Mysterious Gray Skin

I started writing this in May 2005 as part of my ongoing reviews of the book Mysterious Skin. Unfortunately I never finished this review…

Just as a note: I’ve already finished the book. It’s absolutely amazing and has, literally, disturbed me quite a bit. Tonight I am seeing the film version, so I want to get these notes/thoughts about the book posted before I am influenced by the movie.

The “Blue” section ended with Neil starting prostitution and Brian’s dad leaving the family.

“Gray” picks up with Brian and his mother:

Since my father and Deborah [for San Fransisco] had left, I reasoned that Little River regarded my mother and I was weirdos (96).

Brian is listening to music like Kraftwerk and soon sees a newspaper article about a local woman who claims to have been abducted by UFOs and will shortly be appearing on a television program. He learns from the newspaper that the woman’s name is Avalyn, and he becomes determined to find her. When he sees a picture of her in the newspaper:

I could tell she know something remarkable, something etheral and profound. Beauty resided in that knowledge. I wanted it (99).

The newspaper article also mentions a sidebar titled: “Have aliens contacted you?” of particular interest to Brian: missing time, recurring nightmares, nosebleeds, fear of the dark, interest in UFOs — “sometimes to the point of obsession” (100). Given those criteria, Brian is even more convinced that UFOs visited him.

Brian’s mom is skeptical, but supportive. She watches the television show World of Mystery with him. When she sees Avalyn, she notes:

“She’s sort of homely,” my mother said. “She seems sad, as if no one’s ever loved her” (108).

Seeing Avalyn on the television show and thinking over the events depicted seemed to changed Brian’s life a little:

And the more I considered Avalyn, the more I considered my own life. The idea of abduction made perfect sense (111).

Brian concludes for sure that he was abducted that night after the Little League game and again that Haloween night when he blacked out and lost time.

I found it pretty touching that Brian had so much faith in his mother’s support. Even though it was pretty obvious she wasn’t really a believer in UFOs and whatnot, she cared about them because her son cared about them. Brian noticed this:

She would stay beside me until I solved it. Even if to solve meant to lose another block of time, to slip into the unknown world where I was certain they’d taken me before (113).

In the “Gray” section we also meet Eric Preston who, next to Wendy, is Neil’s best (and, well, only) friend. I love the first line Eric gives us:

Neil McCormick was turning me into a criminal, and I loved it (114).

That quote, I think, is a perfect example of the somewhat hypnotizing and charming power that Neil has over people.

Eric’s parents died in a car crash in California so he moves to Kansas to live with his grandparents. As an outsider, Eric gives us some perspective on how fucked up and boring things are in Hutchinson, Kansas:

School was over forever; crime seemed the only thing left to do (114).

In Modesto, I’d had a scattering of friends who shared the same interests in music and were queer like me. Here, I only had Neil (115).

He [Neil] told me I had guts for dressing like I did at such a backward high school (118).

Review: Mysterious Skin

Neil in Mysterious Skin
The film was great. It definitely ranks up there with some of the best book-to-film adaptations ever. The acting was superb. The music was haunting. And the message was preserved.

I’ve always thought that The Virgin Suicides was the best book-to-film adaptation ever. The light, ethereal cinematography combined with the amazingly ambient score by the French band Air really enhanced the content of the book, elevating the film version to something greater than just a stand-alone movie. I also thought that Requiem for a Dream surpassed the novel (which was rather difficult to get through due to its lack of punctuation, etc.), not only because it made the material more accessible, but also because the jerky and oftentimes experimental filming style really captured the feelings of the characters and their situations. Most of the time, I’ve noticed, when I enjoy a movie better than a book (or think the movie is as good as the book), it is because the filmmaker did something unique to express an idea in the book that can be done better visually.

