FILM / HIV positive role models

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The Independent Culture
A YEAR or so ago, gay and lesbian groups were protesting in an eloquent and effective way about the portrayal of sexual minorities in Hollywood films. The complaint was that lurid representations such as the psychotic bisexual murderesses of Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct reached the screen despite protests, while neutral or friendly ones were obligingly removed if they made preview audiences uncomfortable - as happened with LA Story, where (in the original cut) Steve Martin's neighbours were unambiguously and unfussily lesbian.

You might expect, then, that a new wave of self-conscious and politically aware gay independent film-makers would be either naively propagandistic or, with any luck, committed to showing a convincing diversity in subcultural life. Not so, or not yet. Tom Kalin's Swoon, released a few months back, returned to the Leopold-Loeb murders which had been dramatised obliquely in Compulsion and Rope, only this time insisting on the sexual orientation of the rich kids who killed for kicks. Now Gregg Araki has made The Living End, in which an HIV-positive young man kills a number of people, with a gun stolen, would you believe, from a pair of psychotic lesbian killers - ice-picks apparently a speciality.

So what was all the fuss about, if the issue was not after all the morality of character assassination, as applied to a numerically significant minority, but simply who was allowed to get away with it? An ice-pick doesn't tickle, just because it's wielded by a friend. Perhaps meaning to be cute Araki even describes The Living End in its subtitle as 'an irresponsible film', but really it shouldn't be difficult to grasp the idea that what's poison for the goose is poison for the gander.

Film-makers like Araki, Kalin, and - since you need three practitioners to define an artistic school - Todd Haynes (who made Poison) scorn the conciliatory politics of an earlier generation and are comfortable with the word 'queer' rather than 'gay'. The idea seems to be that if you're going to be treated as an outcast anyway you might as well revel in it, and not waste any time being unduly nice. 'Queer' activism is sometimes effective, particularly when its goals are clearly defined, but translating it into art is another matter. It's one thing to issue a call to the barricades, another to try to set up home there.

More than anything, it has been the catastrophe of Aids, and the urgency of the despair it has brought with it, that has sparked 'queer' politics, and put patience out of fashion. Without Aids, there would be something very suspect about a movement so eager for confrontation. By definition confrontation does not work for minorities, since if it comes down to polarising the world and insisting on a Them and Us, well, there are more of Them than Us. Which is why the word 'minority' came to be used in the first place. 'Queer' activism runs the risk of becoming the equivalent in politics of a butch pose, a tough look that works only in artificial surroundings.

In The Living End, Luke (Mike Dytri), an HIV-positive drifter who feels that having nothing to lose makes him free and even powerful, goes on the run with Jon (Craig Gilmore), a writer and film reviewer whose own diagnosis as positive is so recent that he is essentially still in shock. Their troubled idyll is punctuated with episodes of cartoonish violence intended to show us the essential hollowness of the modern world, multiple variations on a theme of Life Is Cheap. It isn't the dodginess of the acting, nor the limitations of Araki's next-to-no budget, that make The Living End seem so inauthentic. It's the feeling that its nihilism is actually put on, as ersatz as the slogan on a middle-clas punk T-shirt. Araki hasn't begun to grapple with the difficulties of representing Aids, a public disaster that takes place largely in private and resists dramatic shaping in its patient retraction of health, its whittling away of vitality. The anger of The Living End is actually closer to a form of denial, full of gestures as tempting and futile as shaking a fist at a thundercloud.

Both of Araki's principal actors have male-model looks, which doesn't help. Dytri, with his muscly torso and his eternally unlit cigarette, actually looks as if he has escaped from a Gap advertisement on the side of a bus. Gilmore has a softer look, but a tummy of a prettiness complementary to Dytri's, hairy as against smooth, and even when he is remembering to cough near the end of the film, HIV is as kind to him as tuberculosis traditionally is to operatic heroines.

Gilmore's character has posters of Godard movies hanging in his apartment, but though it's Made in USA up on the wall, it is the throwaway violence of Weekend that has permeated the film. Araki seems not to have noticed that these demonstrations that nothing has any value sit oddly with the idea that to have your sufferings ignored by your government is a grotesque betrayal.

Kalin's Swoon was a different matter, a genuinely cold and accomplished piece of work that set out to ravish visually and unsettle morally without inviting its audience any distance into the world of the film. But inside The Living End's determinedly queer exterior is a shy gay film trying to get out. Araki's movie may curl its lip and look as if it were about to spit in your eye, but there is a latent sweetness, even a huggability about it. It's just another mixed-up kid, wanting its bluff to be called.

Queer cinema has a long way to go before it can rival the achievements of its gay predecessors, even in the area that gave queer politics their impetus, with the subject of Aids. Arthur Bressan's Buddies (1985) told of the sentimental and political education of a carer by the sick man to whom he is assigned. Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances (1986), his only feature, tried valiantly to relegate Aids to the subplot of a bright yuppie comedy. Both of these film-makers are now dead, killed by the epidemic they strove to represent without distortion or embitterment.

Gregg Araki is himself antibody negative, which is good news, but also brings responsibilities. In his next film he will, with any luck, stop pretending that he wants to defy the whole world. He's got more time than some people. The Aids crisis is a poor moment to pick quarrels, even insincere ones.