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by Kathi Maio

Post-Apocalyptic Love Triangles, And Other Things That Won't Fit on a Tee Shirt

Come the apocalypse, or our own personal cataclysmic disaster, we'd all like to think that we would face it gallantly. No whining or cowardice, just calm, resolute bravery. The blue planet has, so far, avoided a nuclear conflagration or a cataclysmic meteor strike. But there was a recent event that made many Earthlings of the American persuasion wonder whether they could discover their better selves, even as their world tumbled down around them.

The press coverage of 9/11 tried to comfort us with stories that reinforced our hope of redemptive nobility. There weren't enough miraculous rescues to go around that day. But at least there were plenty of stories of valor and altruism.

The other form of consolation the media tried to offer us was to give villainy a face. Widespread cultural/political/religious hatred involving millions of just-plain-folks was too difficult for most citizens to wrap their brains around. Better to offer Americans a focal enemy—a single demonic foe. After all, you can put Osama bin Laden's face on a tee shirt.

I think that's why so many apocalyptic fantasy films, like Ah-nuld's disastrous End of Days (1999), actually have the hero doing battle with the Devil. (The fatal flaw in many of these movies lies in the fact that the Devil, especially when personified by a talented and handsome actor like End of Days's Gabriel Byrne, is actually much more compelling and personable than the hero. Ouch!)

Then there are the apocalyptic movies (The Last Man on Earth, Omega Man) that give a holocaust survivor "hero" a chance to do battle with bands of living-dead types. When it's hordes of zombies you're up against, the enemy is more diffuse, but at least there is an enemy.

We want to be able to take action. There's a reason Todd Beamer's announcement, "Let's Roll," is the stuff of legend and pop songs.

One of the finest end-of-the-world movies ever made is actually 1983's Testament, starring Jane Alexander. But no one wants to watch a movie like that! It's too depressing. In Testament, set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, all the good-hearted citizenry can do is maintain normalcy the best they can, be kind to one another, watch their nearest and dearest die, and wait for their own demise. Ms. Alexander's mom hero is every bit as brave as any action hero, but she has nothing she can fight against. Her gallantry is passive and hopeless. Such a story may make a worthwhile political statement, and it may even make for haunting filmcraft, but it is not entertainment.

In some ways, the indie first feature, The Last Man, is an even more daring exercise in giving audiences exactly what they don't want. For in this particular end-of-the-world dramedy, written and directed by Harry Ralston, there is no ghoulish foe for the movie's protagonist to fight against. And if there were, we feel certain that Alan, a neurotic anthropologist, would turn tail and run, rather than face it down.

Alan (courageously played, often in little more than his Fruit of the Looms, by David Arnott) isn't a bad person. He is simply weak, selfish, socially awkward, and physically unremarkable. He's a putz, and not a particularly endearing one.

As the film opens, Alan is strolling down a sun-dappled sidewalk in California. He stops to look in a shop widow at the latest video camera equipment. He considers the display for a moment, then he starts pitching flower pots into the storefront. As the burglar alarm blares, he puts his equipment selections in his cart and strolls away. Only then do we realize how quiet the street is. The few other people in the scene are, we see, all dead.

Later, Alan sets up his video and explains as much as he knows, for the benefit of future visitors who might want to learn more about the end of mankind. There seems to have been some unseen neutron blast, germ weapon, or other plague let loose on Earth. As far as he knows, he is the last survivor. And, all in all, he seems content to be so.

Alan, we feel certain, was never much of a success as a social animal. But now that he is alone, he can pontificate, at length and on camera, about an obscure Amazonian tribe he has studied, and unabashedly take center stage as the star of his world.

All this ends when a beautiful young woman stumbles upon him in the middle of a tribal cleansing ceremony involving mud and masturbation. First impressions aside, Sarah (Jeri Ryan—yes, we are talking Star Trek: Voyager's "Seven of Nine") seems eager to cling to Alan for human interaction. It's like he died and went to heaven! This last man finally has the attention of a beautiful woman—the kind of gorgeous female who wouldn't have looked twice at his pudgy, balding self on a crowded city street.

