Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 3/14/06 w/ Additional Edits.
The 1992 Sundance Film Festival is often considered to be a great class where a bunch of new film directors emerged. Two directors that came out to become the most successful from that class were Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, both of whom released their respective debut features, Reservoir Dogs and El Mariachi. The winner of the Grand Prize that year was Alexandre Rockwell for his feature film In the Soup that also starred Reservoir Dogs co-star Steve Buscemi. Two other films got attention that were from female directors, first is Alison Anders' drama Gas, Food, & Lodging, and Poison Ivy by Katt Shea while Jim Jarmusch's longtime cinematographer Tom di Cillo also broke through with his debut feature Johnny Suede that starred Brad Pitt and Catherine Keener. Another film that got attention at Sundance was a nihilistic, gay road movie that was described as a gay version of Thelma & Louise called The Living End from director Gregg Araki.
Prior to The Living End, the Asian-American director had created two features at the time, 1987's Three Bewildered People in the Night and 1989's The Long Weekend (O’Despair) before channeling his rage and frustration over the way gays are treated, especially in the world of AIDS, Araki wrote, directed, shot, and edited The Living End. The film centers around a gay film critic who just discovered he's HIV-positive as he meets another HIV-positive gay drifter as the two go on the road after the drifter kills a cop. Sharing a vision of nihilism and the idea that they're dead anyways, they drift into nowhere on the road while embarking on a love/hate relationship. Starring Mike Dytri, Craig Gilmore, Darcy Marta, Mary Woronov, Johanna Went, Paul Bartel, and Scot Goetz. The Living End is a powerful, in-your-face road movie from the always talented and provocative Gregg Araki.
For a young film critic named Jon (Craig Gilmore), his often boring living in Los Angeles has just gotten worse. He just received test results that he's HIV-positive. His mood only increases his hatred for the world and the only person he can count on is his friend Darcy (Darcy Marta). While driving around L.A., Jon would often see a drifter walking by who is looking for places to stay or things to steal. The drifter's name is Luke (Mike Dytri) whose anarchistic view on life leads him to hate everything as he gets picked by a couple of lesbians named Fern (Johanna Went) and Daisy (Mary Woronov) where Daisy flirts with him only to hold him at gunpoint. Fortunately, Fern goes to the bathroom where she screams as Daisy leaves the car leaving Luke to steal it, briefly. Still in a state of shock and despair, Jon goes on a drive where he sees Luke again who has been running after killing a few guys with a gun.
Jon takes him in as the two immediately befriend each other as Luke is amazed by the things he has in his apartment as an attraction happens. The two have a share for their distaste of the world and how the previous generation get to do all crazy things while the generation they're living is paying for the sins of the old generation in the sexual revolution. Jon enjoys Luke's company until he sees his violent behavior after a gay-basher tells them that AIDS stands for something else as Luke beats him up. After a brief separation, Luke returns to his apartment telling Jon that he had killed someone who could be a cop. Jon realizing that he's an accessory to murder, the two decide to leave L.A. and go on the road.
Deciding that since they're both HIV-positive and don't have a lot of time to stay alive, the two fugitives go on the road with no clear destination as they just decided to forgo conventions and rules and go on an anarchistic road trip. For Darcy, Jon's departure bothers her since she's the only real friend he has while her boyfriend Peter (Scot Goetz) insists that he'll be back saying that he was really depressed for about two weeks when Echo & the Bunnymen broke up. After a stop in San Francisco, Luke tries to get a place to live from a guy he knew named Gus (Peter Grame) who has no idea who Luke is. Jon meanwhile, calls Darcy through a series of infrequent collect calls which leaves Darcy emotionally upset since she is fully aware of Jon’s declining health.
With the two moving on towards the American West, Luke's nihilistic beliefs only makes Jon feel disillusioned as he finally gets sick. Luke insists that they're going to continue on this road trip but his own behavior gets the best of him as Jon has simply had enough and declares that he wants to go home. For Luke, he must find a way to win Jon’s love, even if he has to go everything he’s fighting against.
While it's been nearly 20 years since the film's release, especially since the recent acclaim of Ang Lee's gay cowboy romantic drama, Brokeback Mountain. Gays are now accepted as fully develop characters but in The Living End, the main protagonists aren't as likeable as Jack and Ennis but they're not people to hate either. Sure, Jon is a bit whiny, moody, and often neurotic while Luke is more outgoing and violent yet they're both fully developed characters. The real difference is timing yet both couples have issues to deal with in being gay. For Luke and Jon, they're both HIV-positive and feel like they're going to die anyway as they go for one last ride yet their idealism about things clash against each other. Plus, the film has more political context in the way they talk about George Bush and Republicans' attitude towards gays at the time.
