Dir/scr/ed: Gus Van Sant. US. 2005. 96mins
We sort of suspected that Gus Van Sant would not pull offanother Elephant: he's one of those directors that needs a littlebreathing space between masterpieces. But Last Days, Van Sant's newfilm, which is inspired (in the words of the final disclaimer) "in part... bythe last days of Kurt Cobain", builds slowly to a sort of rough heroism - forthose viewers that have the patience to stick with it.
Usingmany of his familiar tricks - narrative backtracking, unusual sound textures,the undermining of traditional Hollywood character motivations - Van Santdwells on the banalities of suicide, rather than its grand gestures.
Themain problem for most viewers will hinge on whether or not one cares about theself-destructive rock star that is its focus. Elephant drew much of itspower from the audience's prior, shared knowledge of (and shock over) theColumbine high school massacre; Last Days also derives authority from amedia 'tragedy'; here, though, it is not a cruel culling of future generationsbut the self-inflicted end of a mixed-up guy whose music and myth left manyindifferent.
Nirvanafans risk coming away frustrated, as none of the band's music is featured, andVan Sant is not interested in giving those who make a cult out of Cobain fuelfor their altars. Though it will reach most of the territories touched by Elephant,Last Days - which competed in Cannes - is unlikely to achieve the strongword-of-mouth that propelled that Palme d'Or winner towards the commercial edgeof the arthouse niche.
Disclaimeror not, Michael Pitt is Kurt Cobain. He has the same long straw-colouredhair that flops over his face, the same scraggly beard, the same uncoordinatedwalk and wardrobe. And his character, Blake (named, presumably, after thevisionary, unhinged English Romantic poet), has the same tendency to mumble hiswords - most of which are addressed to himself, or his demons.
Onehas to go back to Ralph Fiennes' character in Spider for similar depthsof cinematic inarticulateness - and at the Cannes press screening, mostAnglophone viewers were forced to read the French subtitles along with everyoneelse to get some clue as to what Blake was going on about.
Wefirst encounter our hero wandering through a dank, tangled forest, in trueDantean mode ("In the middle of the walk of our life, I found myself in a darkwood"). But this is no Divine Comedy, and Blake finds no Virgil to leadhim out of his own private Idaho via Purgatory into Paradise. Instead hewanders back to the grand castellated New England mansion that he has bought,we assume, with the royalties from his music.
It'sinhabited by a dysfunctional family of friends and hangers-on: Asia Argento,Lukas Haas, Scott Green, all playing same-name characters, all wasted and barelyable to help themselves, let alone reach out to Blake. (Enfant terribledirector Harmony Korine also mucks in with a cameo as a friend Blake meets in agrungy club).
Blakeshambles around the house and grounds, digs in the garden, fixes himself a bowlof Coco Rice Krispies (there's no word yet on the Kellogs tie-in campaign),then goes upstairs, puts on a lacy back dress and picks up a shotgun. It's asif Van Sant is taunting us with Godard's line: "all you need for a movie is agirl and a gun". But this teaser is immediately followed by comic bathos, as aYellow Pages advertising rep pays a call, and proceeds to sell directory adspace to a near catatonic rock star in a black dress, who he believes is thehead of a firm specialising in locomotive parts.
Thevisual style is similar to that of Elephant, combining long 'walking'Steadicam shots with fixed views in which (possibly) significant events takeplace off-screen. The most striking technical aspect of Last Days is thesound design: generally diegetic noises (church bells, traffic noises) have noapparent source within the scenes we're watching; the effect is eerie, hintingat other realities, dragging us away from the apparent mundanity of this rockand roll swansong.
Anotherparallel with Elephant - Van Sant's tendency to step back in time andshow us part of the same scene from a different viewpoint - has less dramaticrelevance here, and seems little more than a directorial tic.
Asin Elephant, there are scraps of narrative satisfaction, traces of plot:Blake wears a hospital armband, and we know he's been in rehab; a privatedetective (played by magician and paranormal author Ricky Jay) is looking forhim; at one point, an older woman who may or may not be his mother tries topersuade Blake to go away with her, and asks him if he's spoken to hisdaughter.
Butthese teasers are less incisive than the red pills, blue pills and green pillsof explanation that Van Sant offers the viewer in Elephant, because morerides on why two young kids should kill their classmates and teachers than onwhy Cobain topped himself.
Andyet Last Days has a kind of authenticity to it, a refusal to take refugein either the temptations of post-mortem myth-making (though it plays withthem) or those of media-fuelled cause and effect. Van Sant almost loses oursympathy when he makes some cod-religious, Blake-as-Christ parallels (includinga ghostly resurrection) that would have been better left out.
ButPitt is utterly believable in the role, and in the end it is the way heinhabits Blake/Cobain's skin thatdelvers the necessary shot of pathos.
Prod co: HBO Films
Int'l sales: HBO Films London
Prod: Danny Wolf
Cine: Harris Savides
Prod des: Tim Grimes
Main cast: Michael Pitt, LukasHaas, Asia Argento, Scott Green, Nicole Vicius