film review: gregg araki’s The Living End

Originally published in The Indianapolis New Times, October, 1992. I was a contributing editor for film and television.

The Living End
Directed by gregg araki
81 min, USA, 1992

Neither hets nor homos are liable to find themselves entirely comfortable with Gregg Araki’s The Living End. Subtitled “An Irresponsible Movie,” the film quickly sets out to rub those of more delicate sensibilities the wrong way.

Besides being technically rough and at times amateurish, here’s some of the ways it “offends:” Three gay-bashers are gleefully shot (one in the back as he runs away) by Luke, one of the hunky male leads; a cop is killed off-screen; much unsafe sex is practiced; a lesbian couple who picks up the hitchhiking Luke appears to be serial killers; there are even puerile scatological jokes.

More subtle taboos, however, are also broken. The two male leads, Jon and Luke, are both HIV positive and both are clearly in the throes of nihilistic despair. Jon, the conservative and inhibited one, is in flight from that despair, constantly calling his friend Darcy to remind himself of his link with normality and sane society. However, Jon, infatuated with his mischievous and somewhat screwed-up sex partner in crime and infection, nonetheless participates in Luke’s admonition to “fuck the world” (the opening shots show Luke writing this sentiment on a bathroom wall), while spending their last days on earth having fun and raising hell. Luke’s fantasy is to die cumming, but to pay back all the queer bashers and haters before he croaks.

Luke’s active and abrasive rage energizes the film and flies in the face of the usually unspoken but nevertheless powerful prohibition in AIDS activist and caregiver communities against voicing despair after a positive HIV test. The popular phrase used to empower HIV positives is “living with AIDS,” and demonstrations are usually the only acceptable outlet for queer anger. Certainly Luke’s solution of picking up a gun and venting himself violently is considered inappropriate, even by direct action groups such as ACT UP.

Given the virulent hatred voiced by many average citizens and public figures, it’s amazing that it took 12 years before such rage emerged on film. But like Vietnam, the immediacy and intensity of the crisis prevented us; indeed, we were all too busy fighting for ourselves or others to stay alive. My only problem with the depiction of this rage is that it doesn’t go far enough. If it were my film, a presidential assassination attempt would come closer to dramatically symbolizing my anger. Since the crisis began, U.S. presidents have refused to acknowledge the massive amount of blood and sweat that queers and people with AIDS have shed, largely without the support of existing health and social institutions, instead having to create support networks from scratch.

Anyway, there aren’t even any neat explosions such as sexist truck drivers getting their semis blown up as in Thelma & Louise. This lack of pyrotechnics is perhaps largely due to severe budget constraints. The movie was made with equipment and film stock donated by independent filmmaker Jon Jost, had only a skeleton crew and Araki wrote and directed the film, operated camera, and edited the footage. But beyond budgetary concerns, the distance between the violence and our viewing of it is probably Araki’s deliberate aesthetic choice.

The Living End is a cinematic fantasy of rage and sex. As a result, most of the real violence takes place off-screen: Luke smashes a skinhead over the head with a boombox after the guy makes an ugly AIDS joke; Luke allegedly shoots a cop – this occurs during a lapse in screen time so that we’re not even sure if it happened. We see Luke shoot the three bashers, but the editing prevents us from really seeing any bullets hitting or similar gore. Araki’s main concern seems to be creating characters that can be identified with and telling a love story, albeit a weird and tension-filled one

In telling that love story, Araki breaks another taboo – a queer director and self-proclaimed radical filmmaker casting a heterosexual actor in the role of the gay Luke. As Araki says in the production notes, the actor Mike Dytri “is as crooked as an arrow.” This decision has raised more than a few hackles among my friends, some of them independent filmmakers and actors, especially considering that the bashers and the skinhead bore outward signifiers that could be interpreted as queer. In fact, one of the bashers wears a T-shirt with the words Drugstore Cowboy on it, referring to the film directed by openly queer director Gus Van Sant.

While I don’t think any of Araki’s films are as good as Cowboy and he has years of maturation before he makes a film as artful as My Own Private Idaho, I appreciate the irreverence. In fact, Araki probably has more in common with Van Sant’s aesthetics than he wants to admit. Van Sant’s Idaho also has been criticized for depicting somewhat unseemly queer characters, not the kind that you’d use to reassure Middle America that we’re just like them. Both Van Sant’s and Araki’s aesthetic are anti-assimilationist and a little big dangerous for folks who want their fags and dykes squeaky clean.

In spite of his straightness, Dytri does a credible job as the horny dude who won’t tolerate intolerance and literally eradicates it. He’s especially charming when Luke first seduces the more than a little uptight Jon with several sexy licks on Jon’s face. He also displays a devastatingly wicked grin. The rapport – both sexual and social – between the two actors is never less than effortless and spontaneous despite some overwritten dialogue that comes toward the end of the film and despite some implausible anatomical positions during the sex scenes, which are uniformly unsafe — Luke apparently wants it that way.

During a shower scene in which Jon is about to enter Luke, the latter replies “so what?” to Jon’s reminding him of the lack of latex. In many metro areas with large queer populations, this disregard for safer sex practices could draw hisses and booes from some members of the audience. But, again, this is a fantasy and we need such fantasies even if it’s only to remind us of what we’ve given up and what we stand to gain by ending the AIDS crisis.

Araki breaks political and aesthetic taboos consistently, especially during the final scene when Luke puts a gun in his mouth and rapes Jon, threatening to go out of the world as he said he wanted to. During the screening that I attended, a few people walked out at the beginning of this final scene and I have to admit that I was more than a little agitated. Yet I feel my discomfort was an indication of how these characters and their situations had successfully – and at times contradictorily – engaged me and pulled me in.

The Living End succeeds by pulling up out of its queer audience (in the spirit of anti-assimilation, all you hets will have to create your own reasons for going to see this film — but you might learn something) things we’ve been taught to suppress: despair; the compulsion and nostalgia for unsafe and, therefore, liberated sex; murderous rage at homophobia. By the final shot, the film presents these darker aspects of living with AIDS as necessary components of survival, even if only at the level of denied but undeniably potent fantasies.

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