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Notes on Gus Van Sant's film June, 2005 By James Howard As the seventh person prematurely walked out of the Toison D'or UGC Cinema screen 1 in Brussels, where I was watching Last days, it had become completely clear that if nothing else, Gus Van Sant had succeeded in utterly confusing and warping the minds of the popcorn toting troglodytes who had been lusting after a juicy, salacious and utterly conventional account of the end of Kurt Cobains life. They had smelt blood and had been disappointed. Yes, I, smugly, cheered this particular victory to myself. The first two people left ten minutes into the film, whilst another group ,consisting of four teenagers, one of whom looked like a neo-conservative hawk on his way to the white house situation room, in drooling anticipation of bombing a third world country that had dared to criticise the American Fuehrer, lasted a good forty minutes. Well done. If this film, which premiered at Cannes in May of this year, had had to have been pitched to a stereotypical demonic Hollywood studio Executive, it would have gone something like this: Fat Cat Honcho (smoking cigar and counting money): Okay break it down, twenty-five words or less, what you got? Van Sant: Okay, Michael Pitt, who was dropping acid and acting crazy in Bully, plays Kurt Cobain. He walks around his decaying mansion, plays his guitar a bit, wears a dress and hides from his friends. He then proceeds to walk around the forest that surrounds his mansion for a bit. Oh, wait, the best bit is; nothing happens. Nothing at all! It's genius. It's like Warhol's Empire meets Fassbinder! And the greatest thing is that before the audience even sees the movie they know that he kills himself! So there is no pay off, no phoney twist! Fat Cat Honcho: What about tits, ass and guns? Car chases? (I realize this is a tired cliché, readers but needs be) Van Sant: None. Fat Cat Honcho: So this is like, an art house movie? Fuck that. Van Sant: You fucking guys are all the same. This a film about human suffering, alienation and the futility of celebrity, godamnit, conveyed through internalised emotion and objective voyeurism, no less. Fat Cat Honcho: Take it to those commies at HBO, asshole and get out of my office! And Gus Van Sant did... As you probably know Last Days has stirred up expectation and interest due the fact that it was supposedly inspired by the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Michael Pitt, physically aping Cobain with his long greasy blond hair and, at one point sporting the red and black striped shirt that Cobain bought in Camden market and wore at the 1992 Reading Festival., plays the heroin addicted rock star, Blake, who, seeped in terminal depression and in the throws of addiction, shuffles, at times unintentionally bearing an uncanny gaitly resemblance to Ozzy Osborne, around his vast home and the surrounding woodlands whilst mumbling to himself (subtitles really should have been offered in English as well as French and Dutch ,Herr Van Sant) and attempting to hide from his manager, a private investigator and his band mates before his inevitable suicide that sadly leaves the viewer completely cold. Dead. Last Days is a film of startling, and often irrelevant, long voyeuristic and sterile sequences in which consecutive scenes have no connection in terms of narrative and characters are utterly redundant. The film is marked out by the aforementioned long, haunting and lingering takes with Van Sant often holding frame for three or four minutes of, for example, Pitt,sitting, alone and alienated in the woods staring into the sky, disconnected from the surrounding world. In another instance Pitt, with his back to the camera, plays guitar, building a savage and emotive cacophony of white noise reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless that manages to reflect the sadness that has eroded him, whilst Van Sants camera slowly pulls back from the window outside the house from which we have been watching. Whilst Pitt continues to play ,Van Sant pulls back the camera further from the window into a long shot as we watch Pitt become further and further away still playing ,for a full five minutes. It’s an
astonishing moment, one that displays honesty and true courage to examine aspects of cinema that most directors ignore, namely the elements of human behaviour that are usually deemed to be of no value because there are not easily understood and too abstract in nature and therefore cannot be defined in simplistic terms that have the potential to satisfy. They just are. There is definitely no satisfaction and no fast food resolutions in this film, merely a calculated, and that sadly is what it is, ambiguity that is certainly something that should be applauded. Sadly this is seldomly reproduced. In another lingering shot one of Pitt's band mates, who are living in his home and seemingly exploiting his catatonic state, returns from a night out before