the gay gaze

Queer director Gregg Araki remembers the sex scene that shocked and angered audiences, 30 years on

Screenshot: Strand Releasing

There’s independent cinema, and then there’s what Gregg Araki created in 1992.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this month is The Living End, a wild, fearless, homoerotic road trip movie that, today, is remembered as one of the earliest works to come out of the ’90s’ New Queer Cinema movement.

With a minuscule budget of $20,000, Araki’s film was an indie passion project in the truest sense—there were no permits, no one in the cast or crew was paid, and the police were called on the production on multiple occasions.

“It was this whole crazy adventure and we had nothing to lose,” Araki remembers in a new anniversary interview with i-D. “We just kind of went for it. There was no self-censorship involved and, in that way, it was creatively reckless and free.”

The Living End is the story of shy film critic Jon (Craig Gilmore) and a hunky drifter Luke (Mike Dytri)—both HIV positive—who meet by chance when the latter kills a homophobic cop, setting them off on a breathless, cross-California adventure as they outrun the law.

For Araki, the film was “almost like a journal” that captured the spirit of queer youth and a reckless abandon during the height of the AIDS epidemic. As he tells i-D: “My sensibility is in a different place—obviously, you grow up—but I appreciate that the film captures that period of my life. It was my crazy, random, wild thoughts. That The Living End is a document of that is, for me personally, really cool and something I look back on very fondly.”

Related: And the films played on: 17 essential movies about HIV/AIDS

Then and to this day, The Living End feels like a risk. Its transgressive, its explicit, it doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Take, for example, the moment where Jon and Luke can’t fight the urge any longer and have unprotected sex—it’s a scene that caused a lot of outrage in ’92.

Screenshot: Strand Releasing

“The reaction to [that scene] was so intense and so strong,” he shares. “It had a very punk-rock attitude, and it was very unapologetic. Gay and queer representation was so limited at the time and, really, almost non-existent. When it screened at Sundance, I remember people were just so outraged. Seeing it today, it seems almost naive and a little bit cute. But it wasn’t viewed that way [then.]”

Araki was a trailblazer in terms of elevating the “gay gaze” to new cinematic heights. Following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol and his own contemporary Gus van Sant, the writer-director had a very intentional approach to how he lensed the male form:

“[van Sant’s] Mala Noche is a film I saw before I wrote The Living End and the way Gus frames his male Adonises is very similar,” Araki says. “I think, to me, it’s a by-product of that time. It was about the revolutionary gay gaze at men and this objectification of men in the way that women have always been. That whole world of men being seen as sex objects and being lit and shot in a certain way was a huge visual influence on me.”

While Araki may see The Living End as “this little, tiny art project that me and my friends did back in the early 90s,” it’s one that gave his own career a massive boost (he’d go on to direct Mysterious Skin, Kaboom, and more) and helped open the door for so many other LGBTQ filmmakers to come.

And by staying true to his vision, Araki created something that was both sincerely independent and defiantly queer.

Related: Gregg Araki on his Starz series ‘Now Apocalypse’: “So now they go to a sex party…”

“It was not meant to offend but, you know, some people did get offended. That was the thing about The Living End that was so freeing—it didn’t need to please everyone,” Araki reflects. “It was free to be itself and if you took offense, if you didn’t get it or you were not on its wavelength, you could opt out. It was not really watered down in any way for a more mainstream acceptance.”

The Living End is free to stream on Kanopy, and is available to digitally rent/buy oniITunes, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Google Play, and YouTube.