Harry Ralston could have done some standard romantic comedy shtick in his debut film. Instead, he chooses to do something a little edgier (and much more honest). Rather than have Alan and Sarah fall happily and effortlessly in love, both flawed characters stay true to themselves. Which is to say, they remain throughout the movie a very improbable couple, indeed. They attempt to negotiate sex and other forms of intimacy with one another, and do so rather poorly.

At first, Sarah seems to view her relations with Alan as some elaborate form of penance for her previously fickle ways. Appeasing an angry God is not, perhaps, the best basis of a love connection. Still, Alan seems willing to take it any way he can get it. That is, until Sarah accepts her fate and decides to throw herself into their relationship. The clingier she gets, the more Alan recoils. Can this "marriage" be saved? Only by the lack of viable alternatives.

Suddenly, Sarah has one. Another survivor is discovered along the road. And, wouldn't you know, he is a lean, handsome hunk with a romantic name. Raphael (Dan Montgomery) isn't an intellectual giant, but he sure looks good in a pair of shorts. Moreover, Raphael is as laid-back as Alan is uptight. Before long, Alan can't keep up his cheery denial. Raphael is winning the only available female. Alan appears doomed to be odd man out in a very small society.

Like a grungy, existential episode of MTV's Dismissed, this film is a dating game gone seriously wrong. Early on, Alan tells his video camera that he suspects the apocalypse resulted when "someone didn't get loved—so they got even." And you might expect The Last Man to descend into something just as ugly, if on a smaller scale. It almost does, but to the last, Alan's personality is consistent. He is who he is, whether it makes for sufficiently hilarious or dramatic viewing or not.

Post-apocalyptic love triangles are a tricky proposition. It helps when the situations and the personalities manage to keep the viewer guessing. While watching The Last Man, an even more dark fantasy film came to mind. A Boy and His Dog (1975) was also a torn-between-two-lovers kinda tale, set in the years after the quick, civilization-obliterating conclusion of WW IV. Filthy, brutal men roam the Arizona desert, searching for canned food to devour, and human females to rape and murder. Among them, a young man named Vic (Where have you gone, Don Johnson?) who is never far from his trusted companion and intellectual superior, a pooch called Blood (voiced by Tim McIntyre).

Vic and Blood are mates for life. But what happens when a nubile young woman—just too sexually desirable to simply defile and disembowel—enters the picture? Quilla June (Susanne Benton), a temptress with her own agenda, is such a woman. And she threatens to break up the beautiful relationship between a canine and his human.

A Boy and His Dog, written and directed by L. Q. Jones from a novella by our hero, Harlan Ellison, is a (sometimes literally) dark, often ferociously witty, and totally bizarre fantasy with a shocking but quite logical conclusion. These days, it is usually called a cult movie, which presumably means that those who have been exposed to it become religiously attached. Certainly it is as far from the same-old same-old as you can get.

The Last Man can't match A Boy and His Dog's power to entertain or outrage because it pursues normalcy (i.e., recognizable interpersonal dysfunction) in the face of catastrophe. Mr. Ralston seems to be saying that come the Judgment Day, people are likely to be the same as any other day. We won't be courageous and ennobled, nor will we degenerate into zombie monsters, or savages ruled by our physical appetites, and nothing more. We will simply be the neurotic or needy or clueless humans we've always been—only now there'll be fewer people around to witness our foolishness.

I suspect that Harry is right. Still, I might have wished for less honest insight and more unexpected plot twists. Or at least a few more giggles and guffaws. (This is a movie, not a life lesson, after all.) The narrative device of the Alan's video journal also needlessly slows down the film, pulling us away from the real action and distancing us too often from two thirds of this particular love triangle.

The Last Man is nonetheless an interesting first feature from a filmmaker who shows considerable promise. Chances are, most of you won't get the chance to see this one in theaters, since Castle Hill will be giving it only limited distribution. But a video release is also planned. Seek it out. And, at the same time, why not try to track down the DVD of A Boy and His Dog?

As for the possibility of facing disaster with calm, resolute bravery? At least these two films might make you feel a little better about your own chances.

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