Film poster for Gregg Araki's KaboomA stranger from the internet with a mutual interest in John Waters pointed me toward Gregg Araki, so I checked out Kaboom. It’s his second-most recent film, released in 2010, and the recipient of the first Queer Palm award at Cannes for treatment of LGBT themes and characters. It’s billed as a weird modern sex-positive sci-fi, which is right up my alley; I was also pleased to see that it’s just under an hour and a half, which for movies made in the last couple decades can be a decent indicator that an editorial process occurred.

I liked a lot about it, but it took me a while to get there. A number of reviews complain about all the sex in the movie distracting from the story. I feel it’s somewhat the other way around though: the sex is the story, the sex and the discussions and mental wrangling involved to get the characters there. The plot is there to keep the sex moving. And in a context where sexuality is not questioned, we recognize that as softcore porn and perhaps view the plot as an entertaining effort at integrating actual images of sex with reality. (Perhaps the line between pornography and reality is the recognized presence of sexual uncertainty.) But here, all sexuality is questioned. That said, the amount of actual sex shown is almost nil. Lots of pans in and out. If I recall correctly, the only full on-screen nudity (rather than implied) is of the main heterosexual character, who is the subject of multiple conversations about things straight guys can get away with that gay guys can’t. And this gets at the heart of the film: the dialogue between sexuality and plot, as the characters live through both, is a constant effort at definition which is constantly undermined and subverted.

For example, we’re introduced to the main heterosexual character Thor, the main character Smith’s roommate, through Thor asking Smith about his sexuality. Smith identifies himself as undeclared; Thor is introduced as straight, but in this early scene – in which he has entered the room naked and seated himself on Smith’s bed – he asks Smith how having sex with a man is different from having sex with a woman. Smith, lips getting closer and closer to Thor’s, lustily repeats the trope of how sex with men (as a man) is different because the anatomy is all familiar, while sex with women is mysterious, yadda yadda. They quickly begin to make out because that is the narratively obvious answer to Thor’s sexual exploration, at which point Smith wakes up from his dream. Using this trope as a lead-in to pornographic fantasy is not new, but much of this movie is Smith sorting out his dreams, figuring out what is prophetic and what is just perplexing. Stella, his best friend, early on declares that dreams are just the brain sorting out the day’s mental debris. She’s the film’s initial voice of reason to counter Smith’s abstract approach to the world, so right from the start we have this possible entry into men having sex with men, with a possible narrative that gives us reason to believe it is real, and the declaration that it’s all just mental debris.

And from there, the identity declaration and challenging spiderwebs out. Smith’s undeclared and contested sexuality is contrasted with Stella’s, who apparently only has sex with women but whose identity is never asked, and only marginally questioned (when Thor tries to hit on her and determines for himself that she’s a lesbian by virtue of being visibly uninterested in anything to do with him). Stella herself challenges Smith’s identity, calling his sex with women accidental from drinking too much sometimes: perhaps Stella has a stake in Smith being gay? The two regularly examine Thor’s heterosexuality, trying to determine what activities make someone straight or gay, wondering if that question even has any validity and then determining, conclusively, repeatedly, the gayest thing ever. London, Smith’s friend with benefits (or something: she’s only defined as not into staying over and breakfast in the morning), uses the Kinsey scale as a pick-up line on Thor’s friend Rex, who responds that he’s ‘definitely a one’ and therefore not interested in Smith (London, not missing a beat, asks if he wants to have sex with her instead). Rex’s suggested behavior shifts later, not in a dream, and suggests the fallibility of statistics about gay men that came out of the Kinsey study (well known by now, yet that 10% figure is still seen regularly). It potentially could suggest fluidity, but as the film is more focused on looking at the lies we live in, I think fallibility is more the intention.

Stella’s ‘reasonable’ perspective being subverted is a major plot point: the woman she’s interested in turns out to be a very possessive witch, and takes their breakup more than just poorly. The Wizard of Oz – the film with Judy Garland, as opposed to the book – seems to be an influence on the film, most clearly here by the method of defeating the witch, but this also seemed a passage from that iconic film. Where Oz was a Technicolor exploration of self in which sexual minorities offscreen found a presence to make an Oz on Earth, Kaboom is a vibrantly colored exploration of self where Oz is already on Earth – appropriately, the Emerald City is a cult in Los Angeles – and queer sexualities are explicit, if not clear. It’s definitely not an Oz retelling, but with Smith as Dorothy and his father as the Wizard, the ending takes on a very different light.

The vibrant colors and strange images carry through the movie, which is occasionally gory. A nightmare of a mysterious woman being stabbed cuts to an image of a stack of compote-laden pancakes being sliced, in one of the most visually memorable moments of the film. The gore reminded me somewhat of The Gardener (Seeds of Evil), Joe Dallesandro’s first role outside of Andy Warhol’s Factory: strangely out of place for the film, colorfully integrated, indicating that the plot is going somewhere; but like The Gardener it’s not clear where. When this woman is found bloody but alive, though, she gets to walk out of Smith’s story: she advances the plot without falling victim to it, in another trope that is here thankfully subverted. The Gardener was similarly brightly colored and fantastical, but the homoeroticism in that film was entirely, according to the director, unintentional (if you want to get hold of that film, which isn’t a particularly great one, look for the Subversive Cinema special edition DVD, which has some particularly great extras about the film’s making and marketing).

I don’t particularly like a deus ex machina, but I felt that its use here wasn’t wrong. Smith is a film student and he comments early on about how this field of study might be the wrong choice, because film might be a dying art form. In that vein, the film’s resolution itself seems appropriately skewered, antithetical to how film is supposed to be done and surprising for trying it. There’s a lot of nihilism throughout the movie which fit the movie but was pretty exhausting for me. It sure would be nice, though, if films about people about to enter their 20s could find a way to evoke that age without peppering their speech with ableist language. I saw some reviews complaining that people that age don’t talk about identity the way these characters do; I beg to differ. That to me was the most realistic part of the movie, and I loved seeing it filmed.

It’s not an amazing movie but it’s definitely complicated and challenging and dense. Many people report it falling flat for them so it may not work for you, but it’s definitely got a lot to work with, especially if watched with a group. Now I’m curious to see Araki’s better-reviewed films.

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