“My whole thing, all my life, was march to your own drummer.”
Gregg Araki does not make movies for the masses. Since 1987, when he completed his first feature, Three Bewildered People in the Night, Araki has sought audiences on his own terms, blending Warholian-Godardian aesthetics with a nihilistic temperament that’s equal parts art-school disaffection and punk-rock attitude. His breakthrough film, 1992’s The Living End, channeled the anger and frustration of the ACT UP generation, bringing the Southern California native international notoriety as an avatar of the “New Queer Cinema.” The Living End is an aggressively droll, freewheeling twist on the lovers-on-the-lam road movie: Reeling from the news that he’s HIV-positive, cynical film critic Jon (Craig Gilmore) meets hunky bad boy Luke (Mike Dytri), a street hustler whose AIDS-haunted credo is “we got nothing to lose.” (A bumper sticker on his car reads: “Choose Death.”) They fall into a turbulent love affair, and when Luke blithely kills an L.A. police officer, they embark on an ill-fated cross-country journey.
Both celebrated and maligned for a body of work that includes The Doom Generation, Totally F***ed Up, Nowhere, Splendor, and the doomed MTV pilot This Is How the World Ends, Araki has a distinct outsider sensibility, and is comfortable working on the margins with a small budget and a skeleton crew. His recurring themes — alienated youth, tragic love, explosive violence as a totem of gay liberation — may not be subtle or terribly sophisticated, but they are the expression of a defiantly independent mind. When Araki is working more within the conventions of mainstream narrative cinema, as he did with 2004’s Mysterious Skin, a haunting adaptation of Scott Heim’s novel that won him his greatest critical acclaim, the results are downright enthralling.
I caught up with Araki at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, where he was being honored at a dinner for icons of the Queer New Wave, including Tom Kalin, Isaac Julien, Bruce LaBruce, and the late Derek Jarman. During the ten-day event, Araki screened The Living End: Remixed and Remastered, a new print of his landmark film (available on DVD in April from Strand Releasing). We talked about the social and political context in which the film debuted in 1992, the basic contours of queer sensibility, and why Smiley Face, Araki’s hilarious new stoner comedy (soon to be an indie-cult favorite), was a refreshing change of pace from his heady previous drama, Mysterious Skin.
DAMON SMITH: The tagline for The Living End was “an irresponsible movie by Gregg Araki.” In what sense was that true in 1992, and in what sense is that still true today?
GREGG ARAKI: [Laughs] Well, the whole thing of the ‘irresponsible movie’ actually came from a critical essay that I read when I was in film school by the theorist Robin Wood. And it was actually about Bringing Up Baby, this Howard Hawks movie from the ’30s. That movie is a screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, but the structure of it is kind of the same as The Living End in that it was about this spirited, free-willed character who frees this repressed, more normal-life character. So The Living End sort of fit that paradigm. Also, the whole film has a very irreverent and anarchic point of view. So it definitely – it still applies, I think. [Laughs] It was really great to see it again on the big screen here with an audience. I was so thrilled, because the film’s like a time capsule of that period, you know? It was such a different time, and the whole society and culture was in a very different place. I was surprised at how, even by today’s standards, some of it’s pretty startling.
I remember seeing it for the first time in Boston in 1992.
You were, like, 12 or something? [Laughs]
Hey, c’mon, we’re about the same age! Anyway, Boston’s a very staid, buttoned-down university place; they’re not letting it all hang out. So when I saw The Living End, it kind of blew my mind. It was angry, it was punk rock, it was “Fuck you, I’m gay. Fuck your world.” And it seemed almost like a protest movie.
Yeah. It was raw and provocative and challenging, and it really pushed people’s buttons. It was so controversial and divisive when it came out – people were telling me stories about fistfights breaking out in bars over it. People were getting so passionate and crazy, which to me as a filmmaker was exciting, that something I had done created such a strong response. You know, Craig Gilmore, the star of the movie, was actually here with us in 1992, and he was here in 2008, and we were talking about how, when we started making this movie, it was just this little tiny art project. We made it for $20,000, which was borrowed from the producer’s mom. The crew was usually two, three, maybe four people sometimes, and it was kind of a labor of love. It was distributed all over the world, it played in the U.S. all over the country, in theaters in Kentucky – all these small places you couldn’t imagine a film like this playing in. It really created this sort of global stir that we never really anticipated. So it was kind of an amazing experience.
You presented the “remixed and remastered” version of the film here at Sundance. What’s changed in the new edit?
I haven’t edited the new movie at all. It’s still very much the same kind of raw, controversial movie it’s ever been. The only thing I’ve done is – technology now is so amazing, just what you can do with your computer and stuff – so we totally remastered the picture, did all this dirt removal. It’s 16mm – dirt and scratches and hair are huge in 16mm – so the image is, for the first time, actually pristine in the way it’s supposed to be. And it’s all color-timed – it looks gorgeous, actually, and I totally redesigned the sound. There’s a lot of technical stuff, like mike noise and sound bumps and all kinds of stuff going on. I went through and fixed all of that. Since this movie has never been properly released on DVD – the current transfer of it is this terrible VHS quality copy – it’s really great to actually have it available [on this HD master], because it gets taught in film courses. I’m glad that we now have this artifact that people can have and properly view.
You’re a film-school guy, so let me ask you a somewhat theoretical question.
Good, I like these. [Imitating journalist] “What do you think of Paris Hilton being at Sundance?” [Laughs]
Sundance is honoring the Queer New Wave, but it got me thinking: In what sense is it still valid to talk about queer cinema?