Surprisingly, that was not the case with Mysterious Skin. The movie is pretty much a one-to-one adaptation of the book. Some of the major differences/exclusions I noticed:

  • During the Halloween part (when they were eight years old), as Brian is entering the haunted house, him and Neil make eye contact.
  • In the movie, Neil doesn’t discover the Playgirl magazines stashed under his mom’s bed.
  • The movie doesn’t explain that Brian’s dad leaves the family and divorces his mom.
  • The book has a scene before Brian and Mrs. Lackey watch the World of Mystery television show where they go fishing — I thought it was cool to see them bond.
  • The scene where Neil, Neil’s mom, and Eric go to the white trash diner and then the nature reserve (where they eat cheese and drink wine) was removed.
  • Neil gets a got at “Subz” in the film and it is after leaving there that he meets the guy who rapes him. In the book, the guy is waiting outside of the hustler bar (one of the “cheap ones” who doesn’t go in the bar but waits for the hustlers who can’t get business that night).
  • In the book, Neil sort of makes a friend at the hustler bar.
  • In the book, after being raped, Neil makes a comment about never wanting to touch his ass again — I thought this was really significant, but I can see how it would be tough to translate into film.

Despite that (somewhat?) long list, the movie really was extremely faithful to the book. In a Q&A after the film, Gregg Araki explained that ever since reading the novel, he has always wanted to basically translate it to the screen. I think his careful adaptation preserves the importance and delicate subject matter of the book without adding the director’s own flashy trademarks. As someone who just finished reading the book a few days ago, I was very pleased.

As for the acting, of course, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil (the gay one who is a hustler) was great — and he had the perfect body for the part (dark hair, dark eyes, waif-thin, etc.). What blew me away most was the acting of Chase Ellison who played Neil at age eight. The kid totally had me convinced that he was a horny and somewhat manipulative (not to mention confused and rather messed-up/abused).

One of the things Araki discussed at the Q&A was the fact that it was very important to him and the crew that the young actors were “shielded” from the content of the film. I am guessing that this meant that the young actors basically didn’t know what they were doing — they were just acting however the director told them to act (“look sad”, “look shocked”, “look uncomfortable”, etc.). Araki said that with young actors, you don’t really tell them about their character by giving them back story or explain what is going through that characters head — instead, you just tell the kid actor exactly what to do, and that’s what they do. I thought this, while pretty intuitive, was interesting and seeing how well it worked in Mysterious Skin is really, I think, a testament to how skilled Araki is as a director.

My only qualm about the acting/characters is that we didn’t see much Elisabeth Shue. Granted, her part in the book wasn’t much bigger, but I would’ve loved to see her on-screen more. Oh well.

When it comes to the music, there is where I think my love for Greg Araki really intensifies. As I recently mentioned, I became rather obsessed with the music of Nowhere and The Doom Generation. While the music for Mysterious Skin wasn’t as random/”pop” (as in “pop” as opposed to classical/arranged/score music), it was still just as appropriate and moving.

Robin Guthrie, of the Cocteau Twins (who Araki has used extensively on soundtracks in the past and who are one of the major players in that whole shoegaze music movement), worked with Harold Budd (who worked with Brian Eno back in the day) to create an extremely ambient and moody soundtrack. Araki mentioned during the Q&A that he has the soundtrack album and listens to it constantly. He also noted that shoegaze music was influential on both him and the writer of the novel (Scott Heim).

In addition to the score, I also remembered hearing “Dagger” by Slowdive, a song or two by Cocteau Twins, a song by Medicine, and a song by Sigur Rós. During the Q&A, Araki mentioned that there was a song by Curve, but I don’t think so — though I know he used them in The Doom Generation and Nowhere.

Overall, I, of course, gave this movie 5/5. It was touching and very well-done. And I was also impressed with Araki’s ability to break from his trademark style (“satirical, postmodern, and ironic” — I think is how he described it last night) to something more subtle and serious.

Gregg Araki Tonight

Gregg Araki
In a super exciting turn of events, it appears that Gregg Araki (the director) will be at tonight’s showing of Mysterious Skin. This is really awesome, and the fact he will also be at Saturday afternoon’s showing makes me want to go see it again (depending on how much I like or dislike the film tonight, I may buy a Saturday ticket).

