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Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005)
Trained by narrative cinema, we have a tendency when we watch a movie to want to “know” characters. This desire is spurred on by despite the fact that the majority of movies operate on levels facile enough to make us think we really do get to know characters on a profound level by the time a movie ends. To point this out isn’t to disparage conventional character development, but it’s an unavoidable fact that such development is so often a lie or a manipulation designed to get us to accept the rest of a movie’s agenda. Complaints that Gus Van Sant, in his most recent trio of films, doesn’t engage in this trickery during his inquiries into character seem an embrace of artifice in the good name of truth. “How dare he not articulate the unknowable?” people seem to be asking when they note that the director doesn’t try to bluff an answer in these movies, not realizing that the films exist not so we can understand their subjects (an impossibility), but can better understand our way of coming to terms with their existence. His approach in each of the films (Gerry, Elephant and, now, Last Days) is to record his subjects in takes so long that they begin to feel like real-time, and observe them more than he chooses to comment on them as they begin to brush up against death. Last Days, a fictionalized account of the death of Kurt Cobain (renamed Blake here), seems to begin at the precise moment that its protagonist decides to kill himself.
Last Days is a more dynamic viewing experience than the slightly monotonous Gerry, but one that pales in comparison to Elephant. By virtue of its subject matter (i.e. a suicide prompted by depression in which there was but one victim), the constant tension, motivational contradictions and explosive shocks of Elephant don’t exist here. That allows Van Sant to spin us deeper into the atmosphere of Blake’s mind, at least as long as he chooses to remain focused on him. Unfortunately, that is only for the first hour or so of the film, after which the mood dissipates and the film becomes a series of character sketches. Van Sant trots out one character after another, trying to illustrate the fact that Blake refuses to communicate with them, but really only ensuring that his audience finds it harder to communicate with him. Maybe audience identifcation with Blake isn’t high on Van Sant’s list of things to accomplish in Last Days (Michael Pitt’s mumbling, hair-in-face performance all but guarantees that this is the case), but as other characters begin to take over the film’s focus, it becomes increasingly hard as a viewer to re-enter Blake’s tortured state of mind. The genius sound design, in which diegetic noises distort and bleed into the half-formed ambient music, helps, as does Pitt’s consistency in his role, but it’s still a shame to see a film perfectly approximate a mood, only to let it get away. This is especially so since Van Sant seems so acutely aware of his intent that he trots out the contrived, soap opera plot of a Boyz II Men music video to demonstrate exactly what he doesn’t want Last Days to be.
It never fails, exactly, or succumbs to the tabloid inanity of something like Nick Broomfield’s documentary Kurt & Courtney, but Last Days’ desire to fill space with characters besides Blake is unmistakably its weak point. That’s not to say that Van Sant has failed here. Last Days is an audacious work, and most of the time that audacity pays off. The director's blatant sexualization of his young cast, for example, sounds like a bad idea on paper, yet works on screen to help draw us into the seedy milieu and immediate pleasures of the rock world. The set design certainly lives up to the music’s “grunge” moniker, and the film’s frequent forays into the forest surrounding Blake’s mansion counterbalance the interior scenes well. Pitt’s withdrawn presence pays dividends in establishing mood and the decision to have the actor sing songs he penned himself surprisingly avoids disaster and legitimately brings us closer to the realization that this madman was quite talented. Last Days is playing with fire, tackling a story that’s still a hotly debated media sensation, and it’s startling just how iconic much of the Cobain imagery remains (and I was never much of a Nirvana fan). For a film this undeniably artful and thoughtful to emerge from that noise of sound bites is remarkable even if the end result occasionally stumbles, as it does in its final, very literal shot at transcendence.