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An Early "Irresponsible" Movie About AIDS Radicalized Me

Greg Araki

Director Gregg Araki's The Living End gave me a blueprint for a revolution that never came to be.


I was a sophomore in college when The Living End came out in 1994. It was a film that radicalized me. I had already come to terms with—or at least believed at the time—that simply by being gay, I'd acquire HIV at some point. That was the message that I kept hearing in the media din. Director Gregg Araki's film gave me a blueprint to a different kind of radicalization—to become a queer, criminal even, AIDS activists in the face of oppression.

It didn't hurt that the two leads were super hot.

It’s difficult for me to recall how we did anything in the pre-smart phone era, let alone how you'd even hear about a weird little “Queer Film” in upstate New York. I anticipated and devoured the delivery of the The Village Voice to the grocery store where I worked part time as an assistant manager, and learned most of everything I would about what was cool. 

One day, months after the film had made its debut in New York and Los Angeles, the local artsy theater announced it was screening it for four days only.

I  couldn't wait.

The Living End had "the  impact of a good ACT UP slogan or a solid punk thrash" on me as Tony Rayns at Time Out articulated at the time. It was the dawn of a revolution, not just for self-described queers and AIDS activists, but for film and writing as well.

When I encountered the book version of the film at a Different Light bookstore on Santa Monica boulevard in West Hollywood the following year—I was doing my semester “abroad” at UCLA—I had to have it.

The forward to the book was by Dennis Cooper.

God, Araki is so fucking cool, I remember thinking.

“Having grown up in the Los Angeles subculture described by Gregg Araki’s films, maybe I can sort of help authenticate their weird emotional tone and narrative drift, not that the work needs authenticating. But with this “Queer Film” tag confusing the air around things queer, I wonder if Araki’s work is being seen distinctly. To my mind—and despite what many film critics seem to be saying—it’s not about his or anyone else’s identity—sexual or otherwise. If anything, it’s about  being smart, aesthetic, driven, lonely, and occasionally derailed by romantic notions of interpersonal love that you know are absurd even as you veer obsessively toward some fascinating stranger. That Araki’s Asian American and queer is beside the point, though it’s nice that both aspects are generating interest in his oeuvre at the moment, if that’s what it takes. But he’ll be making his shit long after “Queer Film,” “Modern Primitivism,” “New Age,” etc. are just jokey reference points in some future documentary about the hazy, crazy late twentieth century. “Queer” is a useful way to define yourself, sure, just as long as it gives you a thrill, or intimidates people in power, or provides you and your friends with power, but otherwise… who cares? Why let power mongers fence us into this narrow, predetermined identity just so they can praise us and/or our art in a qualified way, like, say in Araki’s case, he’s one of the more curious talents of his little genre, as if he worked at a travel bureau or something. Like… “Here’s a teensy-weensy grant for your troubles,” or “Here, have a positive if condescending review. And sorry about AIDS,” or whatever. Point is, are we so lazy or scared that we’ll not only let ourselves be bunched together behind the minority art banner, we’ll let this construction design our art-making practices, even if these compromises turn our work, no matter how radical, into minor tempests in a societal teapot? Fuck that. One of the great things about Gregg Araki’s films is how they fight this convention to its core. Aesthetically singular and concerned with issues of concern to a lot of folks at the moment, the films are nonetheless even sort of anti-trendy in some weird way. Still, I suspect they may up inspiring  a trend or two among even younger filmmakers, if they haven’t already.””

From Dennis Cooper’s forward to The Living End: An Irresponsible Book by Greg Araki that featured the scripts to his films The Living End and Totally F***ed Up.


Great stuff.

I would go on to  read such seminal AIDS novels of the time and  became obsessed with James Robert Baker's Tim and Pete. Tim and Pete were like a gay, HIV-positive Thelma and Louise, not unlike the protagonists of The Living End. Both stories are set in a dystopian Southern California in the 1990s.

The symmetry between the two works is remarkable.

That's not to suggest that either Araki or Baker cribbed each other. The odds are, given the times, they may not have been aware of each other's existence. Yet the confluence of two similarly themed pieces of art often speaks to the powerful, cultural undercurrent a subject has at the moment.

Both works were independently labeled irresponsible by critics and activists alike.

Ultimately, instead of war we got detente. Surprisingly the peace flags and overtures came  from the pharmaceutical giants themselves that activists had been adversarial towards and innovations like PEP and PrEP.  We found ourselves having to redirect the anger we've been reserving for war and channel it into productive things.

We see some of those developments happening today in the protests demanding the accountability of politicians who receive money from the NRA by the students in Parkland, or Gerard Way's comic book series Doom Patrol, or in an episode of  13 Reasons Why directed by Araki. 

Some times to do the right thing you have to be irresponsible, that, more than anything is the take away I got from Araki's films.

The fact that he's still shaking things up on 13 Reasons suggests Cooper got it right.





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