Still, Araki chose not to go into the politics yet use that time to reflect the often disillusioned behaviors of the characters. Yes, the early 1990s are filled with a sense of cynicism but the reasons behind them are very understandable. Due to the 1980s era when AIDS was starting to come out and gays being the targets, it seems that they are the ones responsible for what happened. That sparks the behavior of the protagonists as it would later lead to some tragic circumstances. Still, it's Araki's script and his observant yet nihilistic direction. While some have called this film a low-budget, gay version of Thelma & Louise, it really owes more to the style of Jean-Luc Godard plus some of the narrative style of Terrence Malick. Still, Araki's approach to storytelling is unique, even if he had to use a small budget for the film which gives the film a sense of reality.
That low-budget look though does give the film a grainy presentation with the camera yet Araki's camera work does shine in his locations and ideas about sex and dialogue. The dialogue is often filled with pop culture references and politics while the sex isn't as explicit as one might would think yet watching what they do would get the audience the idea of what's going on. Araki also brings in a nice style of editing to the film that is often reminiscent of his love for Jean-Luc Godard, especially in the jump-cut styles where it would briefly cut to black and then back to a road shot. Though the film's look in its camera may not be perfect, its story and stylish presentation makes up for those shortcomings.
Helping Araki with the film's look is props master Johanna Went who brings an arty look to the film’s edgy, L.A. art scene, especially for the character of Darcy whose boyfriend is a performance artist. Then there is the soundtrack that Araki has assembled that would be the catalyst for his entire career. For this film, Araki employed the likes of such industrial bands like Coil, Psychic TV, and KMFDM plus groups like Chem Lab, Braindead Sound Machine, Babyland, 16 Volt, Drance, Chris & Cosey, Fred, Cambodia, and Biohazard PCB. The music for the film helps conveys the film's angst and attitude that is used very well.
The film's cast doesn't bring much to offer yet the cameos from obscure German actor Peter Grame, Eating Raoul director Paul Bartel, performance artist Johanna Went, and Warhol protégée Mary Woronov are fun to watch since they all represent many of the quirky cameos in Araki's early films. Scot Goetz is good in a brief role as Darcy's performance artist boyfriend who is just sexually frustrated in Darcy's worrisome behavior over Jon. Darcy Marta gives the most realistic performance of the film as Jon's worrisome friend who seems to be the only character in the film that brings any sympathy throughout the entire film. Craig Gilmore is pretty good as Jon though at times, his despaired behavior and whining does make his character very unlikeable but at least Gilmore sells the performance in the third act when he's playing sick. Mike Dytri is also good as Luke with his charming, anarchistic performance with his good looks and cool demeanor though he doesn't bring some more depth into his anger despite giving a few reasons.
When The Living End came out to theaters in 1992, the film received some critical acclaim and was a hit among the art-house film circuit, notably between the gay film community. Since its release, The Living End is considered among one of the landmark films of the New Queer Cinema movement of the early 90s that also featured works from film directors like Todd Haynes. While Araki has enjoyed the clout, for the next several years from 1993-1997, he made a trilogy about teen angst with such films as 1993's Totally Fucked Up, 1995's The Doom Generation, and 1997's Nowhere that all features Araki's colorful style, angst-ridden attitude, and alternative soundtrack yet the films did received mixed reviews in the critical circle despite a fan base among angst-ridden teens. While none of those films did live up to the revered stature of The Living End, they remain cult favorites as Araki changed direction for 1999's romantic, love-triangle comedy Splendor before trying to launch a TV show for MTV in 2000 that failed. In 2005, Araki received the biggest success of his career with 2004's Mysterious Skin that won him rave reviews and modest box office success.
While The Living End isn't as accessible as Splendor or as revered as Mysterious Skin, the film does serve as a nice introduction to the work of Gregg Araki. Those interested in the New Queer Cinema movement will indeed find this film essential. While the film is available on DVD, someday the film will get a great DVD release with special features and insight from Araki. While the film's low-budget look and feel and the often-amateurish performances won't be for everyone, the film does hold itself thanks to its attitude and idea of gay life. Still, anyone looking for a road movie with a lot of attitude and cool music on the gay side, The Living End is likely to fulfill those expectations.
Gregg Araki Films: (Three Bewildered People in the Night) - (The Long Weekend (0' Despair)) - (Totally Fucked Up) - The Doom Generation - Nowhere - (Splendor) - (This Is How the World Ends) - Mysterious Skin - Smiley Face - Kaboom
(C) thevoid99 2011