Friday, May 15, 2009

The Living End (1992)

The Living End is a brutal film. Conventional audiences will find it nearly unwatchable because of its paper-thin plot, agonizingly static characters, and ludicrous dialogue, not to mention its penchant for eroticized violence and painful gay sex. But The Living End wasn't made for conventional audiences; director Gregg Araki seems more focused on using his film to broadcast a deafening "fuck you" to puritanical America, the Hollywood establishment, and anyone else who can hear his scream of rage.

Much of the film's anger derives from the AIDS activist culture that was boiling over when The Living End first emerged in 1992. The story follows Jon, an unassuming movie critic struggling to find meaning after being diagnosed with HIV. A chance meeting introduces him to Luke, a hard-drinking, HIV-positive pretty boy who finds himself on the run after murdering a cadre of gay bashers. The two escape on a road trip, deciding that the death sentence imposed by their HIV status gives them ample justification to do anything and everything they want. An orgy of sex, violence, and really awesome industrial music ensues.

The film ultimately serves to create a dark fantasy escape from the cruel apathy that greeted the AIDS epidemic. Jon personifies the effete HIV-positive gay man who finds himself marginalized and wished out of existence by the world around him. He fulfills his desires through Luke, a beautiful stranger who ignores all the rules, murders the homophobes who attack him, and provides an easy escape from an imperfect world. Together, the two transgress the barriers of the society that has rejected them and craft new lives for themselves beyond the boundaries of their mundane world.

The Living End continues on its rage bender for as long as it can manage, but like all joy rides, it must eventually come crashing back to reality. The characters burn out and rail against each other and their environment, but the film seems eager to cast aside these tender moments and delve back into chaos. Even with these flashes of lucidity, the film remains raw, deviant, and often without any overriding sense of direction or clarity.

But is it worth it? Maybe, but it sure leaves one hell of a hangover.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

Was I the only one whose college experience wasn't some sort of drug-fueled orgy? Where were the amazingly good-looking angsty Bohemian dreamers while I was sitting in my dorm room, waiting for my own End of the Universe? It probably has something to do with the upper-crusty conservative college I went to. Or maybe it was just the wrong decade.

Bret Easton Ellis published The Rules of Attraction in 1987, shortly after graduating from a small New England liberal arts college much like the one that he describes in his novel. The fictional school, Camden, is populated by apathetic proto-hipsters who spend their time snidely criticizing each other, aimlessly changing their majors, half-heartedly dabbling in the arts, and fucking like rabbits.

The film version of The Rules of Attraction repositions itself in the 2000's and updates various aspects of the book accordingly. It also takes several liberties with the characters and their stories, though in a way that remains faithful to the emotional tenor of Ellis's writing, even if several items have been sanitized for the screen (most of the gay content has been excised and one of the characters is a proud virgin, whereas everyone in the book is a total sexaholic). Perhaps somewhat cynically, the film was marketed as a college comedy, and while it possesses the requisite scenes of dorm parties and casual hook-ups, its humor is much darker than typical frat fare, as it ultimately presents a dark fantasy of sexually vampiric deviants who always ruin themselves by falling in love with the wrong people.

I don't think I ever thought I would find myself saying this, but James Van Der Beek is kind of amazing in this film. He plays Sean, the nihilistic drug-dealing partyboy who fails his classes for fun, screws anything that moves, and never quite understands how he makes himself miserable. Like all the film's characters, he hopelessly chases after the one person he can never have- in his case, it's the crafty, Bohemian Lauren, who still holds out hope for a lost boyfriend. Sean meanwhile finds himself pursued by Paul, who cooly mocks his classmates' behavior while struggling to conceal his own insecurities. It's pathetic and tragic enough to be hilarious, especially because it so successfully transforms the most superficial elements of the college film into something so different and refreshing.

The Rules of Attraction earns extra points for being one of the first major features to be cut on Final Cut Pro. The film has a certain simplicity and crispness representative of the best of digital editing systems, and it also bravely includes an entire four minute episode shot entirely on consumer DV camera. This section, which follows Kip Pardue's character as he travels around Europe in a drug-and-sex-induced stupor, is perhaps the strongest and most honest chapter in the entire film, and it demonstrates the great promise of multi-format editing that has become available to filmmakers working in the digital world.

Also, amazingly, the commentary track is by Carrot Top, who had absolutely nothing to do with the movie. He is also apparently watching it for the first time while delivering his comments. This is brilliant, hilarious, and morbid all at once. Just like the film itself.