Monday, November 14, 2005

Last Days / **** (R)

Blake: Michael Pitt
Luke: Lukas HaasAsia: Asia Argento
Scott: Scott Green
Nicole: Nicole Vicius
Detective: Ricky Jay
Salesman: Thadeus A. ThomasRecord Executive: Kim Gordon

Fine Line Features and HBO Films present a film written and directed by Gus Van Sant. Running time: 97 min. Rated R (for language and some sexual content).

I was sitting in a bar waiting for a friend after a day I was supposed to be in classes on that 5th of April in 1994. It was as rare a thing for me to be in a bar, in the afternoon or any time, as it was for me to be seen in my classes. I was there for the wings more so than the beer. My friend, who knew of my obsession with music, had even gotten me to provide a couple of album reviews for the student newspaper he edited, arrived with a somber look on his face. I inquired what was wrong, and he looked at me with emptiness in his eyes. “Kurt Cobain died,” he said. I didn’t say much. Not because I was so heartbroken, or because I was being my typical silent self, but because I wasn’t really sure what that even meant.

There was a time when the loss of a rock icon was a nation shaking event. Janis, Jimi, Mama Cass, Lennon, they all stood for something. When Cobain died, the world shook; but nobody was really sure why. He was the symbol of the grunge rock movement, but nobody ever really understood him the way people understood what those 60s icons were about. We only knew that we had lost an immense talent.

Gus Van Sant’s Last Days loosely depicts those mysterious final few days of a very thinly veiled Cobain type of rock musician. Actor Michael Pitt (The Dreamers) plays Blake and looks so shockingly like Cobain in this film that it is hard to believe at times that this is not some video document of Cobain’s own final days. Van Sant even places Blake in signature Cobain apparel; the wide striped shirt, the thrift shop cardigan, the alien eye sunglasses.

But Last Days is no mere idolatry of a rock icon. This film is the final part in Van Sant’s “death trilogy.” To be honest, I knew nothing of any sort of trilogy until the release of this third part. Van Sant, after a couple of studio films including the yawner Finding Forrester, decided to go back to his indie roots. The first was this trilogy’s opener Gerry, death from a friend. The second was his Golden Palm winner the haunting Columbine High School inspired Elephant, death from a stranger. And Last Days represents death from the self. I can’t speak for Gerry, as I have yet to see it, but Days follows the Elephant M.O. of offering no kind of comment or judgment upon the story it depicts. It is at its most and least a document of events and never anything else. We witness Blake wandering through the woods, mumbling incoherently. He makes himself a bowl of cereal and a bowl of macaroni and cheese during the course of the film. He spends a large portion of the story passed out. We see his entourage and their strange struggle to find something worth doing, or perhaps they do find what they are doing worthwhile.

This entourage, which includes characters portrayed by Lukas Haas (Mars Attacks!) and Asia Argento (Land of the Dead), seem kind of like parasites that have attached themselves to the Pacific Northwest coast castle property of Blake’s more so than to the man himself. If there is any judgment given in the film it is with these characters in the way they pester Blake with their own personal wants and needs, like a plane ticket home, a bigger TV or proper heating for the house, as if their personal lives are his primary responsibility like he were their parent. Scott (Scott Green) warns Luke off such bothersome troubling of Blake while participating in it himself only moments beforehand. Perhaps they represent how many perceived what Cobain’s marriage to Courtney Love to be.

But Blake’s eventual death does not really seem to be brought on by his “friends’” behavior so much despite the fact he tries to avoid much contact with them. There seems to be little concern from any of the characters about each other at all, including Blake’s own concern for what the others want from him. Without any real relations between them, it would be hard to conclude his feelings toward them had anything to do with his suicide.

Van Sant, while offering no forced explanations as to the reasons why Blake commits suicide, does still enjoy a good deal of emotional manipulation of his audience. With his obvious real life inspiration of Cobain is so easily recognizable, Van Sant expects his audience to know the outcome and plays with their perceptions of what is going on as such. He has Blake walking around for much of the film with a shot gun, the suicide weapon of Cobain. “When’s he gonna do it?” the audience must ask.

Van Sant also overlaps his timeline in much the same way he does in Elephant, so he can tell each characters’ story without interruption through key points in the plot. This allows him to reveal certain plot points in a way that will allow them to change our perception of what we have already seen and inform the story as a whole with stronger clarity in the end. Scott’s behavior toward Luke is one of the better illustrations of this effect. Scott seems to pick on Luke, who appears a bit slow, but as their true relationship is revealed so are the audience’s inaccurate assumptions, thus providing the audience with insight into itself as well as the characters.

I realize that many people will hate this film, which will seem to some as if it is just some incoherent idiot wandering around a castle in a dress with a bunch of stoned out occupants that have no concept of the real world and how it works. In that way the film is kind of a meditation on a lifestyle and further exemplifies how little we understood this musical genius. For a good portion of the film I thought that although it had my interest, maybe it was just some pretentious portrait of the typical tortured artist, but there is a point when Blake just sits there in his studio and performs a song for himself. The song, written and performed by Pitt, does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of Cobain and the film. Suddenly, I relived my own personal joy of listening to Cobain’s music. I realized, as Van Sant must have as well, how important it was to remember the artist when looking at the man. I remembered how vital Cobain’s music was.

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