent pulling away from the girl who makes a pass at him indicated he may not have been straight, but for all we may know he could still remain asexual. At the end point of the final scene a new level of truth has been reached perhaps for both young men, but Brian is only at the dawning level of awareness. It does appear with that head on the shoulder that Brian is going to cuddle up with Neil and take what comfort he may give, and in Neil's consenting to give comfort to the boy he shares some serious history with (in contrast to his fleeting experiences of transient sex) he may be himself drawn out of the black hole of emptiness of his hardened heart. Nobody has really gone very far to analyse this; not only is the material tough for people to look at, but the direction the story goes isn't something people are quite willing to follow up on. At that final scene, we feel some relief that Brian is being freed of his delusions, but the wounds are only beginning to be opened up for both of the boys. Perhaps Brian will discover that he is gay; perhaps Neil will discover that he is straight.

I see what you mean about your own seduction. Such an experience may or may not be significant. I think a careful viewing of Mysterious SKin will show that Brian was pursued by the coach, with Neil as his helper, on more than one occasion.

I think it's important to recognize Araki's history as a director -- Kevin Thomas is right to call him "gifted" -- who used to seek to shock, but here instead approaches real material that is itself shocking, turning his ability to deal with shock to a more serious use. As Rooney of Variety puts it, this film is "spiky and lyrical": it's ugly/beautiful, and to look at its troubling material up close has to be itself a troubling -- and at times confusing -- experience. There are assumptions -- about pedophilia, about the origins of homosexuality, about the results of childhood sexual experience, about blackouts and alien abductions, that can be questioned. Araki simply adapts them from the novel, and runs with them, presumably -- because this works that way -- the material allows him to approach some important hitherto unexplored areas of experience. I never thought I'd see an adult male sexually seduce a little boy onscreen, or that I'd be able to take it seriously, or even watch it. There's a lot more to the movie, but this for me in an essential element.

You're right; Brian doesn't discover that he is gay. But he discovers that he has engaged in homosexual acts, and so he is opening up to the gay side of himself.

Howard Schumann
11-14-2005, 08:50 PM
Whatever our interpretation may be of the final sequence, it was still a well-executed scene and very lovely with the Christmas carols in the background. You know which ever way it goes for Brian and Niel, they have a special bond that they can always call on.

arsaib4
11-23-2005, 03:27 AM
While Gregg Arakiís Mysterious Skin isnít a highly original film, it covers the issues of child abuse and pedophilia with a heightened sense of sensitivity and vulnerability thatís rarely seen in American cinema. And the fact that the film has made such subject matter its central issue deserves to be recognized.

*Most were probably surprised to see the former "3rd Rock from the Sun" star Joseph Gordon-Levitt deliver a riveting performance as Neil McCormick. But a select few who watched him in a little-known, DV-shot indie called Manic (2001) were aware of his potential. He played an impulsive, self-destructive rebel who ultimately discovered another facet of himself. Sounds familiar?

*Arakiís highly textured visuals are exquisitely framed, almost comforting viewers during the most harrowing of sequences. Arguably the reason why Mysterious Skin, at times, doesnít feel "cinematic." An intentional move, perhaps, and it works well.

*Certain characters are one-dimensional, as Chris said. Wendy only revolves around when the narrative requires her. Thereís no sense of her as a being. But then, the way sheís treated unfortunately reminds one of how gay characters are presented in most other films.

*The film is poorly edited, especially during the later stages. Thereís no sense of time, rhythm, structure.

*The UFO angle is very important to this film, and itís handled extremely well. At times viewers need to adjust their mindset to how the director and his characters view certain issues. Araki presents it as a myth which Brian created for himself. And that enabled him to cope with life and himself thus far. Same for the character of Avalyn, whose imagination has allowed her to access the attention she craves as a handicapped person.

*A better, more important film would not end where Mysterious Skin did. Where do these two individuals, especially Brian, go from here? I donít think Araki is capable of providing the answers. But as I said earlier, he should be commended for bringing us closer to these characters.


Grade: B

_____________________________

*MYSTERIOUS SKIN is now available on DVD.

Chris Knipp
11-23-2005, 01:28 PM
You may be right that the movie is more notable for its subject matter than its style, but you yourself acknowledge beautiful lush visuals and your "B" rating seems a bit low; at the end of the year, I suspect Mysterious Skin may look like one of the most notable American offerings -- but my lists aren't made up yet!

Thanks for mentioning Manic. I even reviewed (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?t=114), it, but forgot to mention it in reviewing Araki's movie; it does certainly show Joseph Gordon-Levitt's willingness to take on edgy roles. He's working a lot now, which isn't surprising, though his latest two, Havoc (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0285175/) and Shadowboxer (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0396857/), don't look super-great.

Howard Schumann
11-23-2005, 03:02 PM
Originally posted by arsaib4

*The UFO angle is very important to this film, and itís handled extremely well. At times viewers need to adjust their mindset to how the director and his characters view certain issues. Araki presents it as a myth which Brian created for himself. And that enabled him to cope with life and himself thus far. Same for the character of Avalyn, whose imagination has allowed her to access the attention she craves as a handicapped person.
I don't want to turn this into a discussion about UFOs but your statement borders on the ludicrous. This is a very serious issue involving thousands of credible people that has yet gone unexplained. Araki's attempt to explain it away not only does an injustice to the complexity and seriousness of the problem, but as I pointed out in my review is patently false. No screen memories involving sexual abuse have ever been discovered from people who report UFO-related abductions. Your attempt to psycholgize the woman's abduction also strikes a simplistic and false note being that there was physical evidence displayed. What books have you read on this subject?

arsaib4
11-23-2005, 06:08 PM
At times viewers need to adjust their mindset to how the director and his characters view certain issues.

