GREGG ARAKI jokes about his many labels, including queer filmmaker, queer indie filmmaker, even queer apocalyptic filmmaker. Perhaps to be expected, he acknowledges, since he made such films as 1992's "The Living End," about an HIV-positive male couple trying to escape riot-torn Los Angeles, and 1995's "The Doom Generation," a story with explicit gay and hetero sex and explosive violence.
But although his latest film, "Mysterious Skin," adapted from Scott Heim's novel about alien abduction and pedophilia, "fits perfectly within the flow of my movies," he says, it's also "a big departure." The movie, which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michelle Trachtenberg and Elisabeth Shue, is "my first serious, character-driven drama. My other films are satirical with a postmodern edge."
In the film (see review on Page 34), two young men in Kansas are both marked for life by early childhood trauma. One of them (played by Brady Corbet) slowly comes to believe he has been visited by aliens.
When he read Heim's novel, Araki recalls, "it devastated me. It's a very dark and unsettling story, but told in the most beautiful and poetic way. It really haunted me. . . . Nothing like that ever happened to me as a boy, but I really lived that childhood. I loved the way Scott incorporates the iconography of suburban childhood, such as those little packs of cereal [which figure significantly in an early scene]. And all those details, including the experience of being picked up in the rain [from a kid's baseball game] and driven home in the rain."
These Norman Rockwellian elements are used ironically; they're part of darker developments, including pedophilia. But Araki feels that, even though some of the scenes in the movie are emotionally and morally disturbing, they have been tempered by Gordon-Levitt's and Corbet's strong and affecting performances. "They made their characters so sympathetic. And as performers, they really draw you into their world."
The other crucial element, he adds, is the novel, which "really explores the issue from the inside out and how it changes those boys' lives forever."
Something is obviously working. New audiences from "across the board" have responded to it, a new thing for Araki.
"It's easily the most widely embraced of my films, in terms of press and public attention. It's been kind of overwhelming. . . . My usual cult fans are college age. I call them the Doom Generation Kids. They show up with DVDs for me to sign. But ['Mysterious Skin'] has attracted a broad spectrum -- 65-year-old grandmothers, heterosexual Mormons. It cuts across sexual and age barriers."
Araki, a 45-year-old Asian American who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Santa Barbara, is thrilled that "Mysterious" will be on about 14 screens nationwide Friday. "Obviously, it's not 'Batman's' 4,000 screens, but the movie's getting the best reviews and I'm kinda amazed."
But he says the movie's relative success won't unduly influence what he does next. "I always thought of myself as simply somebody that makes movies. And so far, I've never made a film I didn't love."
-- Desson Thomson
THEY 'MADE IT'
Chris Sautter's film, "So Glad I Made It: The Saga of Roger Salloom, America's Best Unknown Songwriter" is ironic, title-wise. There are surely great songwriters far less known than Salloom, who had several shots at the brass ring from the late '60s into the early '80s, including a major record deal, radio exposure, supportive critics and high-powered backers. And Salloom hardly made it, retiring from music for two decades, except for an annual concert in home town Northampton, Mass., where he's something of a cult figure.
On Wednesday, Sautter and Salloom will attend an 8 p.m. screening of "So Glad I Made It" as part of the Avalon Theatre's Local Filmmaker/Community Night. It will include a short acoustic set and question-and-answer sessions with Salloom and Sautter. The Avalon Theatre is at 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW; tickets are $8.50 and available at the Avalon box office, online at www.theavalon.org or by calling 202-966-6000.
It's the film itself that gives meaning to its title. Sautter was a fellow student at Indiana University in the mid-'60s when Salloom first attracted attention as a Bob Dylan-style folkie, and he followed Salloom's zigzag career, which took on Zelig-like traits. Moving to San Francisco in the flower power era, Salloom, Sinclair and the Mother Bear Band espoused unconvincing bluesy psychedelia on two albums for Cadet/Concept, a Chess subsidiary. Salloom says he turned down an offer from Fantasy even after label head Saul Zaentz told him his band was better than new signing, Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Having previously aped the newly electric Dylan, Salloom followed him to Nashville, even recording with some of the same studio musicians. But while Salloom flirted with success, it never flirted back. A publishing deal didn't pan out, and Salloom, battling depression and bipolar disorder while singly raising two young sons, threw in the towel.
Meanwhile, Sautter, who also heads the Washington political media firm Sautter Communications and whose only previous film was 1999's "The King of Steeltown: Hardball Politics in the Heartland," got curious and Googled Salloom. Contacting him via e-mail, Sautter found Salloom going one last round, recording new material and looking for a record deal, while preparing for his annual concert. The result is a feature-length documentary that has won several awards.
Salloom admits to Sautter that "I've spent most of my life under a cloud of obscurity" and in a rare example of rigid self-analysis, acknowledges "I wasn't as good as I should have been as a writer, and I didn't know where to take the band. . . . It overshadowed the songs." The sweetest surprise is that Salloom's new material is much superior to the old, and at 55, he seems to have settled on an identity: rootsy folkish singer-songwriter with an engaging delivery reminiscent of Steve Forbert, Keith Sykes and Loudon Wainwright III. "He's come back full circle to where he started out," Sautter says.
-- Richard Harrington
THE 'FANNY TRILOGY'
Marcel Pagnol's books were the source for the foreign film hits "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring" in the 1980s. The French author is also the originator of the so-called "Fanny Trilogy" of the 1930s, a stage-play threesome that weaved a tale set in his home region of Marseille. He also adapted the films that came of it: the 1931 "Marius," 1932's "Fanny" and 1936's "Cesar." All three will be shown free at the National Gallery of Art's East Building.
"Marius," directed by Alexander Korda, will be shown Saturday at 2 and Sunday at 4. Alice Waters, executive chef and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., will introduce the Sunday screening.
"Fanny," which Pagnol directed with Marc Allegret, screens at 2 on July 1 and 2. You can celebrate July 4 in an unusual way by watching "Cesar" (directed by Pagnol), which concludes the trilogy, July 3 at 4:30 and July 4 at 2. All films are in French with subtitles.
For more information, visit www.nga.gov/programs/flmevent.shtm or call 202-737-4215.
-- Desson Thomson