Fall and Rise
Michael Joshua Rowin on Last Days
For gravitating toward the myth of Kurt Cobain—and therefore the rock ‘n’ roll death myth itself—while simultaneously attempting to push out of its orbit, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days is a fascinating film. But it’s an awkward one for those whose formative years were affected or influenced by Nirvana, and for that reason this fascinating film has been thus far dismissed, out of empty reverence on one side and embarrassed contempt on the other. Too seemingly derivative for a group of young critics who would like to downplay Nirvana’s legacy in popular culture (I imagine the same people who cry foul over Van Sant’s “pillaging” of Béla Tarr even as they deem Tarantino’s samplings “mix-tape cinema” are also the ones pretending their appreciation of the Vaselines and Sonic Youth has nothing to do with the endorsement of these bands by a certain shaggy-haired frontman from Washington state), but too odd to fans longing for the kind of rote biopic that would allow a liturgy of all things Cobain, Last Days is a film adrift, distanced from its subject and its audience alike.
As much as some would call Van Sant a poseur and leave it at that, the limbo state of Last Days is most definitely the design of a conscious artist. The camera that follows Cobain-surrogate Blake (Michael Pitt) throughout Last Days is usually located close enough to the protagonist to arouse lurid curiosity about his march to the gallows and yet too far away to truly titillate, to provide a driver’s seat proximity during the vicarious car wreck. As viewers we’re more than arm’s length away from Blake, and that directorial decision alone speaks volumes. In a mystery-less entertainment era that constantly offers the dubious experience of taking us “behind the music,” Last Days sets itself resolutely apart—Ray or Walk the Line this film most definitely is not. More than the eschewal of psychological speculation, the aesthetic strategy of Last Days places the image at the forefront (Pitt’s costume pageant consists of a recreation of Cobain’s classic appearances, from spaceman shades to Freddy Kreuger horizontal-striped sweater to homophobe-baiting black slip and hunting cap) while defusing, as much as possible, the fetishistic allure of that image.
What Van Sant has done with Last Days, then, is offer an elegiac form appropriate to a mass culture that has long exhausted the integrity it once might have claimed in reconciling audiences with the existential fact of death. That’s the overall point, I think, in Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy,” but one that never reaches fulfillment until Last Days. Gerry remains too abstracted to represent the communal repercussions of this mission, while Elephant fails to avoid the trappings of exploitative carnage. With the final film of the trilogy Van Sant demonstrates how a central node of totemic power as represented in the form of a flesh and blood person becomes the site of collective mourning—even though the concrete facts of that tragedy can never fully account for such an overwhelming response. The irony, again, is that in offering this form, Van Sant positions his work outside the mainstream to which he offers it, while also making his film too dependent on unfashionable external referents for the art cinema crowd to which he wishes to ingratiate himself.
Last Days makes brilliant reference to this dilemma. Daniel Cockburn’s analysis in Reverse Shot’s “Take One” symposium of Last Days and the long, unbroken tracking shot that serves as its centerpiece insightfully decodes the film’s obsession with mimicry in its attempt to find an act of purity in the originality of the isolated shot. At the risk of engaging in my own act of mimicry I'll try to extend that thesis to the film's subject. Whether we think Cobain a worthwhile subject or not, his role at the center of Van Sant’s crisis is extremely significant. Van Sant recognizes Cobain’s importance not only as a singularly galvanizing musician but as one of the last, if not the last, of a vanishing breed: the mythical rock ‘n’ roll star. Since the Internet age’s transformation of the music industry, in which corporate record labels relinquish their direct support of smaller roster acts to “grassroots” venues like the World Wide Web—a strategy that has diversified mainstream music while simultaneously relegating such diversity to second-class cultural citizenship—the rock star with even a modicum of credibility, and thus the rock star with the ability to mark his time beyond the statistical accomplishments of his or her record sales, has gone the way of the drum solo.
The tragedy of Cobain’s suicide was that it was committed by a man who seemed to be intelligent and self-aware to the point where he could rewrite large sections of the rock star playbook but who also bought into enough rock ‘n’ roll mythology to eventually make himself one of its casualties. How, for instance, does one resolve the following Cobain missive, penned at the end of the liner notes of Nirvana’s compilation album Incesticide:
“I don’t feel the least bit guilty for commercially exploiting a completely exhausted Rock youth Culture because, at this point in rock history, Punk Rock (while still sacred to some) is, to me, dead and gone. We just wanted to pay tribute to something that helped us feel as though we had crawled out of the dung heap of conformity. To pay tribute like an Elvis or Jimi Hendrix impersonator in the tradition of a bar band. I’ll be the first to admit that we’re the 90s version of Cheap Trick or The Knack but the last to admit that it hasn’t been rewarding.”
