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.
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 alongside 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 issues such as AIDS, gun violence and unprotected sex with a fervor to rival Peckinpah’s finale to The Wild Bunch (1969).
Araki (also the film’s screenwriter) had had enough of the portrayal of homosexuals as either victims or as misunderstood and part of a 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 than one would see in a film by Quentin Tarantino or Tony Scott. It is at once homage to Godard’s similar practice in Pierrot Le Fou (1966) as it is a continuation of this Pop aesthetic. In Araki’s framing characters are cropped by the frame, 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 films catchphrase, said quite often in the film, is “fuck everything”.
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 uninhibited 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”.
The Living End hasn’t lost its ability to shock and provoke and in the political climate of the 2020s Araki’s film takes on a greater urgency. This is a film that still connects and, quite frankly, needs to. Unlike so many Queer films of the nineties The Living End hasn’t lost its edge and is still essential viewing.