Saturday, 14 November 2009

Live Fast, Die Young, and Leave a Beautiful Corpse.

Such is the mantra of one of the protagonists of The Living End, Gregg Araki's 1992 feature. Feted at Sundance as part of wave dubbed New Queer Cinema, it follows two gay men, one a hustler, the other a freelance journalist. Jon (journalist) runs into Luke (hustler) quite literally after an incident with homophobes in a parking lot, and Jon agrees to Luke staying the night after Luke tells him he is 'between places right now.'

Of course, this is 1992 in America, and the hot news when it comes to homosexuality is the AIDS crisis. Jon tested positive that afternoon (possibly explaining his irrational behaviour in letting this person into his house) and tells Luke just before they have sex, to which Luke responds 'Join the club.'

Arguments ensue over the next few days as their different attitudes towards life clash, but they are thrust back together when Luke ends up again in Jon's house after a run-in with the law. The two hightail it for San Francisco, and, for all intents and purposes, this is a standard fleeing-the-cops affair. Superficially at least.

Dig a little deeper and you see the truth, however. These two aren't running from the cops. Luke especially couldn't give a damn about the police - he'd probably shoot them as quickly and easily as he seems to shoot anything else. Jon hasn't even had time to come to grips with what, for him, would be seen as an effective death sentence in his diagnosis. What they are running from is AIDS. It's a response to the hysteria at that time surrounding the disease (though I'm sure calling it a disease is completely inaccurate - it's a syndrome, hence the name, but I'm going to run with the disease tag because it seems to flow better) at the time. They're terrified of it because the world is terrified of it. They're not dealing with it openly because the world isn't dealing with it openly. In the same way that the homosexual segment of society seems to currently want to deal with their 'difference' through the rampant use of drugs and sex, the two are figuring both 'what the hell, we're going to die, who gives a fuck' and 'what the hell, we're already on the fringe, who gives a fuck.' The film plays as an allegory for today's woes as well as yesterday's.

Moving on from yet ANOTHER queer themed rant, the film has a lot of resonance with a number of other filmmakers who were really making their names at around that time. The doses of abstract surrealism struck me as particularly Lynchian (coming off Blue Velvet a couple of years before, and running through Twin Peaks directly before this film), while the stylisation of many of the scenes reminded me strongly of the little I know of Hal Hartley, who was up with Simple Men at Cannes in 1992 and had hit up Sundance the year before with Trust. The idea of both of those seems often to be unsettle and distance the audience, allowing a perspective that can aid a suspension of disbelief to let the viewer deeper into the less believable elements of the narrative and characterisation, and Araki does use this to let you sympathise more with Luke and empathise more with Jon.

The Living End is a bold movie, wearing its heart and politics on its sleeve - the film is dedicated to 'the hundreds of thousands who've died and the hundreds of thousands who will die because of a big white house full of Republican fuckheads.' (The film was made through the reign of George Bush the First...) I'm oscillating between 3.5 and 4 stars, and I'm in a good mood today so let's go for 4 stars. For where it sits in the lexicon of profiled queer cinema, for it's courage, and for the fact that it's success allowed for Araki to continue making films, including the incredible Mysterious Skin, which we'll save for another day.

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