Search
  • Babi PunkMag

‘90S PLASTIC BAG: THE OBLIGATORY CORONAVIRUS ESSAY

I recently watched a little relic of the ‘90s called The Living End. It’s one of Araki’s

earlier, more amateur features, completed right before the height of his fame as a front liner

for the underground New Queer Cinema movement. By all accepted standards, it isn’t a very

good movie. In fact, it’s a pretty terrible one: the acting, in places, falls below that of a porn

parody, and the set design is little more than a cheap pop art imitation. The plot is

ramshackle at best, consisting solely of a road trip taken by Luke and Jon, two strangers who

each discover that they are HIV positive long before any truly useful treatment for HIV or

AIDS has been implemented. Since they’re both understandably spiraling, the road trip is

wandering and occasionally violent, but also wonderfully intimate, though not enough to

color this film as a high-stakes emotional drama or landmark psychological study. And

though those idiosyncrasies are usually what make an Araki film the unique, standout work

it can be, even as an Araki it isn’t that great; it lacks the irreverence of his later scripts, the

quirks of his later characters, the “everything” of his later “everything,” if you will.

Luckily, I happen to have an embarrassing love for the phenomena of the

underground ‘90s film, tactless dialogue and teenage affectation and all, even when it isn’t

done very well. There’s a certain violent profundity to the genre that I find intensely

comforting, and yeah, as far as character traits go it certainly isn’t my best. It doesn’t even

make me very fun at parties (If anything, it has the opposite effect. It’s a difficult lesson to

learn, but not everybody wants to hear about the criminally bloody, low-grade VHS fever

dream I watched last night), but it does mean that I can look past a few egregious cinematic

crimes for the chance to find a genuinely unique experience in a film like this.

For this particular work, that unique experience truly began about 59 minutes in. Jon,

who is the more straight-laced of the two, has grown increasingly tired and impatient with

this unstable and directionless road trip, which is obviously nothing more than a futile


escape mechanism; he wants to go back to his old life. Luke, in standard homoerotic B-

movie fashion, pins him down on the ground and begins the following speech:


“So you and Toto can go back to Kansas and live happily ever after, right?...Right?

Right? You really wanna go back to your ‘I’m HIV-positive and everything’s normal,

hunky-dory’ life? Well, go fuckin’ right ahead. Just don’t forget to have sex in a plastic

bag, and don’t plan anything too far in the future-”

At that exact moment, that is when I thought, Damn, maybe our generation realy is fucked. Pun

intended.

And I thought of Luke and Jon, who are forced into a solitary state of living death

when they encounter a sickness that their government is both unwilling and ill-equipped to

deal with.

Sound familiar?

The other day I received some clothing I had bought online. In a plastic bag

containing my shirts and things was a single pack of socks, wrapped up in two separate

plastic bags of its own, and I stared at it for a full minute. Three plastic bags, all in place to

protect this little bit of precious fabric from infection.

It’s no secret that we, too, live in a time genuinely contaminated by other people

(who knew Sartre would turn out to be such a prophet?). It’s a unique time, solely in the

sense that never have other people been so dangerous to us in this particular, innate way at

this particular scale; at one point, the entire globe was poised for infection...! The last

century may have been populated with various existential threats, but never have they

looked quite so viral.

On an abstract level, however, the thing is, the menacing, sinking thing is that all of

these - HIV/AIDS, COVID, and yes, even the plastic bag - they all feel like symptoms of

the same trend, the same relentless push towards globalization. Globalization, which has for

so long tormented us with its own suite of problems (national codependence to ecological

destruction to cultural friction... How can one global process both promise world harmony

so ardently and prove it to be so impossible?). Without it, without the trade and travel and

endless telecommunication (you know I had to do it for the alliteration), there’d be no

looming threat coming from ‘Disease X,’ that ominous movie villain that scientists have

been warning us about for years now. All of this feeds on our need to connect with and

depend on other people: the cross-cultural commercialization, the endless marketability, the

beloved plastic bag telling you “THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING,” whether it was


manufactured halfway across the globe or right next door. It hardly feels like a surprise that

the Coronavirus got so far.

Point is, we’ve long categorized man as a ‘social animal,’ but Jesus, who knew you

could get this fucking social? Point is, maybe it’s less of a category, and more of a tragic flaw.


All in all, an incredibly fucking depressing conclusion to come to, don’t you think?

And if you’re quick on the uptake, too, you’ll have noticed that it’s a pretty messy argument

to make. One-sided. Overwrought. I mean, globalization isn’t all that bad, actually, and most

people who’re staunchly opposed to it are at least a little bit questionable, in my book. It

may have its own suite of challenges, but its got a whole myriad of benefits as well. The

World Health Organization, for one, and that, my friend, is very fittingly both an HIV and a

COVID reference.

So let it be known that earlier, when I quoted my good friend Luke, I cut him off,

which is a pretty rude thing to do. I apologize. The second half of his momentous speech

goes like this:

“Don’t you get it? We’re not like them. We don’t have as much time. So we gotta grab

life by the balls and go for it. You can piss it all away in that stupid job of yours, until

you wither all away and they feed you to the worms. I say, ‘Fuck that shit, man!’ You

keep banging your head against the wall, and what’re you gonna get? A fuckin’ bloody

head, that’s what.”

And then he kisses him.

It’s very sweet, and I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t feel something, even

though the action is just as cheesy and saccharine as I am cynical and markedly opposed to

the cheesy and saccharine. What can I say? That’s how the ‘90s movies get you: they lure

you in with sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, and then they hit you over the head with a pair of

bleeding hearts. Fuck.

Like all great underground media, Araki’s The Living End isn’t just about the struggle,

or death, or the crushing forces of modern development. It’s about how his characters

continue their lives underneath these forces.


