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KABOOM: Araki Returns

Gregg Araki's latest film revisits the days of New Queer Cinema, presenting a pansexual college utopia laced with hallucinogens.

Recalling the heyday of New Queer Cinema, Gregg Araki brings back the ‘90s with the college-set Kaboom, depicting a pansexual college experience where students are more concerned with hallucinogens and getting laid than studying.




While 1992’s The Living End wasn’t Araki’s debut film, it was the first one to bring him anything approaching mainstream attention. Its depiction of a couple of gay, HIV-positive outlaws on the run drew
on the AIDS activism of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and it was often linked with films like Todd HaynesPoison and Christopher Munch’s The Hours and Times as part of the New Queer Cinema movement. Araki has proved adept at reinventing himself. Nothing in The Living End suggested that one day he would make a stoner comedy like Smiley Face, or a drama as sober as Mysterious Skin, which brought him back into critical favor after years of inaction.


Kaboom offers an optimistic view of sexuality, depicting a college campus where 18-year-old Smith (Thomas Dekker), who sleeps with men and women but doesn’t like labeling his sexual orientation, stumbles upon a murder while tripping on psychedelic cookies. In the film, reality, dreams and fantasy have a way of merging. Kaboom draws overtly on David Lynch, showing villains in rabbit masks. The first hour of the film is a brilliant return to Araki’s roots in queercore, while the final half hour shifts into a enigmatic conspiracy thriller. Kaboom manages to evoke the strong points of early Araki films while expressing a maturity only recently prevalent in his work.


Tribeca talked to Araki at the offices of IFC Films in early January.




Tribeca: You’ve talked about Twin Peaks as an influence on Kaboom. Do you have any interest in directing or creating TV yourself?


Gregg Araki: Yes, I have. I’ve had meetings with several cable channels. Kaboom was originally written as a TV pilot. That medium fascinates me because you stay with characters for a long time. It’s a different kind of storytelling than cinema, but it’s incredibly powerful. I was also a huge Sex and The City fan. I think that show was so groundbreaking in a lot of ways. I also liked Six Feet Under. The medium has a lot of potential.


Tribeca: What about Jersey Shore?


Araki: I don’t watch reality TV. My movies are about sur-reality. I go to the movies to see a stylized reality, a shaped reality, as opposed to someone following a person around with a handheld DV camera.


Tribeca: You’ve also talked about music as an influence on your work. Can you point to any specific examples of its impact on your films?


I listen to music pretty much all the time, from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed. I always listen to music when I write. Everything I do is influenced by that. I’ve modeled my films and career on the fact that a lot of the bands I’m passionate about followed their own drum and were never mainstream top 40 successes. I’ve taken that as an inspiration to follow my own voice and hope that people can latch onto it.




Tribeca: In Smiley Face, you created a female character who’s completely unsexualized. In Kaboom, you went to the opposite extreme. For an American film, Kaboom seems unusual in the amount of sex that takes place. Did you feel self-conscious about that?


Araki: I didn’t feel self-conscious. As a director, I’m very interested in sex. With the exception of Smiley Face, all my films contain sex. I’m intrigued by sexuality, not in a lascivious or titillating way, but in an attempt to capture moments of intimacy. That’s the time characters are most revealed.  To me, as a filmmaker, that’s one of the magical and amazing things about cinema. You can find about these characters’ deepest secrets. My sex scenes are not about genitalia or the pornographic nature of sex.


Tribeca: Do you think there’s something a bit utopian about the characters’ attitudes towards sexuality in
Kaboom? I’m thinking particularly of their attitudes towards sexual orientation and the fact that they don’t always need to define themselves as gay, straight or bi.


Araki: I do think the sexuality of the movie is very utopian. Another journalist commented that the sex is very strange for an American movie because it’s seen in a positive light. There are no consequences
to it. Nothing bad happens. It’s about them learning and growing through it. That’s the way I view it. To me, sex is about learning who you are as a person. One of the things I dislike about American movies
is that they tend to have a Puritanical attitude towards sex instead of seeing it as a natural part of life. I agree with a lot of things that the character of London says in the movie. Sexual experiences help make you who you are.

Tribeca: Do you think you’ll ever make a film again as angry and politically engaged as
The Living End?


Araki: It’s possible. I’m not as angry a person as I was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The cultural context is so different now. The anger and frustration of that film came from the same place that Act-Up and Queer Nation came from. AIDS is obviously still a problem, but it was such a huge problem then. For my generation, it was in our every waking thought. There was so much death and despair. That’s where The Living End came from. I, personally, am older and more mature and hopefully wiser. I was very angst-ridden and confused. By nature, you evolve as a person.



Tribeca: What attracts you to making films about youth and people in their 20s?


Araki: After Nowhere, I didn’t want to make movies abut teenagers any more. I did Splendor, which is about people in their 20s and older. Then Mysterious Skin came my way, I loved the book so much, even though I didn’t want to make a film about 18-year-olds again. To me, I didn’t want to make a teenage movie so much as I wanted to make a nostalgic movie about a time in your life when you don’t know who you’re going to be or what your sexuality is. I wanted to explore that milieu. Weirdly, Kaboom’s autobiographical in that sense. A lot of the things in Smith’s life are taken from my own experiences.


Tribeca: Do you ever feel nostalgic for the days of New Queer Cinema?


Araki: I don’t feel nostalgic. I really appreciate those movies—their energy, their anger, their artistic ambition, their aesthetic provocations. It was a really rich time. All the filmmakers of that era have gone on to make interesting films. That’s more important than capturing that time.


Tribeca: I find it a bit frustrating how quickly queer cinema turned into a niche market, with the ties to the political movements of the period getting lost very quickly.

Those films were politically and formally challenging. That’s not so prevalent in a lot of recent gay films.




Tribeca: Did you worry about the way Kaboom shifts tone halfway through?


Araki: I wanted it to feel very free. I wanted it to be whatever it wanted to be. I didn’t censor myself or ever think: “This is too weird.” I wanted it to be funny in parts, scary in parts, sexy in parts. I didn’t want it to be constrained by genre expectations. To me, what’s weird or unique about it is what makes it special. I really wanted to make something unlike any other movie out there.

Tribeca: The cinematography of
Kaboom reminds me of Dario Argento. Were you thinking of him?


Araki: No. I had a pop aesthetic in mind. I wanted it to look larger than life, almost like a fashion magazine. I wanted stylized colors and light. To me, it’s more influenced by advertising and photography
than other films.




Tribeca: Looking over your body of work, you’ve been lucky enough to have several films where critics have reacted as though you were starting over.  I’m thinking in particular of The Living End and Mysterious Skin.


Araki: What about Smiley Face, my first stoner comedy?


Tribeca: Do you see it that way as well?


Araki: I’m attracted to all different kinds of films. I’d like to make a musical one day. I want to stretch my muscles. With Kaboom, I’ve always wanted to make a sprawling mystery. There are aspects to the film that are very unique and fun to do. I’m always interested in doing something that’s not the same old thing. After Mysterious Skin, I did Smiley Face because I didn’t want to make another film that was so dark and serious right afterwards. To me, every movie I make is something I love and that I’m super-passionate about.


Kaboom opens at IFC Center in New York on Friday, January 28, and will be available in wide release and on demand in February. Find tickets.


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