In 1991, Todd Haynes resurrected the romantic notion of the homosexual as an outlaw with his film Poison. Poison, loosely based on three different novels by Jean Genet, launched the New Queer Cinema of the early nineties at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. Those familiar with the literary work of Jean Genet are familiar with his treatment of homosexuality. Genet celebrated the outsider status his sexuality afforded him, and in his novels rooted his homosexual protagonists on the fringes of society, equating homosexuality with anarchistic behavior and criminality. This approach had been neglected by the popular cinema (with the exception of Genet’s single effort as a filmmaker The Song Of Love) until it got its mainstream treatment from Haynes.
Without Poison, The Living End would never have been made. In 1992, again at the Sundance Film Festival, Gregg Araki premiered his film The Living End along side an equally violent film, Reservoir Dogs. In contrast to the subtle homophobia of Reservoir Dogs, The Living End was a tour de force celebration of Genet’s aesthetic. Araki’s film unabashedly handled such controversial issues as AIDS and unprotected sex with the fervor of violence to rival Peckinpah’s finale to The Wild Bunch.
Araki (also the film’s screenwriter) had had enough of the portrayal of homosexuals as either victims or a miss understood and sympathetic minority. The celebrations of homosexual love that was the hallmark of Derek Jarman’s cinema in the eighties had grown stale, albeit too optimistic for the gay America of the first Bush administration. The Living End subverts both the cinema and taboo in a narrative that is otherwise just another “criminal lovers on the run” genre film.
Araki employs a more avant-garde sensibility when composing his shots. It is at once homage to Godard’s similar practice in Pierrot Le Fou as it is a continuation of the aesthetic (an aesthetic derived from Eisenstein’s 1937 film Bezhin Meadow). In Araki’s framing characters are cropped by the frame, preventing the audience from making standard associations with cinematic language. The environment is thus distorted, and the visual information given to the audience is ambiguous at best. In this, Araki’s cinematography is as violent and confrontational as the behavior of the film’s protagonists.
The protagonists themselves are hostile to the heterosexual world. At one point, they discuss transmitting the AIDS virus from themselves to President Bush. The films catchphrase, said quite often in the film, is “fuck everything”. What can be determined by these attitudes, politically speaking, is that homosexuals are not merely the victims of ignorance and HIV, but spirited and aggressive human beings.
The protagonists, Luke (Mike Dytri) and Jon (Craig Gilmore) both have AIDS and have decided, even though they have just met, to join forces and live life in the fast lane during what time they have left. The “fast lane” entails robbing convenience stores, unsafe sex, gunplay, and sado-masochistic sex games. Araki presents all of this as “unbridled homosexuality”, a gay yet macho celebration of life between two partners. The film has no pretenses about being politically correct or sensitive. The poster carries the tagline “an irresponsible film by Gregg Araki.
A film like The Living End could only have been produced in the early nineties. The social and political climates were right. Today, twenty years later, it is doubtful Araki could have gotten financing.