Nirvana never lacked an ironic appreciation of how they were repeating rock history (watch again their Beatles-on-Sullivan homage in the video for “In Bloom”), but Cheap Trick–style self-deprecation wasn’t exactly their musical strong suit. As the band’s leader, Cobain was too jaded to see much remaining value in the rock star and generational spokesman role thrust on him, but also not above the theatrics of grand ambition that made him pick up a guitar in the first place. By taking his own life he cast off the rich potentialities of such a unique existential situation. However great the pressures of fame or however much pain he suffered—and this isn’t to make light of the very real personal problems that contributed to his demise—Cobain’s suicide was one informed by narrative, by choosing a familiar denouement rather than resisting the rock ‘n’ roll death myth and creating a new story. In effect, he enacted the myth’s last passion play.
As if to correct Cobain’s tragic mistake, Last Days resists narrative at every turn. Its resistance is an elegy for the narrative Cobain finally exhausted; its story contains a foregone conclusion, but the drive toward it is entropic and tangential. Van Sant, using the Tarr template, will double back on a moment in time to gauge it from a different vantage point, one that reveals as frustratingly little as the previous one. The dream-paced events unfold in spite of their varying levels of meaning. Sometimes they will border on the transcendent, as in the aforementioned unbroken dolly shot that backs slowly away from Blake as he creates a noise collage out of guitar loops and screams, or in the one that marries one of Blake’s stupors to a Boyz II Men video (Cobain and Van Sant’s difficult place between earnest emotionality and self-abnegating retreat is most hypnotically expressed here—as if to drive the point home, the lyric “on bended knee” is later referenced in the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”). But more likely than not, they won’t, as in the scenes centered on the groupies hanging around Blake’s mansion, or in the plethora of banal Blake activities on display like his tortured cooking of macaroni and cheese. If Last Days is largely composed of iconography, that iconography is neutralized so that the film’s beauty and mystery have nothing to do with Blake the star and everything to do with Blake the person. Van Sant’s aesthetic is a sort of democratic realism that divests the Cobain myth—and the rock ‘n’ roll death myth to which he wedded himself—of its usually unchecked power.
It’s at this point that critics of Last Days will bring up Van Sant’s flagrant use of religious imagery. But what’s interesting about this imagery is that it’s less worshipful than a quick viewing might suggest. Often the imagery is used during those brief periods when Van Sant sets realism aside—the extra-diegetic opera fragments that bookend the film and the superimposition of Blake’s “spirit” that leaves his body and presumably climbs toward heaven after his death. The large differences in tone and frequency between the film’s mostly bleak, unromantic view of a creative and spiritual impasse (Pitt’s performance of his own “Death to Birth” song eerily echoes Cobain’s lyrical obsession with natal regression, perhaps best summarized in a line from “Heart-Shaped Box”: “Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back”) and these moments find the latter wanting in superiority. For instance, Blake’s ascension occurs only when another person discovers his body. His isn’t the innocent sacrifice referred to by the Mormon proselytizers earlier in the film—it’s the sacrifice of someone unwilling to sacrifice his own dependence on the gaze of the public. Blake’s suicide is like the one the private investigator (Ricky Jay) claims visited Billy Robinson when the magician/imposter attempted to catch a bullet with his teeth: death by misadventure.
Despite his uneven body of work, I give Van Sant the benefit of the doubt: Last Days is far from an unthinking enshrinement of Cobain. That it clears out from overridden narrative and mythic territory in favor of something new, however tentatively explored, says as much. There’s a scene in the second half of Last Days that, while not as remarked upon or celebrated as the unbroken tracking shot of Blake's solo noise jam, expresses even more profoundly the extreme limits of narrative cinema Van Sant is currently seeking. It comes when Donovan (Ryan Orion) and the private investigator enter the house looking for Blake. Blake leaves the mansion and, after the camera pans to follow his movement, exits the frame toward the end of the shot. The frame absent of Blake, the shot remains held on some nearby foliage for roughly 35 seconds—an absolute lifetime. As Donovan and the private investigator meander on their search through the mansion, the PI picks up an ornamental rock from a table and announces in his erudite fashion that the mineral is composed of cellulose nitrate, the film stock material that will eventually “completely crystallize and implode.” Note that as the Cobain character engages in one of his many disappearing acts before his final piece de resistance, a master illusionist and sleight of hand operator delivers this bit of dialogue. Van Sant refuses to indulge the illusion of constantly covering Blake, but his intermittent abandonment of the Cobain myth for the sake of natural beauty, isn’t, to be sure, some unheard of radical departure from convention that will initiate the implosion of narrative cinema. Instead it's one of Van Sant's many humble acts of directorial absolution in Last Days. Unsettling in its flight away from narrative, both in content and in sheer duration, the 35-second shot implodes Van Sant's dependence on mythological certainty. After so many artistic cul de sacs, Van Sant has with the “Death Trilogy” and especially Last Days gone back to basic elements to rediscover the existential magic of cinema. But unlike Cobain’s nihilism, Van Sant's journey leads toward artistic affirmation. Cobain returned to zero because, as he quoted Neil Young in his suicide note, it was “better to burn out than to fade away.” With Last Days Van Sant has returned to zero but refused to vanish.