‘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
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
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
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