Today: February 29, 2024

The Doom Generation

The world was a simple place for the generation of Americans born after the Second World War.

The world was a simple place for the generation of Americans born after
the Second World War.
It was simple because, between America’s post-War
economic boom and the moral crucible of the Vietnam War, Baby Boomers knew
exactly where they stood, and where they stood was on top of the world.
Unfortunately, while these sources of cultural certainty provided an entire
generation with a very real sense of historical place, neither lasted very
long. By the time Generation X came of age in the mid-1990s, America’s youth had
nothing to cling to other than defensive cynicism and a nostalgic fondness for
old film and TV. Eventually, this combination of inappropriate sentiment and
perverse detachment found its way into the cinematic bloodstream resulting in a
form of postmodern nihilism that would go on to become one of the defining
characteristics of American film.

According to postmodern nihilism,
nothing matters other than the mundane details of our lives. As might be
expected from a broad cultural pattern, American film engaged with the idea of
postmodern nihilism in a number of different ways. For example, at one end of
the spectrum Quentin Tarantino’s
patented blend of operatic violence and trivial chitchat spawned films such as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) and Tony Scott’s True Romance
(1993) in which nothing seemed to matter other than love. Meanwhile, at the
other end of the spectrum, Larry Clark’s
Kids (1995) reversed the polarity
and argued that Generation X actively avoided answering the bigger questions by
filling their heads with talk of relationships and old TV shows. Trapped
between the romanticism of Tarantino and the outrage of Clark lies Greg Araki’s The Doom Generation a film about costs and benefits of cynical
detachment.

Jordan White (James Duvall) and Amy Blue (Rose
McGowan
) are a pair of teenagers who live in the middle of nowhere. Denied
both a promising future and a meaningful past, the couple fill their present
with sex, booze, angst and visits to the local nightclub. This blissful
nowhereness comes to a shuddering end when a chance encounter with Xavier Red (Johnathon Schaech) results in the
accidental decapitation of a convenience store clerk. Fearing for their lives
and with nothing to hold them back, the threesome take to the road where they
encounter colourful locals, colourful motels and all kinds of colourful death
and dismemberment.

Araki’s even-handed approach to the
question of nihilism is evident in the way that each of the film’s primary
characters embodies a different form of cynical detachment with its own benefits
and pitfalls. For example, while Amy comes across as the most standoffish and
confrontational of the group, the wall of profanity and disgust she erects
around herself allows her a space in which to be both romantic and earnest even
though nobody else ever gets to see it. Similarly, Xavier displays a remarkable
degree of psychological stability but this stability is ultimately derived from
the fact that he is a simple-minded creature who cares about nothing other than
the source of his next orgasm. Conversely, Jordan professes to care about
everything and everyone but he is so breathtakingly stupid that his empathy for
other people never quite coheres into anything approaching either an opinion or
a course of action.

The characters of The Doom Generation are so withdrawn
from the world around them that no matter how violent and surreal their
surroundings become, the characters struggle to pry their attention away from
the details of their sex lives: Will Amy sleep with Xavier? Will Jordan respond
to Xavier’s outrageous flirting? Does Amy actually love Jordan? It is telling
that, while the film ends with both a climactic threesome and a brutal murder,
the only time the characters display any real emotion is when they happen upon
a wounded dog by the side of the road.

Though an interesting companion
piece to the work of Tarantino and Clark, Araki’s The Doom Generation is ultimately too much of a curate’s egg to
stand on its own two feet. Placed in the appropriate historical and cultural
context, The Doom Generation is a
witty and thoughtful film that engages with a tradition of rebellious road
movies stretching all the way back to Hopper’s
Easy Rider (1969) and Malick’s Badlands (1973). However, remove the film from this historical
context and you are left with an eerily disconnected cinematic experience in
which astonishing visual inventiveness is shackled to clumsy direction and
wonderful dialogue is lost amid a sea of stilted performances. Somewhat
fittingly for a film about the ravages of defensive cynicism, The Doom Generation is a series of pluses and minuses that cancel each other out
leaving numbness and desolation where there should be beauty, passion and loss.

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