Back during high school there was a time when he was probably one of my favorite directors. Movies like The Doom Generation and Nowhere really sort of, I don’t know, inspired me? as a high schooler in Minnesota. The films were totally about a world and life so far away (Los Angeles) but at the same time sort of gave me something to fantasize about and all that? I don’t know exactly. I just remember watching those two movies, in particular, and wishing that I could hangout with the characters.

I also remember loving the music in both of the films. I, of course, have the soundtrack to both Nowhere and The Doom Generation, but there were also tons of tons that were not on the soundtrack. I specifically remember spending a weekend watching Nowhere over and over again, identifying each song and writing a little description about when it played then going on to Napster or some file sharing program to get that song. I actually still have the yellow legal pads where I recorded all of this information stashed away somewhere in my apartment now.

The soundtracks featured groups that were somewhat obscure but that I still loved like Slowdive (where I first heard the song “Avalyn I” [as Dark played by James Duvall masturbates in the shower]), Catherine Wheel, Lush, Cocteau Twins, Sonic Youth (the b-side “Hendrix Necro” even!!), Curve, Blur, Jesus and Mary Chain, Portishead, Love and Rockets, Wolfgang Press, Ride, Medicine, Pizacatto Five, Belly, and many more. Basically, the soundtrack was very 4AD (record label) and shoegaze -heavy. I can honestly say that the music of Gregg Araki’s films have greatly influenced my taste in music in general.

Further, there is a line from Totally Fucked Up (somewhat of a pseudo-documentary about gay and lesbian kids living in Los Angeles dealing with issues such as gay bashing, cheating, artificial insemination, random hooks, and bootleg Nine inch Nails concert videos) that inspired a paper I wrote about AIDS/HIV. The quote comes from one of the lesbian characters during an “interview” part of the documentary:

It’s a born-again Nazi republican wet dream come true!

As I wrote in my paper AIDS: Abjection, (body) Image, (self) Destruction, Sex,

Ever since I saw that movie, I have been unable to shake the thought that something about whole HIV/AIDS phenomenon seemed too “perfect” from the perspective of those born-again Nazi republicans.

As for Mysterious Skin, I have finished reading the novel and have started writing down my thoughts. I am determined to finish before I watch the movie so that my perceptions after the movie don’t influence what I thought of the book. Nonetheless, I am totally excited for the film tonight.

Now we’ll have to see if I can muster up the courage/desire to actually ask Araki some questions during the Q&A session which, I hope, will follow the film tonight.

Mysterious Blue Skin

A U.F.O.
Mysterious Skin is broken down twice: First by colors (I just finished the “Blue” section), and then by characters (“Brian Lackey”, “Neil McCormick”, “Wendy Peterson”, and “Deborah Lackey”).

So far, this book is amazing. I’m usually not a fan of “gay literature” (and I wrote about why a few times during my Lesbian and Gay Literature class — I should post those journal entries sometime soon), but this book is different… it’s more “queer” than “gay” (again, something I theorized about in my journal entries).

Often times, marginalized literature tries to show people who aren’t in that marginalized group that the marginalized people are just like everyone else — they fall in love the same, they have the same hopes and dreams, etc. Mysterious Skin seems to be playing it both ways.

Brian Lackey is the “acned, bookworm” (96) who, within the first pages of the book, blacks-out during a Little League game. The same summer that the black-outs begin, Brian, his sister Deborah, and his mother witness some strange lights that they assume to be UFOs. The initial encounter propels Brian into a UFO obsession.

The black-outs, the obsession with the paranormal (Brian receives a book about the Loch Ness Monster for Christmas), and dropping-out of Little League creates tension between Brian and his father (who is obsessed with baseball and plays on a local team). Brian’s dad doesn’t think he is manly enough and somewhat girly.

Although it hasn’t been explicitly stated yet, it’s fairly obvious that Brian is gay. In addition to his awkwardness and shyness (which could also be due to his nerdiness, though), when him and his sister are watching a baseball game, he explains:

We watched the players’ bodies (7).