Araki calls it his “most desperate” film, but don’t let that mislead you: it’s more a

romantic desperation than a nihilistic one (in all honesty, I believe that the latter can’t fully

exist without the former). A wholly nihilistic film would bang its head against the wall. This

one revels in the romance between its main characters instead, and that romance pervades

every shot, sequence, and scene. Soft lavender light pools at the edges of the daylight

frames, shapes careful close-ups of Luke and Jon as they grow together. The dialogue may be

awkward but that makes it intimate, as well, placed against the low hum of driving through

nighttime LA. There’s something overwhelmingly authentic about the way these two men

interact with each other, and the intimacy of it all cuts sharper than their depressing

circumstances ever could. At the heart of things, this is absolutely a love story.

That love is what survives - even as its carriers are doomed to die; what’s more, death

and love are actually connected, in a conceptual, tantric way. Later in the film, as the two are

once again driving at night through an eerily empty Los Angeles, Luke and Jon discuss the

connection between death and orgasm, with Luke arguing that the two are alike: “You know,

I’ve heard that death is a lot like cumming. The same chemicals and stuff get released in the

bloodstream.” (Jon’s eloquent reply is that “All [he’s] heard is that you shit your pants.”

Inspiring.) With continued morbidity, Luke tells him that he wants Jon to be the one to kill

him. Yeah, he’s “serious, guy.” Just think of it as giving him the “ultimate orgasm,” no big

deal. Kinda like an anniversary present, or something.

Jon is understandably unimpressed.

In a way, however, this was what they were doing all along. Instead of dying in a

white-walled hospital, ‘withering away’ until they’re ‘fed to the worms,’ instead of choosing

the plastic bag, they’re choosing each other. In turn, of course, they also choose their

deaths. It’s an echo of a longstanding trope in modern fiction, in which those doomed to die

under oppressive circumstances decide that hey, what the hell, if I’m stuck doing this whole

‘dying’ business, I might as well do it my way.

It’s also a trope that only truly exists in reaction to this kind of social death, caused by

mass oppressive circumstances, which can only truly occur in the context of society,

community. In that context, choosing your own death means finding your own individuality,

a natural counteracting response to the ills of mass society. It’s isolating, but it’s also

individual, and chosen, and, in its own way, free.


After all, when the ‘social’ aspect of being a social animal starts to kill you, maybe

you don’t feel like being so social after all. Quarantine is the most literal example of this you

could ever imagine, but perhaps other social phenomena of the past few decades can be

ascribed to the same impulse - the need to recover the individual from the social.

This is all important backstory for the very last scene of the film, as well as the

conclusion to this messy, overwrought, but hopefully not too one-sided essay.


In what I’m starting to suspect is classic Araki fashion, the closing minutes of the

film are a tour-de-force of morbid symbolism. Jon’s condition has deteriorated, as has Luke’s

mental health (which, in case I haven’t made it clear, wasn’t exactly in stellar shape to begin

with anyways). In short, they’re visibly closer to their deaths, and their relationship is

cracking underneath that strain.

Because of this, I’m not going to lie, it gets pretty ugly right around here. It’s rape,

suicide, and a dozen other words you’re not supposed to mention in polite society (or in

most impolite society, too. Kinda similar to this essay, actually, in that way). Luke brings an

unwilling Jon to an uncannily deserted beach, nothing but a flat strip of sand and some

distant waves (another classic trope, by the way: lovers by the sea). He’s taken his suicidal

ideal to heart, so he aims to bring himself to orgasm before pulling the trigger, mouthing the

barrel of his gun.

Orgasm and death, finally aligned. It’s a social death forced into individual, with no

one to be seen, seemingly for miles. This is where you remember that the circumstances of

this love story are abysmal, just as they always have been. By all expectations, this is where

the image should abruptly cut out, leaving only a blank screen in place of the gunshot. But

Araki doesn’t choose that road.

Instead, the camera lingers, doesn’t leave our two heroes, even as the gun fails to go

off. Even as it’s just Luke and Jon, caught in that same lavender light. Even after death, it’s

just the two of them, watching the distant skyline.

In case you’re wondering, yeah, I cried. Full-on tears. That really says a lot about my

emotional state, I know, but it’s also a very touching scene. Sure, there’s a brief moment

where Jon punches Luke in the face, because wouldn’t you do the same? ...But at the end of


the day he sits back down, and they lean against each other, and it’s all very true to form.

They’ve got nowhere else to go.

So, what does this mean, just so we can tie together all of the loose ends I’ve so

errantly began? I don’t mean to begin any anti-plastic bag propaganda, even though it would

probably be well-deserved. Maybe I’d like to begin some anti-artificiality propaganda,

perhaps, which can be projected onto the plastic bag somewhat...

But no. What I mean, and what I think Araki really means, is that in the face of

crushing circumstances, there is a choice to be made. In this age of global community and

all of its unavoidable sufferings, the choice The Living End showcases is a return to

individuality and intimacy. Because that intimacy is what survives even when nothing else is

left standing, literally: it’s just you and your unstable, leather jacket-wearing, suicidal

boyfriend sitting on some barren beach somewhere, and there’s nothing else. It happens to

the best of us.

At a fundamental level, however, one that works for our circumstance, maybe the

film just argues for choice, in and of itself. Most of us are not actively dying from the

Coronavirus, so perhaps it’s not time to drastically forgo the plastic bag entirely - wear your

masks, please - or trap people on any deserted beaches anytime soon. We’re still placed,

however, in a crushing circumstance. The question now looks like this: do you want a bloody

head, banging against the concrete walls of your unfortunate circumstance? Or do you want

to find out what’s framed inside that context, which love story?


BY A. DZH

50 views0 comments