New Queer Routes in "The Living End" by Gregg Araki. AIDS Representation and the Road Movie reinvented and revolutionized

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2019

27 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. New Queer Cinema – Movies made of Queer Collective Resilience
2.1. The 1990s, AIDS Crisis, and the Emerge of New Queer Cinema
2.2. Genre Specific Features

3. The US American Road Movie Genre
3.1 Features and Narratives
3.2 Postmodernism & New Routes

4. The Living End (1992) – A New Queer AIDS Road Movie
4.1 Representation of AIDS and HIV positive characters
4.2 Queering the Road Movie Genre

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Being diagnosed HIV positive – the ultimate and inevitable death sentence or the final decision to do whatever the fuck one wants?

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a wave of fear, desperation and illness rushed over the US American society. The AIDS epidemic gained a foothold among the broad public in the 80s, causing the majority of society to fume and quash the queer community which they held responsible for the spread of the virus. Being under great pressure by this anti-queer attitude on the one side and the dying of masses of infected individuals and the government's ignorance of the AIDS crisis on the other, the community faced a harsh period of struggle, eventually resulting in the uproar of protest and resilience, also in the cinematic sphere.

The New Queer Cinema movement is one outcome of this spirit of resilience whose filmmakers picked parts of movie and narrative conventions and made them queer, inventing new cinematic practices, all in order to fight back and empower the queer community in the times of struggle and crisis. One of the prime example films of that movement is Gregg Araki's The Living End (1992) which marks the fusion and intersection of the much needed overthrew of AIDS representation in media, – offering a queer point of view of life with the epidemic – and the classical road movie genre that the topic of AIDS queers in a typical New Queer Cinema manner. In fact, I claim that AIDS representation in The Living End transforms it into a new sub-genre, the new queer AIDS road film which follows traditions and abstractions of the classical road movie and mainstream AIDS representation of and prior to the 90s.

To underline my argumentation, I elaborate on the emerge and characteristics of the New Queer Cinema, particularly in the context of the AIDS crisis, as well as on the features of the classical road movie. I mainly focus on Timothy Corrigan & Ruby Rich's features which they pointed out for each genre, but include many other sources of my findings. After setting the theoretical background for my analysis, I have a look at AIDS representation and road movie features in the movie and point out in which way The Living End queers them, or rather what makes the movie a new queer AIDS road film. The collective pain and resistance of the queer community during the AIDS crisis is fundamental to this queering of the genre(s).

However, since it would extent the scope of this paper, I do not aim to elaborate on the history of cars in movies, nor do I aim to say that my interpretation of the movie will be adaptable to every queer US American road film.

2. New Queer Cinema – Movies made of Queer Collective Resilience

2.1. The 1990s, AIDS Crisis, and the Emerge of New Queer Cinema

During the Reagan Era, a dominant mindset of anti-gay and lesbian attitudes was widespread among the US. Not least because the increasing sprawl of the AIDS epidemic over the states was a central reason for practiced hate speech provided by the media and the general public that marked queer individuals, particularly bisexual men, as the source of the disease to spread also among individuals of the heterosexual US American society. Every deviation from heterosexual and heterosexist normativity was characterized as incorrect and threatening. Hence, this hostility as well as the increasing number of violence against the queer community, and needless to say, the effects of the AIDS crisis, lead to both desperation and to a much stronger queer community that felt the urge to fight back, whether on the streets or in the arts.

Additionally, the term “queer” gained newly transformed importance and meaning. The queer community of the 1980s and 90s as a group of individuals being victims of discrimination by that term, as Michelle Aaron points out in her Introduction to New Queer Cinema in 2004, transformed its originally degrading meaning to an empowering umbrella term of the LGBT+ community (5). The queer community of the 80s and 90s neglected normative codes of gender and sexual expression as well as the restrictive potential and binary preposition of exclusively gay and lesbian sexuality that only men sleep with men and women sleep with women (Aaron 5). This renewal of being 'queer' as a critical concept challenged existing identity politics, suggesting a fluidity of identity and a non-fixivity of gender expression and sexual identity (Aaron 5). Aaron continues to state “Queer is not just about gender and sexuality, but the restrictiveness of the rules governing the, and their intersection with other aspects of identity” (7). Hence, the 90s functioned as a turning point for gender politics and identity concepts – also regarding cultural, ethnical, racial identity concepts intersecting with sexual identity – that contests hetero- and homonormality. Marginalized subgroups' voices became louder and diversion from the societal norms and codes of behavior was even considered as desirable and a core for queer pride among the community.

