For more than three decades, punk filmmaker Gregg Araki has pointed his camera in the direction of the outlier: at depressed kids who hide in Los Angeles malls, shoot each other under freeway overpasses, and fuck in motel rooms. Gregg’s filmography, especially his early projects, mixes 90s queer subculture with hallucinatory fantasy; an excitement mixed with existential unease. Sometimes his movies feature extraterrestrials. Almost always, as in his feature film The living endthere are also gays.
Now 62, Gregg is the laid-back uncle of gay cinema, having spent the 90s shaping the radical New Queer Cinema movement alongside directors like Gus Van Sant and Derek Jarman. A photo of Gregg to be interviewed on a golden throne by Interview Joan Quinn, the magazine’s editor, resurfaces online from time to time, reminding us that he’s a pioneer of “right vibes” (“That’s fucking hilarious. Thanks to Joan Quinn for creating this picture because I don’t remember”). More recently, he directed the male characters of Riverdale in wrestling singlets (“It wasn’t my idea! They literally handed me the gayest episode of Riverdale.”) and his 2019 comedy series Now Apocalypse, a weird, queer apocalyptic melting pot.
But this month marks the 30th anniversary of The living end, Gregg’s third feature film and the first film that put him on the map. He doesn’t see it that way, though. “It was just this little, tiny little art project that me and my friends did in the early ’90s,” he explains, speaking from Los Angeles. “It’s kind of crazy that it’s lived all this time.”
Written at the height of the AIDS epidemic, The living end traces Jon, a film critic, and Luke, a drifter, two HIV-positive lovers who kill a cop and embark on a self-destructive road trip through California. This is the quintessence of Araki: messy, cheerful, tragic and daring. His budget, around $20,000, was meager. No one in the cast or production was paid. Still, Gregg has great affection for her. “It was all this crazy adventure and we had nothing to lose,” he says. “We sort of went there. There was no self-censorship involved and, in that way, it was creatively reckless and free.
Gregg’s first two films, Three confused people at night and The Long Weekend (O’ Despair), were made on a shoestring budget and shot in monochrome. “I did everything on those movies myself, I didn’t have a crew or anything,” Gregg says. But for The living end he bonded with producer Marcus Hu and his partner, Jon Gerrans, who had recently formed their production company, Strand Releasing. “They were basically the whole crew,” laughs Gregg. “They provided the food and were PAs and did whatever they had to do, like production design. So there was a little bit more production value. The help of renowned independent filmmaker Jon Jost was also invaluable: “He lent us his 16mm camera and gave us some old film, so we got color for the first time. It was my first color movie and my first movie with sync sound, so it was definitely a step up.
Gregg defines The living end and this nascent stage of its career as “genuine independent guerrilla cinema”. His first films were shot without a license, without a budget and “with a camera that kept breaking”. Gregg says the police were often called to the production and security guards regularly chased them away from filming locations. “It was a crazy adventure because it was just me and my friends,” he says. “It was by no means a traditional film production.”
A pivotal scene where Jon and Luke give in to their mutual desire and have unprotected sex in the shower generated backlash at the time for its denial of safe sex practices, but Gregg now views the scene as “tame”. At the time, “the reaction was so intense and so strong,” he explains. “There was a very punk-rock attitude to it, and it was very unapologetic. Gay and queer representation was so limited at the time and, in fact, almost non-existent. When it was screened at Sundance, I remember that people were so outraged. Seeing him today, he seems almost naive and kinda cute. But it wasn’t seen that way in 1992.”
An early moment when Luke steals a car from a pair of murderous lesbians obsessed with KD Lang, he believes, was also misunderstood. Gregg cast LA performing artist Johanna Went and Warhol superstar Mary Woronov as the killer lesbians thanks to Marcus, her producer. “I don’t mean he’s a starfucker, but he knows a plot of people,” says Gregg. The scene inspired crowds of queer women to picket the Castro Theater in San Francisco when it premiered. “It was definitely a tribute to that kind of John Waters-esque punk world, very Pink flamingos,” he continues. “It wasn’t meant to offend but, you know, some people got offended. That was the thing about The living end it was so liberating – it didn’t have to please everyone. He was free to be himself and if you were offended, didn’t get it, or weren’t on his wavelength, you could walk away. It has in no way been watered down for more general acceptance.
The film contains so much about Gregg’s life and interests that he describes it “almost like a diary”. His ethos of “live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse” is like something you’d see scrawled in a club bathroom by a gay man in the early 90s. It has a powerful meaning. “My sensibility is in a different place – obviously you’re growing up – but I appreciate that the film captures that time in my life,” he says. “It was my crazy, random, wild thoughts. This The living end is a document that is, for me personally, really cool and something that I look back on with great emotion.
Naturally, The living end is embedded in Gregg’s youth culture. Andy Warhol posters blowjob — a 30-minute silent film featuring a guy having his dick sucked — and that of Jean-Luc Godard Made in the USA adorn the walls of cinephile Jon. The names of the central duo are, amusingly, derived from those of Godard. A song by The Jesus and Mary Chain gives its title to the film. “blowjob had a very big influence on me and on the aesthetic of the film,” he says. “In many ways, Mike Dytri, [who plays Luke] and the way he is photographed is very Warholian, very Gus van Sant.
Gregg has always featured Adonis-like characters in his films, but Luke was the very first. “[Gus’ debut] Mala Noche is a film that I saw before writing The living end and the way Gus frames his male Adonises is very similar,” says Gregg. “I think, for me, it’s a by-product of that era. It was about the revolutionary gay gaze on men and this objectification of men as women have always been. This whole world of men being sex objects and lit and filmed in a certain way was a huge visual influence on me.
Gregg’s last movie, White bird in a blizzard, was released in 2014, but fortunately, it is not done with the cinema. “I struggled during the pandemic and, like [it was for] a lot of gay people, it was a bit overwhelming,” he says. “But I have, over the last six months or so, readjusted to work as before. I have a few things I’m working on – some exciting, some very surprising… Well, maybe not surprising, I don’t know. Either way, it looks like something new from Gregg Araki might finally materialize soon.
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