Please note: This film is nearly 30 years old and I may be writing about major plot points with abandon, so if you are a movie purist, please watch The Living End and come back to this page after.
The Living End is about Jon, a writer and want to be filmmaker, and Luke, a nihilist drifter. The two men are thrown together and are compelled to stay with each other as they commiserate about their shared HIV positive status. Many odd circumstances propel them away from responsibility and toward something approaching freedom. The film stars Mike Dytri, Craig Gilmore, Mary Woronov, Johanna Went, Darcy Marta, and Scott Goetz. The film is written and directed (and edited and shot) by Gregg Araki. The film is streaming on Criterion Channel as well as anywhere you can rent or buy films digitally.
I was impressed by the nihilistic approach to the HIV positive diagnosis. It's not a trope used often because our empathy wants to pull us toward pity and tragedy, but Jon and Luke have no time for our pity. It's apparent that Jon's best friend Darcy was hoping for a little of that wallowing. We see her spiraling not because she has a fear that Jon will die by the side of the road, but that Jon will die without her there. Jon and Luke have no time for our optimism, hope, or sympathy. They've been given what amounts to a time bomb and nothing but the experience of the now matters. The title plays into this because they are experiencing that idiom of just the living end and these two are also experiencing their living end.
Luke's story is intriguing in this way. As a drifter, he's forgone all attachment to other people and objects. He steals, he kills, he brandishes his gun at anyone who annoys him. He's experiencing the horror of knowing his likely fate. Yet, Luke is driven by fear that he may have to die alone if he continues on this track. He attaches himself to Jon almost on a whim, but it's obvious soon that he needs someone in his life and it just so happens, this someone knows exactly what he's going through.
Jon's story is that his life was in a rut before this. He goes along with Luke's crazy scheme only feigning reluctance. As someone newly diagnosed, Jon is still in that stage where his best friend Darcy is being that painful optimist and treating Jon like he's already bedridden. Jon needed Luke to shake him free of doom and shake up his life. Jon's only acting the wet blanket because he knows that the destination is what distracts him, the plan is what keeps him from thinking about what's happening.
Though, it's not hard to imagine what's happening with Gregg Araki at this point. It's almost a subplot of the film that his contemporaries don't get it. In the scene after he's kicked out of a client's house, Luke stands around in a parking lot when he hears the approach of a few guys using homophobic slurs. When he turns around, the Stooges, as they're known, are brandishing aluminum baseball bats, but not only that, two of them are wearing T-shirts with movie titles on them. One of them wears sex, lies and videotape, the other, Drugstore Cowboy. These were films released in 1989 and were much bigger influencers than Araki's own The Long Weekend (O'Despair) also released that year. It's important to note that these filmmakers and these films were heralded as a new wave of independent cinema, but directors Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh far overshadowed Araki. The homophobic slurs are like the fans of those films telling Araki that he's not as worthy because his films are queer. Of course the irony here being that Van Sant is also gay, he just made a straight film.
Araki also has Jon writing a piece about the death of cinema. As Luke flips through Jon's notes and articles he's going to reference, the name Derek Jarman is bold and flashes clearly a number of times. Jarman was a pioneer in queer cinema of the '70s. It seems almost as if Araki is wanting to say, you did your part, now move over because things are different now. This is highlighted again as Luke and Jon discuss HIV over breakfast saying that the men who came before got to have all the fun of unprotected sex and the men now have to pay the tab. It's as if Araki doesn't want the comparisons to be so rampant, he wants to be his own filmmaker.
Gregg Araki is his own filmmaker. He's an auteur in the closest definition of the word having written, directed, shot, and edited The Living End. His style is close and intimate. All of the sex scenes are fascinating in that way. While Jon and Luke have sex we mostly see their faces and upper bodies at most. There's no form of detachment to their intimacy. There's not even the binary hierarchy to their relationship either. There aren't suggestions of tops and bottoms, just two people experiencing each other. Araki lives in this intimacy and keeps us close to our protagonists, it's loving in its own way.
My only harsh criticism comes from the unloving biphobia present in the film. Luke meets a guy while he's hitchhiking and the guy invites him back to his place. The two of them get a little kinky, but have a rude awakening when the man's wife comes home. Of course she kills him because he was supposed to be over his bisexual phase. This reinforces the stereotype that bisexual men are all unethically non-monogamous, gay boys who can't pick a side and will run back to their hetero closet the moment they've finished with a real gay boy. Having bared the brunt of biphobia before from both straight women and gay men, I'm disappointed to see it reinforced here. Especially, as The Living End depicts gay men physically fighting back against homophobes. Lesbians don't fare much better in the film having their one representative kiss blocked by the back of Luke's head and being man hating murders, but this sequence could also be interpreted as Araki shifting the male gaze and not giving straight men what they want in that attraction to two women kissing.
I really loved The Living End. It's nihilism is refreshing, it's very funny and excitingly weird. The end is stark and also tender, which is a hard balance to pull off. Gregg Araki is a filmmaker who challenges and pushes boundaries. It's a fascinating evolution to see where he started and where he's ended up. I highly recommend you watch this one and check out Araki's other work, especially the harrowing Mysterious Skin.