As mentioned before, the spread of the AIDS epidemic among American society was central to the queer community's upheaval in the 80s and 90s. In the midst of the crisis at that time, devastated and enraged by the conservative government's ignorance of immense numbers of people dying, the queer community was caused to rethink and restructure itself. However, individuals inside and outside the non-heterosexual specter who were confronted by AIDS, whether by being infected themselves or by knowing people who were infected, were also forced to redefine their notion of the self and identity while society's notion of them transformed with the course of the crisis. Meanwhile, the conservative media, as scholar Evangelos Tziallas writes in his essay about reconfiguring trauma and sexuality, pictured AIDS as a “deserved plague meant to wipe out gays and lesbians” (2). Such loathing statements, although aimed at mainly gay men, aligned well with the government's lack of interest and response to AIDS and the increase of homosexual violence and affected the whole queer community, however at the same time brought individuals together by shared devastation, outrage and frustration (Tziallas 2).

All of the frustration and desperation and the resulting disruption of gay identity by AIDS caused a need of representation of what was considered unrepresentable (Pearl 27). Accordingly, AIDS activism and protest, in other words, direct action in queer politics functioned to reappropriate power as performed by protest organizations like Queer Nation and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) (Aaron 6), taking an “anti-assimilatory, anti-establishment and deconstructive approach” (Tziallas 1) to homosexuality. Opposed to the government's strategy to ignore the needs of the queer community, queer protest and the arts functioned to create awareness and dialogue about AIDS and the community itself since that approach was clearly absent in the mass cultural public sphere.

ACT UP's main aim was to disrupt the business-as-usual strategy that the majority of the government and pharmaceutical forces were following in order to end the crisis because realistically, life could not go on as usual anymore. Through their projects and protests, ACT UP “mimicked the disruption and unrest brought about by the retroviral HIV” (Pearl 25), consequently, art protest in the context of AIDS activism gained new importance as ACT UP heavily relied on visual attention and publicity as a weapon. ACT UP's art protest(s) was directed against the mainstream media's portrayal of (people with) AIDS which was considered as a misrepresentation of the reality of the virus. Judith Halberstam in Imagined Violence/Queer Violence sees the turn towards art as the object of demonstration and protest as a mean to produce protest as an aesthetic object while at the same time the products of the AIDS art protest marked a mirror of reality intertwining with and crossing the fine border to fiction (190).

Nevertheless, to picture and present their own depictions of the epidemic, AIDS video activism offered an alternative to mainstream AIDS-related media. New video technologies, more affordable actual documentation and a more authentic documentation of AIDS were fundamental characteristics to alternative AIDS media (Pearl 26) and searched to educate the population about the subject, health care and protection which the government failed to do, yet assisted the marginalized group of infected and discriminated people (Pearl 26).

The popularity of video activism soon gave rise to New Queer Cinema, a movement of independent filmmakers in the early 90s whose low-budget films acquired high popularity at a handful of renowned film festivals and whose narratives offered a range of sexual identities and stories (Zielinski 111). Film as an art form to fight and expose political and public oppression of the gay community was afired by a (imaginative) sense of rage which Judith Halberstam defines as “a political space opened up by the representation in art, in poetry, in narrative, in popular film, of unsanctioned violences committed by subordinate groups upon white men” (187). Driven also by their opposition to the mainstream and to gay and straight and gay societally tolerated culture, as well as by being haunted and strengthened by the AIDS crisis and activism, these filmmakers broke with cinematic and narrative conventions and revolutionized queer film (Aaron 6).

Ruby Rich, who also coined the term New Queer Cinema (NQC), called 1992 a “watershed year for independent gay and lesbian film and video” for the reason that even mainstream press was occupied with these films (15). To summarize NQC's characteristics which she mentions and which I will further elaborate on in the next section of this paper, it is necessary to say that those films do not share an aesthetic vocabulary, strategy or concern. What reunites them, though, is what she calls “Homo-Pomo”, a common style characterized by traces of appropriation, pastiche, irony, the reworking of history with social constructivism in mind, breaking with conventions and traditions in older humanist approaches and their energetic, irreverent, full of pleasure stories and imagery (Rich 16).

