It says a lot that at the screening I went to for the newly rereleased The Doom Generation (in the “weird city” of Austin, no less), it wasn’t a scene of intense violence or degradation or animal death that got the loudest gasp from the audience. That honor instead went to a brief but unbroken visual of a character licking his own cum off his hand while secretly watching the two other characters fuck in a bath tub. Beginning as a slowly spreading nervous giggle as the audience watched from behind while the character lowered his hand to his crotch and began jerking off, you could practically feel the crowd inhale en masse when the character raised his now cum covered hand towards his face. By the time the movie hit its climax, complete with the most explicit castration this side of In the Realm of the Senses, nothing else had come close to matching that initial gasp of disgust or revulsion or whatever you call it when a mostly straight (in every sense) audience is exposed to a relatively benign queer kink that is only shocking in how rare it is depicted, even in outsider cinema.
Cheekily declared “a heterosexual film” by its director, New Queer Cinema enfant terrible Gregg Araki, The Doom Generation has seemingly lost none of its transgressive power in the three decades since its release. In its own era it was often mistaken for a glib psycho slacker road movie, a la Natural Born Killers or Kalifornia. But Araki’s intent was right there in the subtitle— this is a film that loudly and proudly argues that Andrea Dworkin was maybe on to something by suggesting sex is violence. Where Araki deviates though is by refusing to say penetration is the violent component and instead arguing that heteronormative society at large is violence and the only cure for it is fluidity.
Centered around the love triangle of Jordan White (Araki mainstay James Duval), Amy Blue (Rose McGowan) and Xavier “X” Red (Johnathon Schaech), The Doom Generation does share some DNA with Bonnie and Clyde— it’s a grotesque burst of absurdist violence during an accidental robbery that prompts the film’s road trip, functioning as an evolutionary leap forward for the revolutionary violence of that New Cinema classic, and the trio do become media sensations of sorts, with the FBI simultaneously raising their profile and attempting to fatally silence them before they become too famous. Araki has said that Bonnie and Clyde was specifically an influence because of how it portrayed a “couple that has this private romantic utopia, and then they’re surrounded by violence and chaos.” But the real evolutionary leap forward from Bonnie and Clyde to The Doom Generation is in the latter’s bold insistence on making the homoerotic and impotent undercurrents of the former film explicit.
At the beginning, X is an unwelcome third wheel, a violent agitator who pulls Jordan and Amy into a transgressive, criminal lifestyle against their will. Though they aren’t quite as full on straight as Rocky Horror’s Brad and Janet (they have tattoos and piercings and love the look of black leather and latex, after all), they are more or less virginal, and it’s the intervention of X that seems to give them the push they needed to open up their relationship, in every sense. X is a literal X Factor, a snake in the ’90s alt garden who quickly jumps from a voyeur to an active participant, hoping to make these teens learn that adopting the look and attitude of kink pales in comparison to truly living the life.
The further down the road the trio get, the more their relationship with each other gets blurred. Before X enters the picture, Jordan is a dutiful sub who loves and cherishes Amy but can’t give her the top dynamic she not so secretly craves. Amy, for her part, loathes X but is nonetheless drawn to him, with her disgust for him paradoxically attracting her. For Amy, X becomes the perfect kink sounding board, a sleazy hook up she can test out interests on without worrying about judgment, or about it sullying a committed relationship. And as X becomes more interested in also seducing Jordan, Amy gets the best of both worlds, particularly when she is with both of them at the same time, allowing her to bring her true vers tendencies to a climax, albeit a tragically interrupted one.
One of the funniest elements of The Doom Generation— and make no mistake, for all of its violence and tragedy, The Doom Generation is full of absurd and slapstick humor– is that Amy’s vers status also plays out in her being mistaken by others for former lovers who have clearly never gotten over the relationship. The trio are attacked and chased by everyone from a hick fast food clerk to a pair of swingers (one of whom is played by Parker Posey!), all swearing they still love and want whoever it is they think Amy is, in turn suggesting that Amy is so fluid she can be anything to anyone. This is what ultimately leads to the end of the road for the trio, too, with the leader of a group of skinheads violently interrupting Jordan, Amy and X’s threesome because he believes Amy is actually his ex, Bambi.
What seems to anger the skinheads the most isn’t that “Bambi” is with other men but that the men are involved with each other, too. Throughout the film, Araki hints that Jordan is more than a little bit queer– his interest in Amy is almost childlike and maternal, but with X he seems full blown smitten, gazing longingly and lustily at him. Even in his sex scenes with Amy, Jordan takes on a role that is coded femme while she comes across more masc, with her riding him in a way that makes it seem like he’s being topped. But right as Jordan and X seem to start to initiate sex with each other while Amy takes a pee break, the skinheads disrupt them.
Shocking as the film’s ending is, its message is pointed and vital. Heteronormative forces, bluntly personified here by the uber-masculine skinheads, seek to destroy anything that is seen as deviating from a strict binary. After raping Amy against the backdrop of an American flag, the skinhead leader proceeds to castrate Jordan, violently making his transition into “not a real man status” literal. What’s most disturbing is that three decades later, our culture hasn’t changed all that much and in many ways is even more aggressively hostile towards anyone who doesn’t fit into a strict gender binary, while social media has allowed them to spread that hate in new and more insidious ways and also allowed them to become even more psychotically obsessed with the things they claim to be disgusted by.
And yet even with that brutality, The Doom Generation is a hopeful film at heart, albeit of the cautiously optimistic variety. Jordan does not survive but Amy and X do and after they’ve killed their attackers, they are seen on the road again, heading off into the sunset. In an interview with Letterboxd earlier this year, Araki spoke about how meaningful it has been to him to hear about the underground fan network that has shared his films over the years, even just in bootleg form, stating “I always think of these kids in these red states, growing up so isolated and feeling like there’s no hope or anything…the idea that my films could bring some hope to those kids is huge for me.” Araki also explained that “In the late ’80s and early ’90s when these movies were written, it was a lot more dangerous to be gay than it was in 2015,” while also acknowledging that “the pendulum has swung back the other way a bit.” Traumatized as Amy and X undoubtedly are by the end of the film, Araki nonetheless seems to suggest that their survival is a revolutionary act in and of itself, and that like the film they’re in, as their legend grows, they’ll inspire others to keep surviving and persevering and sometimes, that’s enough.