listening to the Velvet Underground's Venus in Furs. Van Sant holds a close up as he sings along out loud to the whole song. Twice.Indeed the choice of song is obvious and clichéd but Van Sants intention is clear. He tries to communicate the cold and alienated world within which Pitts character finds himself by creating a suffocating, monotonous atmosphere where everything is steeped in banality and nothing offers relief from the sense of impending doom. The scenes do convey a sadness and poignancy that sadly though is never given any semblance of context. It is difficult to convey just how the film lacks any semblance of soul and this reviewer found himself not caring about anybody who was onscreen, not because of their traits but because they were so vague and undefined. Of course this is the point. Van Sant has attempted, and achieved, to create a world so cold and dislocated that it is suffocating to watch in order to convey the isolating force that is heroin addiction None the less, people who's teenage years were soundtracked by Nirvana will no doubt, if Pitt's character really is based on Cobain, be infuriated by the portrayal of him being a mumbling, zombie vegetable and not the disillusioned musical genius, fighting the fucking beast of depression, smack and Courtney Love he no doubt was. Pitt's Blake inhibits a world he no longer feels a part of, his identity and being numbed by heroin and depression, and therefore Van Sant presents his surroundings as having no definition, no fabric and most aptly no vitality. Van Sants intentions are honourable but unavoidably repellant. Does one though really have to care about characters or any form of their development, substance even? Of course not, that's something for Hollywood to worry about, but the film has absolutely no character development or insight, not even into Pitts tortured musician and this is the films central flaw. Just because there is a two minute close up of Pitt staring into futility, does not make it a moment of stirring pathos, just as a shot of Pitt, held in frame for several minutes, sitting in the woods surrounding his home, pondering, I presume, the absurdity of existence, does not evoke poignancy, but rather, in this reviewers case , a rather crude thought, for which I duly reprimanded myself for being a middle of the road swine, to 'get on with it! Please jut get it over and done with so we can all go home,mate!' The real problem is that the film is so crassly superficial whilst at the same time profoundly and defiantly believes it is exploring the inner torture of the central protagonist. It is therefore hard to completely dismiss the film. This paradox creates an almost excruciating experience that is difficult to convey to readers who are not familiar with truly awful avant-garde fillmaking. There are scenes that work, such as the five minute shot of Blake making music that I mentioned earlier and especially Pitt’s self-penned songs that he performs in (obviously) , uncut long takes, in which he manages to impersonate Cobains voice without descending into parody or caricature whilst transmitting the internal strife of his character. Also a scene where Kim Gordon, of the mighty Sonic Youth, playing a record company representative attempting to get Blake into rehab, is so fragile and gentle in it's observation of a man who has already decided his destiny and will not, can not, be talked out of his decision, that it should pain any living ,breathing soul. There are though sadly too few moments where Pitt is allowed to convey any sense of his self, let alone the reason for his state. Stanley Kubrick was often criticised for the cold distanced nature of his films and Van Sant employed the technique to truly mindfucking brilliance in Elephant but here it just feels contrived, hollow and lacking in bathos, much like the fans that Nirvana gained after Nevermind; those very souls that apparently troubled Kurt Cobain so much. Last Days is a mangled mess, a grandiosely bleak and , at times plainly embarrassing, frequently brain numbingly empty, wonderfully pretentious beast devoid of direction and sense, but one that is audacious and uncompromising. Is that how heroin addiction truly feels? Is this cinema's first true, naturalistic representation of an addict’s descent into suicide? It's too empty and at times, quite simply, unbearably awful to be that. I wanted to like this film but ,alas, it’s no Performance that's for sure, but one must admire it's ability to annoy the fuck out of the 25-40 young professional demographic hoping for a entertaining night out in the company of a slick biopic and who before they listened to Nevermind thought that Green Day was punk rock.
“Nothing Happens!” I can hear them cry. Indeed, nothing and everything. Furthermore The Daily Mail(right wing English newspaper, German readers.) is going to go insane with rage when their reviewer sees it, which is always a good thing. James Howard, Brussels, June 25th 2005