Moreover, AIDS is an omnipresent yet not overtly represented but shared topic and motif in the new queer films. Monica B. Pearl even states that AIDS gave rise to the NQC and that the films' narratives, discontinuities and disruptions on form, plot and styles represent the levels of disruption that individuals and communities felt under the weight of the epidemic (22-24). The disruption of senses of self and identity that I mentioned earlier and the resulting sense of disorder and chaos that individuals confronted by AIDS experienced are evident in these disruptions of the genre that Pearl mentions. However, the movies of NQC are often rather indirectly about AIDS and more concerned with grief and the effects of the disease. Pearl continues to conclude her exploration of AIDS and the New Queer Cinema by stating that the genre seeks authentic reproduction and portrayal of living with the virus less in the plot than in other forms (e.g. style, cinematography etc.) and that New Queer Cinema provides another way of making sense out of the virus that does not placate and does not provide easy answers – that reflects rather than corrects the experience of fragmentation, disruption, unboundaried identity, incoherent narrative, and inconclusive endings. (Pearl 33)

Hence, my statement is supported that New Queer cinema is the outcome of queer collective pain and resilience caused by the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s.

2.2. Genre Specific Features

First of all, before pointing out some of the characteristics of NQC movies, it is significant to clarify that a clear common structure, narrative, or aesthetic of the NQC does not exist. It is even more a feature of the genre that it represents a new diversity and potpourri mix of traditions and innovations, of contradictions and disruptions. Nevertheless, I summarize what features scholars claim to be genre typical and how the shared motif of the films, namely the AIDS crisis and the oppression of the queer community at the time, shape their variety of motion pictures.

Looking at the surprise film hits of the 1991 and 1992 Sundance film festival that film theorist Ruby Rich later categorized as NQC, she reflected on them as having few aesthetic nor narrative strategies or features in common but that they shared an attitude conveyed partly by the energetic and irreverent nature of the protagonists, as well as a shared sense of defiance that functioned as a tie between those films which worked on different levels (Aaron 3). Defiance can be understood in the sense of innovative, stylish, postmodern narratives, compelling characters and defying cinematic conventions.

A word that pops up quite frequently when researching about the NQC is UNAPOLOGETIC. In contrast to queer cinema before which longed for understanding and tolerance, NQC movies avoided a positive imagery of its queer characters. There was no turning away from negative representation of the protagonists and immorality as well as criminality was a prominent topic in the movies. As Evangelos Tziallas puts it: “These films were not meant to construct an image of queerness that was palatable to the heterosexual world. New Queer Cinema was created by queers in order to speak to the common consciousness of the gay community.” (Tziallas 3) The heteronormative and heterosexist norms and rules of morality were often reconstructed but not followed by the protagonists, which is again an allusion to defying the norms of the contemporary society and its oppression of the queer community. Michelle Aaron also talks about this turn to unapologetic, strong, even dangerous queer characters as an attempt of the queer filmmakers to abandon the “burdensome, approvalseeking sackcloth of positive imagery, or the relative obscurity of marginalized production” (3). The film theorist occupied with New Queer Cinema has also postulated a list of common characteristics of the NQC which I briefly present as the following:

1) The films give voice to the marginalized, not only gay/lesbian individuals and communities but also to very specific subgroups, taking an intersectional approach by portraying perspectives of groups, such as black gay sex-workers or trans women.
2) As examined before, the films are unapologetic about their character's flaws and crimes and even avoid positive imagery as in Tom Kalin's Swoon (1992). This welcoming attitude towards negative stereotypes and the central queer villain, though, one the one hand embodies queer defiance and supports NQC's beloved anti-assimilationism while it also confirms and to an extent supports the homophobic stereotypes of the majority.
3) The holiness and purity of the homophobic past are neglected. The filmmakers revisit historical relationships/moments and add or rethink overlooked homosexual content.
4) The filmmakers dislocate and disrupt cinematic conventions in terms of form, genre and content. NQC is experimental in form of narration and queers the classical Hollywood cinema. She describes NQC as an innovative, unusual, confident genre in which originality and distinctiveness is provided through abstractions while the films borrow features from the Old Queer Cinema.
5) The defiance of death is a prominent topic. In the course of the AIDS crisis, AIDS is used as an empowering yet shocking tool in those movies and death is ubiquitous. The defiance of death is portrayed by for instance joyful murderers in Swoon or in not marking AIDS as the ultimate death sentence and rather as the source of liberation. Also, literal defiance of death is shown by 'coming back to life' and having won over death. Aaron claims that the sense of defiance is what marks the films as queer. (Aaron 4-5)

Despite that, Aaron suggests that to understand NQC, one must understand queerness in terms of critical intervention, a cultural product and political strategy, while NQC is a hallmark of the overlap between those three (Aaron 6).

Drawing back the loop from NQC to AIDS activism, Aaron sees the activism as queer because of the “identification across identities”, meaning that the fight against AIDS crosses borders of gender and sexual identities, having non-queer people fight for the rights of their queer friends (6-7). This parallel is drawn concerning the cross-identification between the viewer and the on-screen characters in cinema, in NQC namely the cross-identification of the straight viewer with the queer villian (7).

