MYSTERIOUS SKIN (Gregg Araki, 2004)

I see so few films it always amazes me when people think I see everything. The press praise that Mysterious Skin received—the film had been made the previous year but only released here in 2005—made me for the first time want to see something by Gregg Araki. Yesterday I viewed the film on DVD. Before that I had missed everything else that the co-creator and avatar of America’s “New Queer Cinema” had done, including The Living End (1992), Totally F***ed Up (1993), The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere (1997). With their sick word-plays and air of nihilism, the titles alone were enough to keep me away. But, courtesy of the 1995 novel by Scott Heim upon which it is based, Mysterious Skin has a shimmeringly beautiful title—one that conjures memories of the glistening, out-of-focus flesh of the intertwined couple in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959). A cult figure, Araki was reported to have entered the mainstream with this film. It was time for me to give his work a try.

I scarcely know how to respond to this film. It’s a strikingly good piece of work, and powerful—given its unpleasant subject matter, almost too powerful. I have little to say against it; but I have no intention of playing catch-up with Araki’s other films. Mysterious Skin, for all its commendable attributes, is likely to remain the only thing by Araki I will see.

One doesn’t recommend such a film as Mysterious Skin. One describes it so that those entertaining the notion of viewing it have some idea of what they may be getting themselves into. Everything, really, is “a matter of taste.” But the familiar phrase seems to apply more heavily to certain films than to others.

Mysterious Skin tells the parallel stories of two kids growing up in a small town in Kansas. The nonchronological narrative shows the boys at age 8 and at age 18 and slightly beyond. Their paths first cross as eight-year-olds. Neil McCormick is the ablest player on their Little League team; bespectacled, nonathletic Brian Lackey, the bench warmer. Their coach enjoins their destinies by sexually molesting both—Neil, on a continual basis; Brian, on a single occasion, with Neil’s involvement in the episode. Neil, attracted to the coach (as his voiceover reveals), was gay to begin with, but their history together, with its inevitable exploitation of a child and resolution of betrayal, helps determine the risky, masochistic tenor of Neil’s teenaged sexuality. Neil becomes a gay hustler, first, locally, and then later, even more dangerously, in New York City. On the other hand, Brian as a result of the incident withdraws from sex entirely; he cannot even be erotically touched, as Avalyn, a girl who is drawn to him, discovers. That is not all. Brian has erased all memory of the incident with the coach and is left with an enormous, and enormously painful, mystery on his hands. What did happen to him? Here is his ten-years-later voiceover: “The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life. Five hours. Lost. Gone without a trace.” When his and Neil’s paths cross again, Neil provides the key to unlocking Brian’s repressed memory and solving the mystery. Brian, his head in Neil’s lap, dissolves into tears. At the very least, a residue of anguish and hurt will remain, but some healing, some hope, is possible—for both boys now, perhaps, the honestly open ending implies.

For a while, Brian entertains a different scenario for his memory gap. Brian believes he was abducted by space aliens during those missing five hours. The interspliced shots of his “reconstruction” of the hallucinatory event show little Brian in a state of utter passivity as spindly alien digits stroke and maul him. Araki’s presentation of this material is so convincing that one is left to wonder whether childhood sexual abuse can help explain many actual cases where adults insist that they were abducted by aliens. Regardless, Brian’s fantastic account is exceptionally poignant because it suggests the very innocence and childhood, with its appetite for fantasy, that the molestation took away from him. Brian’s “explanation” of the memory gap is a psychological attempt to restore this lost innocence and make himself whole again.

It may very well seem that I am describing the gentlest film on earth. What, then, is so troublesome about Mysterious Skin that, insightful and moving though it is, I hesitate to recommend it? The scenes of the actual abuse of the boys, especially of Coach’s molestation of Brian (with Neil’s junior participation), are graphic—so graphic, in fact, I was greatly relieved to learn that the footage was shot so that the actors playing these children had no idea of what was supposed to be happening in these scenes. (Our impression of the action derives, apparently, from the editing process.) Furthermore, Neil’s subsequent lifestyle occasions heartrending sexual encounters, including one of the most brutal ones I have seen depicted on film, one involving a savage beating, anal rape, and lots of blood. The prison rape in American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998) is positively distanced and discreet compared to what we are shown in Mysterious Skin. Finally, although the actor playing Neil is a half-dozen or so years older than his character, the extent of his nudity in the film comes uncomfortably close to suggesting a cinematic exploitation of this actor that parallels what his character endures. It doesn’t help us to process the film’s serious thematic issues when we are distracted by the thought that the director just wants to see his lead young actor naked a lot.

The stupendously frightening man who pummels and rapes Neil in Brighton Beach closely resembles Coach, and he even repeats a line of sexual banter that Coach used—something to the effect of this: “Are you ready? Here it comes.” (To be precise, in the film’s nonchronological scheme of things, the coach’s use of this language, although it occurs earlier in time, follows the anonymous stranger’s use of it.) A different actor plays each role, but it’s hard to avoid identifying one character with the other, even though Neil does not do so consciously, especially since Coach years ago mysteriously “just disappeared” from town. I like the resemblance for its pointed ambiguity. It may be the same person eleven years apart, his seductive, “friendly” manner having devolved into blatant coldness and unvarnished brutality, or what we see in the resemblance may be a projection of Neil’s own unconscious identification of the two men. Psychologically, Neil remains in Coach’s grip.

Mysterious Skin has some formal problems. The first third or so of it is muddled and confused, what with Brian’s bogus mystery, the sketchy details about the boys’ home lives, and the cutting back and forth between the two boys. The film achieves greater clarity and cleanness as it moves along.

The acting is not a problem. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (best actor, Seattle International Film Festival) and Brady Corbet both give wonderful performances as the teenaged Neil and Brian. (Elisabeth Shue, incidentally, plays Neil’s promiscuous single mother.)

Araki won the jury award at the Bergen International Film Festival in Norway and as best director at Seattle.

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