I once wrote a paper about the obsession with bodies within gay literature. I found it really significant that Brian noted watching the players bodies — not the players themselves or their swings or anything like that, but the players’ bodies. Additionally, Brian notes that other kids tease him by calling him “four eyes” and “pansy” (49). Pansy is pretty gay, yeah?

So far, the most striking incident from Brian’s childhood (to me) was the “initiation into manhood” that his father put him through. After returning from somewhere (church? a ball game? I cannot remember…), Brian’s family comes upon a large snapping turtle in the middle of the road. Brian’s dad gets excited about the idea of of turtle soup, so he manages to get the turtle into a bag in order to bring it home. Once home, Brian’s dad tells Brian that he wants Brian’s help with something — killing the turtle. Brian notes that he had carved fish before, but nothing had been as gruesome as killing the turtle. The whole scene comes across very violent and brutal. I kept thinking, “This is a very masculine thing to do — father and son slaughtering a snapping turtle.”

So basically, Brian is a nerdy, shy, quiet kid who loves UFOs and has a tense relationship with his mother and gets along really well with his sister (who ultimately moves to San Francisco after high school graduation). Although he seems like a nice kid, he seems pretty “normal” and ordinary. If he is indeed gay, he’s one of those “gays are just like straight people”-types, it seems.

Neil McCormick, on the other hand, is totally different. When he narrates there is a certain edge to his language — shorter sentences, more profanity and slang, etc.

Neil realizes pretty quickly that he is gay. One night during an intense storm, he crawls under his mom’s (who is single and dates a lot of different men) bed and finds a Playgirl magazine. He begins to fantasize about having sex with men (men with mustaches, hairy chests, etc. — which I find somewhat funny and gross at the same time).

Shortly after Neil figures that he likes men, the coach of his Little League team (which his mom signs him up for so she can spent more time with her boyfriend) takes interest in him — in a very sexual way. Neil notices this the first time they meet and it excites him — he likes being looked at and objectified as an object of desire:

His gaze paused on me. Desire sledge hammered my body, a sensation I wasn’t sure I had a name for (22).

The coach’s desire for Neil is realized pretty soon thereafter. The coach tells Neil that the team is going to watch a movie together. It turns out, however, that the coach lied and it was just him and Neil. The fact that the coach deceived Neil’s mother seems to turn him on:

It surprised me that he would like to Mom, but more than that, it excited me (27).

After the movie they return to the coach’s house, which is a total kid heaven (bean bag chairs, Atari, travel-sized cereal boxes [the kind that parents never buy], candy, etc.). The coach manages pretty quickly to get inside Neil’s pants and sex ensues:

I knew what was happening. Half of me realized it wasn’t right. The other half wanted it to happen (35)… It happened, I told myself; it happened. And I had liked it (37).

The book almost dares to ask: sometimes when a child is molested, does he/she enjoy it/want it to happen? Besides all of the potential issues of power and creepiness, it is something to ask (and something Foucault touches on in The Use of Pleasure. Of course, their relationship doesn’t last because the coach transfers to another Little League team (and then leaves town amid suspicions of his behavior). Neil longs for him, nonetheless. Oh, and every time the coach did something to Neil, he gave him a $5 bill.

The introduction of Wendy, Neil’s best friend, brings an interesting perspective. She basically fetishizes Neil as a gay boy and loves him because he is different. She sees him as something exotic that will spice up her life. Even the way he talks excites her:

From Neil, all those fucks and shits were more than just throwaway cuss words. They adopted some special meaning (55).

My favorite story that Wendy tells is about a “séance” where Neil makes a move on another (straight) boy. After Neil seduces/”hypnotizes” the kid, he gets on top of him and basically dry humps and then kisses him. This, of course, freaks the boy out. Despite being all macho, though, the boy cries. I just love the irony of it:

“Queer,” Robert P. said, plus something in Spanish. He was crying (57).

