This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Adrianna Gober’s turn to do the damage. Here are Justin Harlan’s thoughts on The Living End.
Last month, I had the pleasure of choosing some films for other folks here on Cinepunx to watch. Several were chosen and consumed, and three made it up as part of our monthly REKT series. My selections were all films featuring one of my favorite actors of all time, the neurotic John Cusack. I really enjoyed reading the thoughts of the team on Serendipity, Grosse Point Blank, and Grandview USA (one I personally hadn’t watched in quite some time). However, this month I’m here to participate on the other end of things; I’m here to watch and add my thoughts about one of the selections from another team member. With that, I present to you The Living End.
When Adrianna offered up her selections, I simply told her to pick one for me. She’s been on my podcast and we’ve talked for a while now, so I figured she may have a good idea of the kinds of stuff I dig. To my delight, she chose a film I’d never seen from a director I greatly respect and admire, the great Gregg Araki.
My first experience with Araki was due to my teenage obsession with one Rose McGowan. Encino Man and Scream got me hooked on the young bombshell; my adolescent sex drive led me to seek out whatever other films of hers I could find at my local Blockbuster and Hollywood video stores. I found her not only beautiful and alluring, but also extremely interesting beyond her look. In that era, she seemed to almost exclusively choose interesting roles in weird and intriguing films and I was determined to see them all. My infatuation for Rose led me to The Doom Generation and, thus, to Gregg Araki.
The Doom Generation was a landmark film in my life. It was my first taste of anything resembling queer cinema, with elements I found shocking and eye-opening. I believe I saw it before even seeing Rocky Horror Picture Show. It also was the first time anything you could classify as fringe cinema (in virtually any regard) became a favorite film of mine. As the son of a pastor, I hid my copy of the VHS for fear that my parents may watch that film’s bizarre and shocking ending. We were never a hellfire and brimstone household., but I still didn’t know what they’d think about the overt sexuality throughout the film and… again… that ending. They never found it, though I ended up eventually hiding it so well that I couldn’t find it myself. Perhaps one of my parents tossed it, but alas, I digress.
Gregg Araki’s films have always left huge impressions on me. While The Doom Generation remains my favorite of the “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy,” I’ve since watched the other films in that loose trilogy of teenage angst, rebellion, and confused sexuality several times apiece. While I’ve not yet watch several other films of his that remain in one of my digital queues, I was slapped upside the head by Mysterious Skin several years ago and I love the episodes of 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale that he’s done. Everything that I’ve seen from his catalog has hit me as both well-made and challenging. This is something I appreciate greatly in any artist, especially a filmmaker.
This week, thanks to Adrianna, I caught another one of Araki’s films that I hadn’t yet seen. Not unlike every other film of his, this first viewing left me impressed, confused, and really excited to have experienced the film. The Living End is a 1992 comedy/drama film that is widely considered one of the early influential entries into the New Queer Cinema movement. As the film that immediately precedes the “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy,” the style of those films is heavily recognizable in this one.
The story is pretty straight-forward. The film centers on two guys: Luke (Mike Dytri), a drifter who exudes confidence and sexuality, and Jon (Craig Gilmore), a somewhat curmudgeonly film critic. The two men are both gay and HIV positive. After meeting in a rather unconventional way, the two fall for each other and, after Luke kills a homophobic cop, are forced to hit the road to evade the law. Many have compared it favorably to Thelma and Louise — which, to me, feels like a fair comparison in many ways, albeit I highly prefer this film.
The film is clearly a low budget production, but what it lacks in professional quality it makes up for in earnestness. It’s filled with darkly comic moments, an inversion of early ’90s Hollywood’s unwillingness to tackle uncomfortable topics dealing with sexuality and HIV, and a smattering of kink. Yet, the element that truly defines the film is its heart. At the core, there’s a devil may care love story driving every beat and every scene. The two leads employ an attitude that places their relationship at the center of their world and runs over — or at least flips off — anything in their way. As HIV positive gay men in the early ’90s, there seems very little reason for them to let anything get in the way of their journey, and thus, they employ this attitude as their ethos throughout.
When we meet Luke, we see him steal a car from two highly animated lesbians after a rousing conversation where they use every euphemism for penis they can possibly think of. Soon after, we are treated to him spanking a bisexual man with a tennis racket, calling out the set score after each paddle. It’s clear from the start that Luke is freewheeling and living a carefree life from the jump. However, Jon is much more uptight at first. His dourness is completely understandable, as the film basically opens with him finding out he’s HIV positive. However, it’s not long before we see him shed his shell and immerse himself more into a lifestyle similar to Luke’s. Of course, that whole murder thing surely gives him a shove into that new lifestyle.
Yes, it’s got some action. Yes, it’s a comedy. Yes, there is serious drama. Yes, it’s a strong example of queer cinema. However, it’s also clearly a Gen X film. It has that same defining tone that lends itself to both the more mainstream and the indie Gen X films of the early 90s. In other words, it’s a true amalgamation of many different genres and styles. Genre bending and willingness to break established trends in cinema has become a defining characteristic of New Queer Cinema. This film is certainly a big part of creating that tradition.
It’s also noted by many critics that Araki’s adoration for Jean-Luc Godard is highly evident in The Living End. At this point, I must admit that Godard is a huge gap in my film knowledge. However, as a sociologist at heart, knowing many of Godard’s ideas have deep roots in the writing of Karl Marx, I can attest that this film certainly has many Marxist tendencies and could definitely benefit from a Marxist reading of its themes and ideas. While I’m not an expert on film criticism, nor classic filmmakers, I’d assume based on my understanding of Marxism that Marxist filmmakers would tend to use parody and subversion towards a general goal of promoting class consciousness. Additionally, a focal point in a Marxist film — or a Marxist reading of a film, for that matter — would be the role of alienation and class struggle.
Besides the vaguely anarchist and decidedly punk rock ethos of “Fuck the World” that Luke and Jon adopt for their road trip and lives, the film certainly falls into these Marxist ideals, with alienation and class struggle right at the top of the list of the film’s themes. There is a good deal of parody and satire in the film — with the obvious goal of subverting the norms of society and sticking a middle finger in the face of the Hollywood machine. Perhaps this is what draws the comparisons to Godard, perhaps not; but, it surely makes for an intriguing look at life on the fringes of society. Who better to demonstrate class struggles than two gay men with HIV in an American society that was just coming out of the Reagan/Bush era?
Ultimately, it’s far from a perfect film. The acting is often amateurish and the script isn’t one of Araki’s best. However, the film is raw emotion on a crazed roadtrip to an inevitable doom. It teeters on the line of sanity before finally stepping over that line, then perhaps back again. It has no qualms in saying that love hurts and life sucks. It’s violent, powerful, and full of every emotion you can dream of. Most of all, it simply plays by its own rules.
Films like these and experiences like this are why we recommend films to our friends, why we write, and what fuels film nerds like me. I’m glad I was able to pick this one up and I’ll definitely visit and revisit it as time passes. Perhaps one day, I’ll explore it with a full Marxist reading of the film… a sociology nerd like me can dream, right? Finally, I’ll close this semi-coherent rambling by noting that I will pass along the recommendation that I received and recommend this one to anyone with a desire to be challenged. It’s only $7.99 on VUDU, so you don’t have much to lose.
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