Now Apocalypse – director Gregg Araki’s first auteurist television show – is mostly about nothing, or when it’s about anything, it’s about fantasy. Set in present-day Los Angeles, it follows Ulysses (Avan Joglia), a handsome, mostly stoned vlogger, and his attractive, new-to-town friends, all of whom are desperate for a shot at stardom. Ulysses, who isn’t very ambitious himself, has two problems from the outset: a giant lizard from space has been vamping in his daydreams and he can’t seem to pin down a boy he desperately likes, despite their cosmic connection. When they finally meet after weeks of trading messages on a dating app, the boy can’t stay for long; he’s got band practice. They quickly jerk off behind the café where they held their long-awaited first date, and when they both come, the sky erupts with colour. Later that night, Ulysses stumbles into an abandoned warehouse, purple mist emanating from its moaning innards (it’s from a recurring dream), and finds the lizard raping an unnamed homeless man played by James Duval. ‘Help!’ he shouts. Araki cuts to credits of episode one: If you hadn’t guessed it yet, Now Apocalypse is a quasi-sequel to Araki’s 1997 film of California queer disillusion, Nowhere.
Duval is the star of Araki’s ‘Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy’ (1993-97) and an icon of New Queer Cinema, the briefly-lived moment in US and British film that saw the rise of a number of new directors with an explicitly queer sensibility, like Todd Haynes and Laurie Lynd. Puppy-eyed, ruinously pretty and totally disaffected, Duval plays Nowhere’s Dark, who suffers greatly from visions of the same humanoid lizard that afflicts Ulysses as he pursues an equally puppy-eyed, ruinously pretty boy named Montgomery (Nathon Bexton). The 1997 film – the trilogy’s final instalment – flits between the grisly and the campy: under ‘Repent Now’ graffiti, three girls discuss boys until the lizard alien’s ray gun reduces them to their smoldering mouth braces. Bright outfits, dense California slang bounce against expressionistic backgrounds while TV preachers espouse end-of-days gospel. Montgomery explodes into a giant roach; the Lizard slinks off to space. Was it ever real?
Now Apocalypse tracks the themes of Araki’s earlier cinema, now amplified by the disaffections and distractions of the internet age. Nobody can find a decent-paying job, in or out of Hollywood. Ulysses borrows cash, finds temp work at a car impound, where opioid addicts spoil his evening high with the traumas of addiction, including one woman who shits a shimmering purple goo. His best friend Carly (Kelli Berglund) struggles with come-ons from an acting coach and bad film auditions, including one for the twelfth edition of the Fast and Furious franchise: ‘Find the humanity between nothing and clown,’ the casting director tells her after she struggles with her lines. Otherwise, she gets by as a camgirl, performing kinky sex acts for lonely men on the far end of the web, their digitally transported heads merging into what Edith Wharton once called, in The Mother’s Recompense (1925), the ‘collective American face’. Generally conspiratorial events involving a French X-Files team, a menacing homintern and a television show-within-the-show consume the rest of the season. Things ‘resolve’ in the way Araki’s work always does, mostly through an acceptance of the irresolution of the bumbling confusions produced by sex and feelings.
The differences between the 1997 of Nowhere and the 2019ish of Now Apocalypse are fairly pronounced; Araki’s videotape expressionism has transitioned, following 2010’s Kaboom, to the glossy palate of David LaChapelle. And whereas the film boasts a tenderness amid the humour (and trenchant humourlessness) of its portrayals of ‘90s Los Angeles, Now Apocalypse meanders through its own dismally cool Southern California, unsure whether it wants to be there at all. Its indecision often plays out through a sense of looping development: each episode might be a pilot, and despite its ‘everything is connected’ thematic, nothing actually does. Why do Ulysses and crew decamp to Palm Springs during what seems, on the face of it, to be a key early episode, except so that we can see that these sensitive, bisexual, and sexually adventurous Americans are sensitive, bisexual, and sexually adventurous? The cast circles back to LA once their desert pitstop is over, and the plot more or less starts over.
The disaffected, totally doomed ‘nowhere’ of the original film’s title has become everywhere, as Now Apocalypse’s characters find, in their relationships, jobs and even the cosmos, only an ever-scaled-up degree of meaninglessness. That seems about right. I, too, have attended industry parties and listened to the externalized inner monologues of brand-endorsed Instagram influencers. It’s a woozy world, full of weekends spent carpooling with vegan pizza-slinging psychopomps from Beverly Hills and cokebloat TV agents. But there’s another world within that one, too, somewhere ‘between nothing and clown’; Nowhere glimpses it several times, and derives from it a scintillating sweetness, a palpable feeling under the performance of no feeling. If only Araki had found it again in California today. It’s certainly still there.
Main image: Gregg Araki, Now Apocalypse, 2019, still. Courtesy: Starz