As for Wendy’s strange obsession/exoticization of Neil, at least she seems very aware of it. When she finally musters up the courage to talk to him, she recalls:

“You are a queer, aren’t you?” I said the Q-word as if it were synonymous with movie star or deity. There was something wonderful about the word, something that set him apart from everyone else, something I wanted to identify with… I was falling in love. Not so much with him, though, as with the aura of him (59).

I also loved the way Neil reacted (as explained by Wendy) to sex education in class. I’m also impressed with the fact that Neil knows he’s gay by fifth grade and isn’t afraid to be vocal about it:

“Ridiculous,” Neil whispered. “Not everyone fucks like that.” Some kids heard him, glared and sneered. “Some people take it up the ass” (62).

The story about Halloween is pretty traumatic. Neil and Wendy “kidnap” a retarded kid and nearly kill him when they put firecrackers in his mouth and light them off. When Wendy freaks out (rightly so) about the kid telling his parents about what Neil and Wendy did, Neil remedies the situation by giving the kid a blowjob. Neil explains:

“When I was little,” Neil said, “a man used to do this to me” (71).

That revelation disturbs Wendy:

Where had [Neil’s mother] been when the man from Neil’s past had put his mouth on her son like this? (72)

But ultimately she realizes the risk Neil took by revealing this to her:

Neil had shown a part of himself I knew he’d shown no one else. I reckoned I had asked for it. Now I was bound to him (74).

Deborah (Brian’s older sister)’s chapter mainly involves her observations about her brother (shy, no friends, etc.). It also tells their parents got divorced. Neither Brian nor Deborah seems too sad when their father leaves.

The final Neil chapter of the “Blue” section finds Neil becoming intrigued with the idea of hustling.

The idea of money for sex thrilled me like nothing before (85)… The idea of their wanting to pay for me rendered me breathless, thrilled, delirious, flustered (86).

When Neil manages to find a client, he can’t forget the coach, who treated him better:

While Coach’s fingers had “caressed” me, Charlie’s merely “touched” (88).

As Neil cums, the man swallows his load. The man notes that it wasn’t safe for him to do, but that since Neil was a kid it didn’t really matter since he knew Neil would be clean. Neil notes:

It was the first time I’d heard a man say that, but it wouldn’t be the last (89).

I can’t help but think this foreshadows, but who knows. Neil later discovers that when the guy swallowed he sorta bit his dick a little, causing it to bruise.

… so as the “Blue” section ends, it’s not at all clear how Brian is related to Chris and Wendy. We also don’t have any explicit proof that Brian is gay, but it seems rather obvious. I totally love this book. I haven’t been this excited/enthralled with nonfiction for quite a while (I loved The Handmaid’s Tale, but it didn’t get me excited and happy like this one does — it wasn’t joyful and funny like Mysterious Skin). I can’t wait to get further into the book and finally see how Greg Araki translates it to film.

Starting Mysterious Skin

Mysterious Skin
In my continual stop-and-start of book reading (I recently started, then stopped, Infinite Jest, then I started, then stopped, Speculum of the Other Woman [for the third time]), and now I’m starting yet another book. This time, though, I need to finish it since I’m seeing the movie it was based on in a couple of weeks.

My next book is Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim.

I don’t know too much about the book, except for the fact that is is probably gay-themed and involves alien abductions (that probably aren’t really done by aliens). I know nothing about the author, so this should be pretty exciting.

I’m reading it because on June 2, I will be seeing the film version of Mysterious Skin as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. Greg Araki, who directed two movies I absolutely love: The Doom Generation and Nowhere.

Araki’s other movies are very sexual and surreal. Nowhere, in fact, seems to have been very inspired by the Bret Easton Ellis novel Less Than Zero. The film version of Less Than Zero absolutely sucks, so I just pretend that Nowhere was the real adapatation.

That said, I’m excited to start reading this novel. With the except of Infinite Jest (which, of course, I took a break from reading), I haven’t read a nonfiction book for a few months (The Handmaid’s Tale was the last one I read).