By Bob Clark
There are certain names that are so wholly identified with their characters and personae from fiction that once raised in another work, they carry with them a whole range of ideas, themes and moods that are unavoidable for those familiar with the originals in question. Usually, it’s easy to see the characters being identified with their namesakes– the recent film Declaration of War seemed a little on-the-nose with its pair of lovers named Romeo and Juliette, just slightly Frenchified and somewhere just within the range of acceptable thanks to how it provides a veneer-thin veil for the actors/filmmakers’ masking of the true-life story they put on the screen. Kevin Smith had a tendency to go very broad and obvious with some of his naming early in his career– Dante of Clerks living the perpetual hell of a convenience store in Jersey or Holden of Chasing Amy implying a naive, immature perspective on modern love and sexuality befitting Salinger’s troubled teen. Sometimes the naming conventions go farther and weirder in terms of how they affect both fictional characters and the people playing them– one wonders what jokes Godard was playing for all the names he gave Anna Karina, especially the Tolstoy gambit of that name itself. In the case of a movie like Gregg Araki’s fifth film and biggest budgeted feature at that time, however, the choice of naming and the reference it carries arrives with something far more specific and yet at the same time fleeting, making it feel something like an unofficial adaptation. In this case, it’s hard to look at The Doom Generation and not think of Mark Beyer’s Amy and Jordan.
On one level, there’s a superficial quality to the connection between Araki’s 1995 film, which arrives at an intersection in American cinema that combines, among other things– the early 90’s fascination with ultra-violent road movies overdosing in pop-art imagery (Lynch’s Wild at Heart, the Tarantino-scripted True Romance and Natural Born Killers); grunge-era youth movies seeking to capitalize on MTV aesthetics in terms of music and video-cinematics alike (not to mention capitalize on their audiences, which account for the only reasons movies like Reality Bites or Singles have to exist); and most tellingly, a new breed of queer-cinema seeking to explore the gray areas of sexual identification in a new generation where labels become more and more unimportant, and confront as many status quos and institutions as possible, in a kind of self-defense against societal persecution made increasingly visible in the newly evolving video and internet media culture. When seen as merely a facet of the film’s smorgasbord of sexually liberated/frustrated and blood-spattered teens chased after by one hateful posse and cheap convenience store after another, the mere names of Rose McGowan and James Duval’s characters may seem just another layer of trendy pop-cultural references in a movie already laden with nods in the form of dialogue, needle-drops, celebrity cameos, underseen L.A. tourist traps and a pit-stop in front of an old-school Mortal Kombat cabinet.
But the names of Araki’s central pair provides more than just another hip outsider tip of the hat to the alternative culture scene that the movie thrives on. Though The Doom Generationdevotes itself to questions of sexual orientation and political stances that its characters’ namesakes never touched, the film owes much to Mark Beyer’s celebrated Amy and Jordan strips as printed in the pages of Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine, the graphic novel Agony and in alt-newspapers like the New York Press throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Like the films’ pair, Beyer’s Amy and Jordan are continually confronted by a series of bizarre and usually violent characters in situations which frequently result in one or both of their mutilations. In longer works, like Agony, these instances of dismemberment, decapitation and the like are very often put right by near-comical medical solutions, and even in the shorter works that seem to exist outside of any continuity, it’s impossible to take any of their individual deaths very seriously. Araki betrays an influence by the comics’ graphic sensibilities as well, though one which fits comfortably into the pop-saturated climate of early 90’s indie-cinema, exploding in bright, primary comic-book colors for various set-pieces that go above and beyond Beyer’s stark black-and-white primitive abstractions.
Peaking in moments like Amy and Jordan’s sojourn in a checkered motel room, there are scenes throughout that recall the cartoonish but bleak properties of Beyer’s work at its best, while at the same time providing an even deeper echo of so many of the sensationalistic exercises in pop-cinema from the early 90’s from filmmakers like Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino. That clash between Beyer’s utterly avant-garde comix style and the garish candy-colored hues of late 20th century suburban Americana strikes a decidedly apocalyptic tone in keeping with the almost comically suicidal despair of the Amy and Jordan comics and the pervading theme of annihilation in The Doom Generation, with its constant billboards proclaiming Biblical endtimes and various store-owners threatening deadly consequences for such minor infractions as shoplifting and going back to the car to get your wallet. Both pairs of Amy and Jordan find themselves faced with constant threats of death and worse throughout their picaresque narratives, and along with the in-your-face presentation of changing sexual boundaries, the most notable difference between Araki’s and Beyer’s characters how they react to these dangers regarding one another.
Beyer’s Amy and Jordan in their short-form stories are most frequently at odds with one another, ridiculing one another or outright physically abusing each other in between their various near-death experiences– the only times they ever seem to get along are when they resolve to kill themselves, then decide not to out of sheer laziness. It’s only in their long-form narratives like Agony that the characters really show much resolve to remain hopeful and together, even at their worst. Araki’s characters, on the other hand, never turn into the cubist Punch and Judy that their namesakes do, and keep a strangely cute, if naive sort of romantic whimsy about them, even in the midst of Amy’s various real and imagined infidelities and Jordan’s clueless wimpiness. One of the most telling differences is how prolifically foul-mouthed Araki’s heroine is, and how it asserts the youth of his characters and how they fit into the setting of 90’s west-coast suburbia rather than the archetypal 80’s urban danger and malaise in Beyer’s comics. No matter what particular outsider group you identify with, Araki’s film is one that expresses the hostility faced by youth, while Beyer’s work concerns itself with the universal and ageless crises of existential and physical persecution– you’re never too old to believe the world is out to get you, and never too young to be left out from the slaughter.