Last Days

Van Sant's latest has all the dreamy strengths of his last two films - just don't go and see it if you're a wannabe rock star.

By Tim Young

I was just the 'right' age when Kurt Cobain killed himself. At 16 everything is overly meaningful. An older brother of a friend told me 'Kurt died for us', and even though I knew that was bollocks, I still recognised a need to romanticise the event in some way: we found Kurt’s life so meaningful, why shouldn’t his death be meaningful too? If I’d seen Last Days when I was 16, I’d have been gutted.

Last Days captures the final few days of Blake, a musician and singer with (presumably) an extremely successful band. The film takes place in a house owned by Blake and the surrounding grounds and forest. From the outside the house is an impressive rich man’s pile, but inside it is depressed and dilapidated. He shares it with a bunch of hangers-on who sleep, have sex and occasionally bug Blake with demo tapes and requests for money. Blake, who clearly wants to just be left alone, hangs around in a small outhouse or disappears into the woods. Any attempt to reach him, whether by friends, bandmates on the phone or record company types are met with silence, blank stares or flight as Blake slips deeper into the abyss.

The Kurt-like role of Blake is played by Michael Pitt (Hedwig and the Angry Itch, The Dreamers). In long, unmoving shots he is left alone to mumble, grumble, moan and groan. Occasionally a paranoid word or two escapes from the hum and rarer still the odd wild exhortation. There are still creative juices there somewhere – a run through of a song with a guitar, a ramshackle noise experiment, but mostly time is spent smoking, making vile meals and crawling about. As in Gus Van Sant’s last two films, his latest puts the viewer in the role of a voyeur – the static camerawork dares you to blink first. No concessions are made for plot development or back-story: you’re in there with the characters living at the same time as they do.

Other similarities are also present. For one, it’s a fictional story based on a real event; Gerry (2002) was inspired by a news item on two friends who got lost in the desert, and Elephant (2003) addressed the Columbine high-school massacre. There’s the same mixture of actors and non-actors (including a real-life Yellow Pages advertising salesman playing… a Yellow Pages advertising salesman), a large amount of improvisation and a small cast and crew including regular producer Dany Wolf and cinematographer Harris Savides. Cameos include Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon as a concerned label staffer, Asia Argento and Harmony Korine.

When someone like Kurt Cobain dies in such a dramatic fashion, the imagination goes haywire.  Cobain was pretty much alone for a good few days before the act, so you wonder what the hell could be going through his mind at the time. There was a lot of interest about those lost days, both out of morbid fascination or a simple need for answers. In the hands of a lesser film-maker this premise would undoubtedly manifested itself as hand-wringing angst and blustery pronouncements about how 'no-one understands me'. In Blake’s last days we instead get grumpy nonsensical mithering and skulking around in negligee and 'wacky' hat. Is it a little too real for some?

Perhaps I had trouble with the fact/fiction aspect because i’m a long time Nirvana fan. It’s confusing at times – the characters aren’t real, yet some details are created from Kurt’s life with painstaking accuracy. The clothes, the garage/outhouse where his body was found, even the pose his corpse was found in are identical, blurring the edges between fiction and reality but not taking the plunge either way. Perhaps a (quite reasonable) fear of Courtney was an issue.

Last Days is clearly a labour of love for Van Sant, Pitt and the others involved, who include Nirvana biographer Michael Azzerad and Thurston Moore as musical consultant. It doesn’t go for cheap sensationalism, quite the opposite – this has no romantic notion of elegant waste, and certainly not of living fast. And this is where the casual viewer may not connect: for anyone not familiar or interested in the Nirvana legacy it just might not hold their interest. Any impressionable 16 year-old watching may be left with a strong urge to become an accountant.
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