In 1961, Jean-Luc Godard turned the world on its ear with "Breathless," a giddy, reckless, story of alienated youth, guns and doom. Shot on the sly with cheapjack equipment, it not only made Jean-Paul Belmondo a star but became an anthem for young filmmakers fed up with the fructose of Hollywood pieties.
Now comes "Breathless' " grandchild, "The Living End," which basically fuses the same nihilistic anger with the same in-your-face style of filmmaking. The difference is that the doom in this one isn't romantic, it's actual, as in HIV-positive; the couple on the run isn't hetero- but homo-; but the effect is almost as electric.
"The Living End" follows as a young writer -- a film critic, no less, working on a no doubt seminal piece called "The Death of Cinema" for some West Coast film rag -- learns that he's got the virus; that's bummer enough, but soon enough he meets up with exactly the figure intellectuals love so fervently in their blackest fantasies: a tough, tattooed wild boy, with a great bod, a torn leather jacket and jeans so tight they ought to be a morals rap. Soon enough a cop is dead, and the guys are on the road with a stolen credit card and a Colt .357 Magnum. It goes further: The two young men are a Jon and a Luke, which is a kind of phonetic homage to the great Jean-Luc, n'est-ce pas?
There's not much to "The Living End" except attitude. Much of the acting is shamelessly amateur, and the director, Gregg Araki (or, as the production credits have it, gregg araki) is never sure where to put the camera. Frequently he'll just plunk it down crudely and let his heroes spew their confusion and bitterness out in huge, glistening chunks. It's also crude: The title, for example, contains about three different meanings, from a metaphor for life under sentence of AIDS; to a camp evocation of the vocal patterns the straight world stereotypes as homosexual; to an encomium to the male posterior, font of all erotic fascination (and adored many a time over the film's 90 minutes).
But Araki taps into something vivid and real -- the sense of hatred that must grip the homosexual community as it confronts a largely indifferent larger society. It feels new, in that the traditional AIDS movie has played as tragedy, dirge-like and mournful over lost possibilities, preciously sensitive. "The Living End," to quote Holden Caulfield, is about as sensitive as a toilet seat.
It's about rage, rage against the dying of the light: Carried to its next step, rage equals nihilism, an embrace not only of the death of the self but of the world around it. Thus the bad one, Luke (Mike Dytri), has no qualms about blowing people away; at his hands not only a cop but three gay-bashers and an automatic teller machine are perforated with large chunks of lead. The gun in his hand becomes an autoerotic object; he cannot stop playing with it and fondling it. Jon (Craig Gilmore), the good one, is horrified at the violence, but so cut off from the world of hope and so entranced by the considerable erotic energy of his mad lover, he is powerless to just say no.
Nothing surprising happens; of course the two are doomed and of course their relationship, equal parts love and fear and erotic yearning, twists and turns like a DNA double-helix. Visually, when the movie isn't completely shabby, it's full of precious post-modern imagery making great use of found icons such as neon motel signs, or that favorite field of windmills somewhere in the greater Southern California area that appears in every single movie made in L.A. ZZZ-ZZZZZ.
The movie ends in a horrid menage a trois between the Jon and Luke and the revolver, a perfect image for the moral complexities of age -- love and death interwined in a pretzel of flesh. It's very angry; it's very sad.
'The Living End'
Starring Mike Dytri and Craig Gilmore.
Directed by Gregg Araki.
Released by October Films.