The Living End

Strand Releasing,

Gregg Araki

Craig Gilmore,
Mike Dytri,
Darcy Marta, Scot Goetz, Mark Finch, Mary Woronov, Johanna Went

Unrated, 86 minutes

Radical Politics, Guerrilla Filmmaking
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online May, 2008
A shorter version appeared in abOUT, June, 2008

The early 90s was an exciting time for queer cinema. The gay community was angry - 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush (The First) in the White House can do that to you - and this rage was spilling onto the screen. I am referring, of course, to independent films and not to mainstream Hollywood. ACT-UP activists were making feature films and their work was being screened at Sundance! The floodgates were opened and the New Queer Cinema was born.

A couple of years ago, I reviewed out director Gregg Araki's Totally F***ed Up (1993) in Outcome and commented, flippantly, on my "love-hate relationship" with the man's films that dated back to 1992. That was when I discovered The Living End, a demented road trip with two HIV positive men who flip society the bird. This one took me back to my college film classes where we hotly debated the camerawork and the politics of Jean Luc Godard's Weekend. The Living End recalled the agitprop of Godard's films; it was like a torch passed from 60s Marxist cinema.

Coming after too many years of watching gay men and women as victims on the silver screen, The Living End was both a bolt of lightning and a breath of fresh air. Though sometimes amateurish, and at times featuring less-than thespian acting, it was nevertheless hip and gleeful in its anarchy. Warts and all, Araki's self-proclaimed "irresponsible movie" was the film that Jonathan Demme's compromised Philadelphia should have been. The Living End has just been totally restored for its debut on DVD, and what an antidote it is to some of the drek I have watched this past year.

The film's opening shot says it all: a hot young drifter named Luke (Mike Dytri) is spray-painting the slogan "Fuck the World" onto a graffiti-covered wall. His opening scenes criss-cross with Jon (Craig Gilmore), a freelance film journalist who has just learned that he is HIV positive. Pretending to be fine, he tells his artist friend Darcy (Darcy Marta) that he'll just have to "lay off the Joy Division records for awhile." Jon is a quiet, and moody, milquetoast while Luke is sometimes a borderline psycho. Later that night, Luke shoots - and presumably kills - three gay bashers in self defense and, while fleeing the scene, runs in front of Jon's car.
Jon isn't normally the type to pick up a man running with a gun but, still in shock over his recent diagnosis, he isn't thinking clearly. "How do I know that you're not some homicidal maniac who's going to bludgeon me to death and rip off my CD collection?" Jon asks Luke when he takes him home. The two men are clearly opposites but the laws of attraction triumph. Jon is both terrified and turned on by the outlaw in his bedroom and, when he meekly discloses his HIV status, he is stunned to hear Luke "welcome [him] to the club."
Luke is Jon's id. When he calls AIDS "the Neo-Nazi Republican final solution," Jon can't help but fall under the charismatic drifter's spell. Jon is writing an article on "The Death of Cinema," his walls are adorned with Godard and Warhol posters and it is easy to surmise that his writings are both counter-culture and political. In perhaps the film's most radical scene, nicely captured in one long take, Luke tells Jon over breakfast that, because they have AIDS, they have nothing to lose; they're totally free and can do anything they want.
In the grand tradition of classic films like Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise and Badlands, not to mention Godard's own Pierrot Le Fou, this soon becomes a lovers-on- the-run flick after Luke kills a cop. Jon, who would adore the four films mentioned above, is at first exhilarated by the excitement of running away with Luke but, before long, the adrenaline rush wears off. The shocking final scene is a powerhouse that viewers will never forget. (I refuse to spoil it for first timers but it has haunted me for over a decade.)
Araki's off-kilter images are edgy and evocative. This is guerrilla film-making at its best. With this also comes a degree of sloppiness (and it is sloppy in spots) but I'd never seen anything like this before in '92, making the experience all the more visceral. Queers were fighting back and you could feel the rage. It might not be as shocking now as it was then, but it still has the power to provoke.
The public perception of AIDS was still pretty much in its infancy when Araki conceived The Living End. AZT was available but Protease Inhibitors were still a few years down the road. Death hangs over the movie, and is a constant topic of conversation. Luke wants Jon to kill him at the first sign that he is getting sick, insisting that he wants to die with a smile on his face during sex. They roam through a wasteland of empty parking lots, billboards and neon signs to a pounding industrial hard rock soundtrack; no bouncy showtunes here. The music they often reference is by gloom-rockers Joy Division, Nine Inch Nails and The Smiths. But it is not all dark; there is also comedy, along with a subversive sense of the absurd. Most of the love scenes between Jon and Luke are as tender as they are steamy (and they were the most explicit male love scenes I'd ever seen at that point) and their love story is often quite touching.
The Living End premiered in 1992 at Sundance, along with Tom Kalin's Swoon, Derek Jarman's Edward II and Christopher Munch's The Hours and Times, garnering unprecedented media attention. But it didn't please everyone on its first release, even within the gay community. One of the biggest complaints was that it was anti-women or, more specifically, anti-lesbian. In most cases this argument really doesn't hold water because the two male leads are just as screwed up as Jon's neurotic friend Darcy, or the wife who comes home and stabs her husband after finding him in bed with Luke.
But what about the two lesbian serial killers who give Luke a ride early in the film? I don't know what was going through Araki's mind when he wrote this moronic scene but it's a no-brainer why lesbians would find offense. I hate this scene myself. At least he abandoned his original concept, included in the published script, where Luke is tied up in the woods while the two women whip him with foam-rubber dildos and sing "men are eeeeeeevil" as they prepare to castrate him. We can breathe a sigh of relief that he learned to write much better lesbians in his next film, Totally F***ed Up.
Offensive? Yes, but mostly in the same irreverent way that South Park would later be. Araki wants to push buttons and he succeeds. A lot of it is "politically incorrect" but you have to admire the director's guts. Ponder the scene where Luke wants to drive to Washington to infect George H.W. Bush with their blood and bets that there will be a "magic cure for AIDS by the morning". Back in 1990, when Araki wrote and then shot the film, I'm sure thoughts like these were on the minds of every angry queer on the planet. You also want to cheer when Luke beats a homophobe with a boom box. Love it or hate it, the film still strikes a raw nerve.

The restored DVD of The Living End is amazing. This is not a director's cut ala George Lucas. Enhanced might be a good phrase. The film has been digitally cleaned up and color timed, and its soundtrack re-mixed into 5:1 Dolby stereo, but it is still the same film that we saw in '92. The extras include a director's commentary and a Q&A from Sundance. This one is a must for any student of queer cinema. Okay, it's not Citizen Kane by any means, but it is one of our milestones and it still remains one of my favorite queer films.


More On Gregg Araki
Totally F***ed Up
Mysterious Skin

Craig Gilmore also appears in:
Totally F***ed Up