Living End (1992): Araki’s Strongest Queer Film?

The Living End, a queer feature, self-described as “my most desperate movie,” put Greg Araki on the movie map in the early 1990s.

By turns quirky, depressing and invigorating, this road movie about two HIV-positive runaways is Araki’s most bleakly romantic film, a tale of impossible love in the face of death.

Its hero, Jon (Craig Gilmore) is a cynical film critic with a West Hollywood haircut and Snoopy slippers–“just a bummed-out, HIV-infected homo minding my own business,” he says. Jon complains to his friend Darcy (Darcy Marta) about disruptions in writing an essay on the death of cinema; Andre Bazin’s “What Is Cinema,” hits the trash can in the first scene.

Things change when Luke (Mike Dytri), a hunky psychotic killer, explodes into Jon’s life. A loose cannon with an appetite for instant pleasure, the muscled Luke seduces Jon in a matter of seconds and then lands both of them in enough trouble to set up a fugitive road movie. With nothing to lose, they hit the road in search of what might be their last chance at fun. Running away from both AIDS and the police, they live on fries and Jack Daniels.

Armed with uncle’s Gold Card and a gun stolen from dykes, Luke carries off a sulky but excited Jon on a clueless journey to nowhere–nowhere being an all too-real L.A. of supermarkets, gas stations and fast-food joints. “We got nothing to lose,” Luke says, “We’re totally free.” Freedom in this case means knocking off club-wielding gay bashers and a cop, shooting up a recalcitrant auto teller, and periodically threatening Jon with a gun in the mouth.

In the closing scenes, Jon develops a fever and a slight cough, the first AIDS symptoms, indicating the terror of what’s still to come. “It’s living inside me,” Luke says, as he slits his wrist, “But I can’t see it. This just looks like regular old boring blood to me.”

Though Araki is not HIV-positive, The Living End was a kind of “cathartic experience,” reflecting “a certain attitude among gay people. Bashing homophobes or blowing off a policeman’s heads in the film was a kind of wish fulfillment. For Araki, the major ‘benefit’ of AIDS has been this “real sense of urgency.” The Living End opens with a “Choose Death” bumper sticker and a man spray-painting “Fuck the World” on the wall.

“Being gay in the 1990s is not just a matter of what you do when you have sex,” Araki said. “It has to do with your outlook, your place in society; homophobia is so prevalent, it becomes ingrained in your personality on all levels. It really informs my films. Not just the presence of gay characters and gay themes.” At the same time, Araki allowed that “my outlook is not exactly embraced by the gay community. I am in no way a spokesman for gay people in the 1990s.”

Araki would rather have his audience enraged than sympathetic or understanding. The Living End is dedicated to “the hundreds of thousands who’ve died and the hundreds of thousands more who will die because of a big white house full of Republican fuckheads.” Unlike Longtime Companion, there’s no inspiration, no grace under pressure, no Fire Island gays lamenting their dying lovers, no sudden conversions to activism.

There are only two HIV positives, losing it in waves of paranoia and panicky euphoria in wasteland America. As Ella Taylor wrote: “Dignity is low priority in a film that panders to nobody, makes no excuses for its sexuality, refuses to turn its characters into noble martyrs, and takes flying pot shots at the myth of straight normality whenever the opportunity presents itself.”

It took three months to shoot The Living End, a $20,000 project and Araki’s most expensive film to date. Describing the experience of working with a big budget, he said: “Before, we were just winging it with three people. When you have fifty, you can’t just go into a coffeeshop and start filming. I just don’t like to deal with all those people, you have to feed them all the time. That’s the biggest problem: keeping them fed.”

End Note

Considered by many to be Araki’s strongest film, “The Living End” got a lot of attention upon release, grossing $692,584 at the box-office.