(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Official selection in the 2005 Cannes Film festival, Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days” is inspired by the last days of Kurt Cobain. The film introduces us to Blake (Michael Pitt), a brilliant but troubled musician. Success has left him in a lonely place, where livelihoods rest on his shoulders and old friends regularly tap him for money and favors. The film follows him through a handful of hours spent in and near his wooded home, a fugitive from his own life.
– From DVD Production Notes
I suppose it’s a small miracle I own Last Days. The two films that preceded it in Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy”- Gerry (2002) and Elephant (2003)- were hard to get through. I barely made it to the ending of Gerry and remember very little of it. The same could be said of Elephant. Hell, my roommate Lauren was in that film and ended up hating it. She doesn’t even own a copy.
But then I heard about Last Days going into production. I knew I would have to see it. And I did. For some reason it succeeded with me where its predecessors didn’t.
Perhaps it was the subject matter. Perhaps it was the imagery. Perhaps it was the people in it- Michael Pitt, Asia Argento, Lukas Haas and Harmony Korine. I’m not sure. All I know is that it has this ineffable quality that has never left me. In fact, while preparing to write this I simply couldn’t stop watching the film. It ran on a loop for hours and hours over several days. At one point I took the DVD out of the player, intending to replace it. Before I knew what I was doing I had put it back in. The film played for another two days.
I’m wondering if it’s because Last Days isn’t intrusive. It seems meant for playing at home and reminded me of Chloë Sevigny’s defense of the stylistically similar The Brown Bunny (2003): “It should be playing in museums. It’s like an Andy Warhol movie.” I can see that, and there are moments in the film that remind me of Sharon Lockhart’s Pine Flat (2005) installations- these static shots of children in the woods of northern California; often silent, often doing the simplest, most isolated actions.
With this film you get the same thing.
I could easily imagine Last Days being shown as a multi-screen film installation itself, a culmination of what the public immediately recognizes (the wooded terrain, the visual details of Kurt Cobain’s life) on a jumbled timeline we can scarcely follow or understand. And maybe that’s the point of Van Sant’s filmmaking, although in a more linear fashion.
The result is more of a cinematic space than a story, and the best word I can find to describe it is “lugubrious.” The film is quiet but filled with inexplicable anguish, mostly because no one says a thing about it. I understand that kind of situation as well as the mysterious, unneeded death that punctuates the film. It is a product of that silence. The circumstances in Blake/Cobain’s life reiterates a painful lesson I’ve already learned: that you can become completely, utterly mentally ill- perhaps nothing more than a husk of a person- and the people around you will go out of their way to ignore it. If you’re famous, that problem can be 100x worse.
There is an unshakable accuracy in just how far the Blake/Cobain character’s depression has gone. It’s worth pointing out that Pitt (who was only twenty-four at the time) nails it. He doesn’t walk right. He can hardly speak. It hurts to move. He can hardly function as a human being. I knew about Cobain’s stomach problems and how he used heroin to keep the pain at bay. In Pitt’s case he lived off of lettuce and fruit to attain Cobain’s physique, leading to his own stomach problems. He didn’t rectify the problem and said it helped. It shows.
The ghost of Cobain looms large in the film, which is unavoidable. In my case I had already studied his life and sympathized with his demise. That was what got me to watch Last Days in the first place. The deepest way Cobain has touched my life is through showing me “what not to do,” and I understand that at his worst he was a contradictory, unhappy and difficult person. The film doesn’t shy away from this, although it’s implied more than shown. It also results in some frustrating, cathartic and darkly comic moments* within the house:
However, just about everyone knows where these moments are heading. The Blake/Cobain character is going to die. We don’t see it happen, although the rumors surrounding his death are symbolically addressed (or at least that’s what Van Sant claims).
The journey there is what divides audiences. Last Days is a film you either love or hate, and I completely understand the hate part. I really do. I’ve read reviews where people say it’s glacial. That there’s more plot development in a Boyz II Men video than the film itself. One review described it as “the worst movie ever. I had no idea Kurt Cobain was a retarded deaf-mute.” It didn’t offend me. It was the funniest thing I had read in weeks.
What all of this boils down to is there are two kinds of people. A lot of them can’t take hours of Michael Pitt stumbling around in the woods, mumbling to himself. Apparently I can.
And I think his evaluation of the film puts it best. He suggests that Van Sant wasn’t making a film for mainstream audiences, Cobain admirers or anyone living: “It’s less of a film about Kurt Cobain and more of a film for Kurt Cobain.”
Even if you disagree, it just reminds you that Last Days wasn’t meant for everyone.
* By that I mean the Boyz II Men sequence. I mean, come on- that was a joke, right? Oh, and the fact that Asia Argento wanders around the film looking like my sister.