Michael Pitt plays Blake, a rock star in the last hours of his life before he commits suicide, in Gus van Sants Last Days.
In a Final Daze
Van Sants latest docu-drama offers thin guise for Kurt Cobains demise, but too little insight
By STEVE ERICKSON
A film inspired by Kurt Cobains 1994 suicide, Last Days is revealing not because it has much insight into his life but because it debunks other films about drugs and fame.
As a portrait of addiction, though not a very explicit one, it adopts a slow, languid rhythm, far from the sensory bombardment of Danny Boyles Trainspotting and Darren Aronofskys Requiem for a Dream. It makes hanging out with a famous person look like the most boring thing one could do. Intentionally or not, the film only accomplishes one taskportraying celebrities and their hangers-on as dull losers.
Rock star Blake (Michael Pitt) lives in a mansion with a small entourage. In the opening scenes of Last Days, he walks through the woods and swims in the river near his house. Blakes friends and record label want to track him downand have even hired a private detective (Ricky Jay) to do sobut he just wants to be left alone. Deeply troubled, he walks around in a daze.
When a salesman for the Yellow Pages knocks on his door, Blake has difficulty holding down a coherent conversation. His friends want money or help with music. His manager wants him to go on tour. He seems to want to disappear.
Im sure van Sant means no disrespect for Cobain, but Last Days is filled with a subtle but steady undercurrent of disdain for its characters. To adopt a metaphor from his last film, heroin is the elephant in the room, omnipresent but unspoken here. Blake is never shown using drugs, but his behavior, especially the constant nodding out, suggests a smacked-out stupor. By remaining ambiguousor coyon this point, Last Days leaves room for other interpretations. Pitts steady flow of mumbled gibberish recalls Damian Lewis performance as a schizophrenic in Lodge Kerrigans forthcoming Keane, with the crucial difference that Pitt never makes sense.
As well as Cobains death, Last Days is haunted by the specters of actor River Phoenix and singer Elliott Smith, who contributed to the soundtrack of Good Will Hunting and killed himself two years ago. A disclaimer informs us that although this film is inspired by the last days of Kurt Cobain, it is a work of fiction and the characters and events portrayed in the film are also fictional. This leaves van Sant an easy way outhe doesnt have to say much about the specifics of his subjects life. Although Blake is a father, his daughters mother is out of the picture, as is the daughter for that matter. Theres no counterpart to Courtney Love.
More importantly, theres an enormous gap between Cobain and Blake. Despite his demons, Cobain was smart and extremely talented. Blake rarely seems to have two active brain cells working simultaneously, and his music, written and performed by Pitt, is mediocre. Last Days would pack a greater punch if one felt that by committing suicide, Blake was throwing away a life full of promise and artistic potential. With dyed-blonde, shoulder-length hair, a few days stubble, a wardrobe full of dresses and an inability to look the camera in the eye, Pitt looks the part, but hes content to mumble away rather than dig very far into his character.
After achieving great success in Hollywood with Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester and becoming Americas most prominent gay director, van Sant turned into a born-again indie filmmaker. His discovery of Hungarian director Béla Tarr, a master of long takes and slow tracking shots, marked his conversion. Tarrs influence hangs over Gerry and Elephant, but another van Sant favoriteBelgian director Chantal Akermans 1975 Jeanne Dielmanoffers a key to Last Days.
In Jeanne Dielman, Akerman spent three and a half hours exploring the daily life of a housewife who also works as a prostitute. The film includes real-time scenes of her protagonist washing a bathtub or peeling potatoes. Its a landmark in feminist filmmakingbefore it, no one had taken such a close look at womens everyday drudgery. Last Days looks at the mundaneLukas Haas singing along to most of the Velvet Undergrounds Venus In Furs, Blake ineptly cooking macaroni and cheesewith a similar amount of rapt fascination. In fact, the film consists of almost nothing but such low-key moments, rendered dreamlike by cinematographer Harris Savides.
In the past, shallowness has sometimes worked for van Sant. Elephant said little of substance about the causes behind the Columbine massacre (its references to violent video games, bullying and Nazism strike me as ironic) but its directionespecially the claustrophobic use of a narrow frameshowed a great deal of insight into the way schools can be maddening, physically confining spaces. Van Sant and Savides, who also shot Elephant, are able to make Last Days a film of alluring, seductive surfaces.
Unfortunately, theres nothing more to it. Its lack of affect is epitomized by a scene in which Blake plays a song as the camera gradually zooms away from him. Last Days tells us that being rich, famous and troubled can make you just as miserable as if you were living in a vacant lot on Avenue D. Thats not exactly breaking news. The film mirrors its characters empty lives all too well.