Apart from much of the AIDS representation in media and especially film following the course of the virus, and the narrative of illness, NQC revolutionized and innovated the representation of AIDS, completely relying and on different levels portraying the retroviral nature of the disease. Monica B. Pearl calls AIDS a 'postmodern virus' because it doesn't follow the conventional rules of infection and disease (24). HIV becomes part of the body of the infected and ultimately the body, kills itself in the attempt of saving itself. Conventional stories and narratives about the self fighting the foreign object or virus, thus, do not apply to HIV and the body becomes unable to distinguish between itself and 'the foreign object/virus' (Pearl 24). Consequently, NQC follows the nature of retroviral infection and in reaction does not make use of a coherent narrative, genre recognition, nor does it fulfill cinematic expectations or the expected storyline of illness, consisting of the progressive stages: infection – decline of health – recovery or death. NQC rather reflects the chaos, disruption and identity crisis, the reinvention and reinterrogation of the self, within the queer community living confronted by AIDS and what HIV positive individuals have to face off screen which are of course, closely related and tied to deep and familiar emotions.

After all, NQC is a genre which emerged within the context of postmodernism and thence, follows the postmodern tradition of pastiche, of bringing different parts into a text. In the context of NQC meaning that the “director's type of cinephilia, social and aesthetic allegiances, and sensibility” (Zielinski 114) are notably the characteristics where pastiche is joint in the movies. Homo-Pomo pastiche in NQC takes the forms of quotations, literal or visual, allusions, borrowings and irony of for instance classical genre traditions or other movies. Furthermore, the postmodern tradition of not following an order but a disorder is what fuels NQC's films. To conclude, Evangelos Tziallas puts the postmodernist nature of NQC as the following: “These films are about pastiche, play and deconstruction whereby foundations and beliefs about identity and history are exposed, re-arranged and reconstructed.” (4) which only affirms the notion of NQC being a child of postmodernist culture.

3. The US American Road Movie Genre

3.1 Features and Narratives

The imagery and narrative of road is a prominent part of US American mythology and a characteristic theme in US American culture. Reason for that might be the relation it draws back to the frontier ethos and the association of the road being the embodied journey to liberation and democracy. Its significance has been developed further in travel narratives and by motion pictures. In their Introduction to The Road Movie Book, Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark point out that the ultimate project of the road movie is to find the 'True America', more specifically an utopian version of society that lacks all the flaws and ills of the present one (Cohan & Hark 1). Hence, a road movie captures and reflects upon American dreams, tensions and anxieties of its time and projects those onto the story and landscape, shows boundaries and visions for the future, as well as revisions of identity.

Before diving in to the distinctive features of the road movie genre, I examine the generic and symbolic meanings and metaphorical significance of the road in narrative and culture. As observed by scholar David Laderman in Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie, the road is a symbol of the course of life, of movement of desire, of freedom and destiny, of a direction's purpose but also anxiety of the unknown (Laderman 2). He argues that American society is fascinated by the road because it explores borders of American society but also because it symbolizes the road of excess, namely physical, spiritual, emotional excess (2). Laderman's statement gains even more value of plausibility when one considers the meaning of the road in literature as a kind of odyssey, a transformative journey in search of wilderness and the truth which puts the one on the road in a position of superiority and active disengagement from societal restrictions which paves the way to excess. While doing so, Laderman continues to state that a sense of wilderness is already established by the road narrative itself, as it opposes the protagonist to separate from familiar culture and this sense of wilderness is portrayed by highways and the space in the car but also nameless spaces of intermissions like pit stops, motels, etc. (Laderman 15). These spaces of intermissions also pinpoint stamps of plot twists or of establishing an important new plot line of the story, especially in visual narratives of the road movie which was acquired importance as a distinctive genre in the 1960s.

As in almost every genre of film and narrative, it is important to mention that the specific common features as pointed out by Corrigan in 1991 can differ and deviate from theory, considering that not all features apply to every movie of the genre. However, Timothy Corrigan identifies six specific features that he applies to the typical road film – a postwar phenomenon – which I elaborate on in the following section.


Excerpt out of 27 pages


New Queer Routes in "The Living End" by Gregg Araki. AIDS Representation and the Road Movie reinvented and revolutionized
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
New Queer Cinema
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
gender studies, aids movie, road movie, new queer cinema, the living end, gregg araki
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Lisa Kubatzki (Author), 2019, New Queer Routes in "The Living End" by Gregg Araki. AIDS Representation and the Road Movie reinvented and revolutionized, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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