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Let's see: Bad lighting. Ugly cinematography. Barely audible sound. Profanity laced dialogue. Amateurish performances. Protagonists whose bad behavior is supposed to represent TRUTH. Cameos by Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov. Yep, we are in the world of indie filmmaking, where the mere fact that a semi-coherent film even gets completed on a budget of a buck-ninety-two is considered an artistic achievement. THE LIVING END is a cult film and considered something a landmark of gay cinema to boot. Two guys, who are HIV+ positive, act out violently to protest ... well, to protest just about anything and everything immediately available. The "angry young gay man" syndrome is in play: We're here, we're queer, we're going to be annoying. It was pretty radical stuff for the time; pre-Ellen, pre-Will-&-Grace, pre-Queer Eye. Now, in the era of legalized gay marriage, this seems rather quaintly naive: more Hope and Crosby than Butch and Sundance, let alone Thelma and Louise.
The problem is that, divorced from its historical context, THE LIVING END is just painfully mediocre at best and just plain bad much of the time. Even overlooking the fifth rate production values, you still have a contrived story, badly written, poorly directed and awkwardly acted. The tale involves Jon, who, on the day he learns he is HIV+, encounters Luke, a leather-jacketed stud on the run from freshly killing a trio of gay bashers. Jon is a nerd (he writes film reviews); Luke is a thug (he apparently has also killed a cop); and they head out on the road to who-knows-where. Luke claims he has fallen madly in love with Jon, while Jon seems gaga over Luke apparently because Luke looks hot in a leather jacket (and even hotter minus the jacket). Ultimately their road trip goes nowhere and little is done that couldn't have just as easily been done in Jon's cramped little apartment. Toss in a bothersome side story involving Jon's mother hen (read fag hag) best friend whose sex life goes south as she worries about Jon being AWOL, and the already threadbare narrative is revealed to be even flimsier.
But to give it credit, THE LIVING END was something different in its time. It deals with gay rage, AIDS and gives us anti-heroes who are hardly role models, but at least aren't negative stereotypes from the straight point of view. The film is subtitled "An Irresponsible Film by Gregg Araki," and several of the scenes are provocative. Certainly director Araki is not interested in political correctness, particularly in the way he attempts to link sex and violence as a common impulse. Indeed, the film's most powerful moment comes at the end as it ties rape and suicide into one graphic image. The final scenes are jolting, especially considering the banality of the rest of the film.
I want to be generous to this film because it is sincere and it is important within the subgenre of gay cinema. But it just isn't very good; there just isn't any nicer way to say it. THE LIVING END is a dead end.
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