Obviously you didn't do that. Instead you ludicrously tried to impose your own beliefs onto the situation.

I believe that we do need to "psychologize" these human beings in order to understand them.

Howard Schumann
11-23-2005, 07:05 PM
Originally posted by arsaib4
At times viewers need to adjust their mindset to how the director and his characters view certain issues. I noted how the director viewed the issue and criticized the point of view which is false and intellectually lazy.
Obviously you didn't do that. Instead you ludicrously tried to impose your own beliefs onto the situation. This isn't a question of one's beliefs. I was noting that it is simply not born out by the facts to assign screen memories of sexual abuse as a "solution" to reports of UFO-related abductions.
I believe that we do need to "psychologize" these human beings in order to understand them. Again I will ask with all due respect - what books if any have you ever read on the subject? Have you ever read any of the books by Budd Hopkins or John Mack? The issue is undoubtedly clouded in mystery but it is a real issue that has affected the lives of thousands, maybe even millions of people all over the world. The answer to that mystery does not lie in "psycholgizing" the abductees.

Chris Knipp
11-23-2005, 07:12 PM
I think your words (just quoted) state the matter correcty and succinctly, arsaib. If anything else has to be considered in evaluating the film, it is not books on UFO's but the eponymous novel upon which the film is based, which I don't think any of us has consulted but to which, I suspect, Araki is being true in his handling of "the UFO angle" as a "myth Brian created for himself.... that enabled him to cope with life and himself thus far." The story is about how Neil and Brian "processed" their "trauma", as Oscar put it, and the UFO "myth" is a step along the way during the period when Brian has still completely blocked out the sexual experiences he had as a child.

Howard Schumann
11-23-2005, 08:57 PM
Originally posted by Chris Knipp
I think your words (just quoted) state the matter correcty and succinctly, arsaib. If anything else has to be considered in evaluating the film, it is not books on UFO's but the eponymous novel upon which the film is based, which I don't think any of us has consulted but to which, I suspect, Araki is being true in his handling of "the UFO angle" as a "myth Brian created for himself.... that enabled him to cope with life and himself thus far." The story is about how Neil and Brian "processed" their "trauma", as Oscar put it, and the UFO "myth" is a step along the way during the period when Brian has still completely blocked out the sexual experiences he had as a child. Perhaps in this case Araki is being true to the novel. However, the film is its own text, and whether it is a faithful rendition of the novel or not, it was still Araki's decision to handle the UFO material in the way that he did.

Chris Knipp
11-24-2005, 02:18 PM
Yes of course "it was still Araki's decision to handle the UFO material in the way that he did." And it was a perfectly sensible decision in view of what he was doing, an adaptation of the novel by Scott Heim.
I don't want to turn this into a discussion about UFOs. . . Those are your words. And quite proper. The movie, like the novel, isn't about UFO's; it's about childhood sexual abuse and two different boys' reaction to it. Brian hasn't been abducted by a UFO. He imagines that he may have been, to explain the blank in his memory that covers that traumatic expeience that happened to him in 1981. He knows nothing about UFO's directly -- assuming that there can be such knowledge -- and very little indirectly. His fantasies about adduction are only a misstep along the way to coming to terms with what has happened to him -- an experience that Neil is able to lead him to, because Neil was there too with his eyes wide open and Neil never repressed what happened because he was open to it (though in another way it damaged him too). So I think the discussion has gone as far as it can here.

Johann
09-12-2006, 01:41 PM
I just arrived back from Toronto today- I gave up on the festival.
It's madness, chaos. I wasn't prepared at all for it.
I hadn't been to T.O. in over 10 years.
I just drank for a week...

I saw 6 films in total, and the experience has made me a little jaded. I thought Vancouver was bad for lines, Rush or not.

I couldn't get into any of the films I wanted to so I said F*** this and jetted back to Ottawa with my friend Stephen, who is a Gregg Araki freak. maybe next year...


Steve's got a box set of Araki soundtracks and I made a great mix tape- if anyone wants a copy let me know- this music is extremely rare- try to find an Araki soundtrack- you can't. They're all out of print.

I haven't seen a single Araki film, but I'm dying to now.

It's weird music, but if you listen to it over and over it seeps into your skull. That's all we played at the hotel. We got some Absinthe, watched the T.V. on mute and just listened to Araki's music, while trying to figure out what movies to see at the TIFF. I should have done a recon of the city before arriving- we were feeling our way around Bloor street.

Rose McGowan has a line at the beginning of the Doom Generation soundtrack that I looped throughout the tape:
There just is no place for us in this world

Mysterious Skin's music is by the Cocteau Twins and it's very evocative. Mood music to the nth degree.

I haven't seen the movie, but I looked here for anybody's reviews and this popped up- thanks Chris. GREAT THREAD.

Araki is one of those avant-garde directors, out there, on the edge. I'll try to track down his films and post reviews.

Chris Knipp
09-12-2006, 04:33 PM
Thanks. Will hear what you have to say about the movies. Mysterious Skin is a step in another direction.