We had a great sort of historical dinner last night. Tom Kalin was there, Isaac Julien, Bruce LaBruce, Christine Vachon, and B Ruby Rich, who coined the Queer New Wave phrase. When people ask me about the Queer New Wave, I usually just half-jokingly say, “Ask B about it,” because she invented it. We were all working on our own personal projects, but as I said before, it was really those films like Swoon and The Living End and The Hours and Times and Poison, they were all very much a product of that time. It was really in the cultural zeitgeist as far as it was the time of ACT UP and Queer Nation and massive protests in the street. It was interesting watching The Living End the other night – you know, death hangs over it. I remember, in the late ’80s, early ’90s, there was just so much death in the air. We still had a Bush in the White House, unfortunately [laughs], but the atmosphere was very different because of AIDS. AIDS is still a big problem, but the way it was just this kind of unstoppable holocaust at that time made it – the whole sense of everybody’s anxiety, anger, frustration, helplessness – it all very much fed into those movies. It was really crystallized in these films, and I think that’s why it’s so great to have these artifacts now of this time. It was a very historical, landmark moment.
A lot of critics, from Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” up to the present, when queer studies has been institutionalized in academic departments, want to talk about a specifically queer sensibility. I was just wondering, to pose the question again, if you lend any validity to that.
I do think that definitely, for filmmakers like myself, Tom Kalin, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, obviously the late Derek Jarman, our sexual identity I think definitely has a deep influence on our aesthetic and on the themes we deal with, and the kind of projects we’re attracted to. So I think that is valid, but the sort of label that “Queer New Wave” or “New Queer Cinema” or whatever they want to call it [references] I think has to be so amorphous and so all-encompassing and vague and hazy that it almost becomes meaningless. It’s really almost this outsider sensibility, which then in a way can sort of start to incorporate other filmmakers who are not necessarily gay, and who have more of an outsider point of view, like Larry Clark. Those types of filmmakers also operate outside of the main structures.
Throughout your body of work, you seem attracted to these kinds of edge characters – outsiders, alienated teens.
Even my new film, Smiley Face (right), which was such a big departure for me, has thematically so many things that a lot of my other movies have. It’s almost subconscious at a certain point.
Were you a misfit?
I wouldn’t say I was a misfit. My whole thing, all my life, was “march to your own drummer.” I was a very artistic kid, always off by myself drawing pictures. I used to draw comic books when I was a kid. I was always very much an individual, and that’s why I was so deeply influenced by punk-rock culture and post-punk culture, because there’s that whole DIY thing, the go-against-the-corporate-mentality sort of approach. I think that’s probably my major influence in terms of my sensibility.
There was a real shift in tone between Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face, which is a fun stoner comedy. Does that reflect a change in your personal life, or were you just ready for different material?
After Mysterious Skin – and I’m really proud of that film – I really just wanted to do something completely different. I knew my next film was not going to be this very dark, heavy drama. I was going to do this horror/sci-fi movie I was working on. But Smiley Face sort of fit the bill. I really see Smiley Face and Mysterious Skin as yin and yang to each other. Mysterious Skin was my very first 100 percent serious drama. All of my films, like Doom Generation and The Living End, have always had comic elements and satirical elements and dramatic elements together, whereas Mysterious Skin was straight drama. So Smiley Face was my first comedy and also it’s my brightest, most optimistic movie versus Mysterious Skin, which is one of my darkest. Those movies to me are really strange companion pieces.
I think Mysterious Skin might have been the only time you adapted a novel for a film treatment, right? Was that a process you enjoyed?
It was great to have all of that – the structure, the voice, the characters – all mapped out. It was just a matter, basically, of editing and distilling it from a 300-page book into a 90-minute movie. I actually really enjoy that process. It’s tricky because it has to be something that really fits in your sensibility, and Scott [Heim] and I have so much in common in terms of our influences. We’re the same generation, and that movie fit with everything I was doing. In the same way, weirdly, with Smiley Face, it was my first film from somebody else’s screenplay. I think that Mysterious Skin sort of opened me up to the idea of doing other people’s material and bringing my personality and style, and imposing that on something that I did not originally create.
Since the purpose of your visit here is to screen a new version of The Living End, it has probably prompted you to reflect a bit on the last 15 years or so of making movies. How have things changed for you as an independent filmmaker? What’s gotten better or easier for you, and what’s gotten harder?[Laughs] Things really for me haven’t changed much. It’s funny – I run into people I haven’t seen for ten years [and they ask], “What are you doing now?” And basically, it’s the same thing I was doing ten years ago. I’m just working on my next movie. I do find that it doesn’t really get any easier in terms of the money and the financing and all that. That seems to be getting harder and harder, because there are more filmmakers and less money, so that’s kind of tricky, but the process is still very much the same. You work on your stuff every day and hope it all comes together.
But there must be a difference between shooting a $20,000 movie, guerrilla style, and having access to greater funds. Has that shaped the way you’re able to tell a story?
I think with each successive film, as a director, you get more and more confident, and more and more technically accomplished. I’ve always said that I couldn’t probably have made Mysterious Skin – it was made for $1 million. Just from a production and logistical standpoint, it was a very difficult movie to make, as was Smiley Face, because we did it in 22 days. I don’t think I could have made those films ten years ago, because I don’t think I had the technical chops. With each passing film, I get more and more confident and sure of where the camera goes, how to break the scene down, just how to deal with the logistics of it. I know on Doom Generation it was a little bit of an adjustment, because it was the first time I ever dealt with a big crew – craft service and trailers and location managers and all that stuff – so there’s a learning curve to it. In a weird way, with all the films, the approach to them is the same. I always get this visual image of the movie in my head, and I make these little storyboards, and it’s all very – that process is kind of identical from The Living End to Smiley Face.
So what do you think about Paris Hilton being at Sundance?[Laughs] I didn’t see her so I can’t even confirm she’s here.