Sarah Silver on Last Days
Sing to me of the man. No, not a mere mortal man. A Legend. Young and troubled, misunderstood and alone, beautiful, damned, visionary, stark raving mad, and far too pure for this world. The title alone of Gus Van Sant’s completely original take on the rock ‘n’ roll biopic, Last Days, echoes with an apocalyptical grandiosity of biblical proportions, suggesting that what lies ahead is the epic recounting of a mythical hero’s final battle or the end of a Christ figure’s long, arduous journey, culminating in a scene of cathartic martyrdom.
However, this expectation falls completely by the wayside within the film’s first minutes. The opening shots of Last Days, which follow a disoriented and mumbling young man through the wilderness, prepare us for what is coming: the (bi)-polar opposite of your typical Rock God portrait. Instead, Last Days is something akin to the celebration of mundanity of Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, crossed with a Walden-esque meditation on man’s relationship with nature. The long shots that open the film are surprisingly intimate, despite our physical distance from the character. The man vomits on the quilt of crisp, dry leaves blanketing the forest floor, peels limp clothing off his emaciated body, cleanses himself in a waterfall, pisses in the river, and settles his jangled body by a crackling fire before we actually get close enough to distinguish his features. He looks a bit like Kurt Cobain. Or, rather, he gives us the impression of Kurt Cobain. Yet, his howling out a couple words of “Home on the Range” is our only clue as to his affinity for music. He is neither glamorous nor inspired. He is anything but surrounded by adoring fans and readily available synthetic drugs. He is utterly alone and, in fact, resembles not so much a pop icon as he does a mangy old dog, or the Wild Child of Aveyron.
The veracity of this portrayal is strikingly disarming. After all, Cobain (who is called Blake in the film) was manic-depressive and self-medicated with heroin, and chances are he was indeed borderline incoherent and completely spaced-out in the final hours of his life. To see the effects of mental illness and drug abuse acted out in such a matter-of-fact way, neither glamorized nor demonized, but rather banalized in what feels like real time, moves this picture out of the biopic genre (which, let’s face it, it really has nothing to do with), and into a mysterious territory that somehow manages to gracefully segue from a string of naturalistic, improvised scenes to a final Romantic image of Blake’s spirit ascending to heaven. Van Sant also deftly avoids the traps of the conventional biopic by eschewing any attempt at a chronological history of the artist’s life. He is right: that is what music rags and fanzines and VH1 Behind the Music are for. A biographer researches and reconstructs. A reporter delivers the cold, hard facts. An artist interprets, universalizes, and transcends.
Having started out with a more linear biopic in mind, complete with a scene of the wide-eyed young boy receiving his first guitar, Van Sant realized that such a hackneyed approach would not be in keeping with the spirit of the man whose art didn’t adhere to trends of the time. So, rather than the rise and fall of a “rock and roll cliché,” as Kim Gordon calls Blake in the film, Last Days is a series of vignettes, all taking place during the final 48 hours of Blake’s life and often resembling the stuff of Southern Gothic novels in its procession of outsiders who come to Blake’s house: messengers from the outside world, hocking capitalism (a man selling ad space in the Yellow Pages), religion (a pair of proselytizing Mormon brothers), and familial obligations (Gordon herself asks if Blake has spoken to his daughter). When the ad salesman asks him if the ad he ran last year was successful, Blake mutters, “I think it was successful. Success is subjective, you know.” It’s one of those tossed-off lines that Van Sant has sprinkled throughout his slow, thoughtful “Death Trilogy,” (as Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days have come to be known), which feels like a wink of a reference or a jab at a theme in an otherwise vast and seemingly arbitrary space.
The director has called these lines or, in some instances, just brief shots of activities, “tinctures: where you’re putting a tiny drop in a big bowl and it actually has a power on its own to create a chain reaction in your imagination.” There are several such winks in Elephant (a shot of the teenage killers playing violent video games, a stolen kiss between them), and within the context of a film that is, for the most part, an aggravatingly neutral observation of a terrible event, these wan droplets feel frustratingly like afterthoughts that tease the viewer with suggested motivations, but remain thoroughly unexplored and unsatisfying. In Last Days, however, these “tinctures” are so subtle as to work on an almost subconscious level. The P.I. looking for Blake rambles on to his partner about Chinese magician Chung Wing Su and the ambiguous circumstances of his “death by adventure” on stage during a bullet-catching trick (was it suicide or murder? “He’d had some rocky relationship with his wife…who performed, also…”). This reference to the Courtney Love “conspiracy” controversy is oblique and (thankfully) easy to overlook, but it is just as easily absorbed by some other part of the brain, enhancing while not interfering with, our experience.
Gus Van Sant acknowledges the weighty presence of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr’s influence on the “Death Trilogy.” That influence is felt in Last Days in the elegiac camera movements and overwhelming importance of architecture and environment. Blake’s huge lake house bears more than a passing resemblance to the spacious house of Janos, the young man in the third installment of Tarr’s own trilogy, Werckmeister Harmonies. Also, like Janos (played by Lars Rudolph who, coincidentally, fronted several bands before becoming an actor), Blake is gentle and boyish, and the camera follows his gaunt frame from room to cavernous room, alternating between waiting patiently for things to happen, and pushing forward, appearing to incite action. The deliberate, premeditated choreography of the camera in both films gives the distinct impression of some outside force at work sculpting the lives of these characters; of some heavy predetermined fate. Though the action may feel haphazard and unscripted, the camera belies a sense of preternatural knowledge as it stalks Blake, who uses his residence and its expansive surroundings to hide from detectives and acquaintances who, even as they tread on his land and inhabit his house, often cannot find Blake, and never make any real connection with him.
Kurt Cobain is known to have identified heavily with another Washington State native, actress and writer Frances Farmer, who said, upon the publication of her poem “God Dies:” “It was pretty sad, because for the first time I found how stupid people could be. It sort of made me feel alone in the world.” Farmer’s sentiments on the loneliness of a visionary artist echo through every empty hallway and sparsely decorated room in Blake’s house. At the crux of Last Days is the slow, mesmerizing dolly out of the musician, in a rare moment of lucidity, at work in his music room, so well articulated in Daniel Cockburn’s Reverse Shot piece. Visually, viscerally, and metaphorically, this shot may well be the apex of Van Sant’s filmography thus far. As Blake paces around the room, picking up and discarding instruments, recording and looping tracks, wailing on top of them, building more and more layers, building invisible walls of sound around himself, we see that only in creation does this man find any solace. And he creates not to be worshipped or idolized, but because of the base need to get it out, regardless of who notices or cares. The distance between artist and audience grows as he continues in his process; already having started outside his window, we end up with trees and window frames as obstructions to our view of the musician. His sonic sculpture reverberates and envelops us, but, while we may like his pretty song, we don’t necessarily know what it means.