Sometimes you have to kill your idols and sometimes they kill themselves. Kurt Cobain immortalized himself by losing his head. Gus Van Sant lost his head while filming the last days of Kurt Cobain. What happened? I never idolized Van Sant, nor did I ever think he was a poor filmmaker, but Gerry and Elephant showed such promise. He’s something in between. That’s why I do believe his latest deserves more than a simple dismissal. I feel Last Days needs to be examined. An autopsy may revel just what killed this film for me.
Van Sant has talked about a Kurt Cobain project for over a decade. With a recent turn towards minimalism in films such as Gerry and Elephant, Gus Van Sant finally threw off the shackles of a normal biopic, but in returning to the same creative well he has proven that the well is dry and the third time is not always the charm. Rather than show the rocketing rise of a backwoods kid to superstar status that drives the boy to suicide, Van Sant chooses to longingly stare at the last days a fictitious junkie, rock star named Blake – an homage to the poet, a name that sounds much like “blank”, and an obvious stand-in for Kurt Cobain. Not showing the degree of success achieved by Blake, nor the great divide between his humble beginnings and his present day domination of pop culture reduces Blake to a nobody. For all intents and purposes Blake is a filthy, mumbling, misanthrope who wanders about the confines of his lakeside castle. Blake is an empty vessel, dressed in grungy clothes, dragging about a shotgun. The end is always in sight and the journey there is just a series of stylistic exercises.
Why we should concern ourselves with such a mess such as Blake is never explained. It doesn’t need to be. The image of a disheveled Michael Pitt, in tattered sweaters or a thin black dress, with his hair obstructing his face is a dead ringer for the dead front man of Nirvana. The facsimile is so calculated, down to particular sweaters and glasses worn by Kurt Cobain that the audience is unable to see Blake, instead they see Kurt. It is the audience more than Van Sant that creates the character of Blake, by throwing their own knowledge of Kurt Cobain upon the naked figure of Blake.
Finding it impossible to not see the entire film as the story of Kurt Cobain’s last days and knowing the eventual outcome of the story, one is left to meditate on these final days, but how interesting these days are depends greatly on how much one knows about Cobain. Everything in Blake’s life serves as a replacement for the life of Kurt Cobain and the more you know about Cobain’s life, the more you look for similarities. A shrill female voice on a phone line soundly equals that of Courtney Love. Strange houseguests work as potential murderers, adding credence to conspiracy theories about Cobain’s death. Even the last shot of the film, a spying glimpse through trees and glass doors, mimics newspaper images of the crime scene. It’s too much for someone with knowledge of Cobain’s life. Gus Van Sant might as well just have made a film about Cobain, but then why didn’t he?
Not specifically making a film about the last days of Kurt Cobain’s life is but one of the many artistic mis-steps Van Sant takes. Relying on a lot of the formal techniques he utilized in Gerry and Elephant, Van Sant’s style feels less fresh this time around. He’d been borrowing heavily from Bela Tarr, but he’s also been borrowing from others. Still, homage is nothing new, especially for a man who remade Psycho. It’s not his greatest offense either. However, a retread is a retread.
Like Elephant, Van Sant utilizes musique concrete for a majority of the soundtrack. The sounds of cars, church bells, and phones get processed into a collage that greatly mimics the sounds of madness. While not so spot on as to be wholly inartistic or blatantly offensive, the sounds come across as cliché for multiple reasons. First, the do sound the incongruent noises one might associate with a slipping mental state. Secondly, they teeter between sublime and sedimentary. They are either angelic voices calling one upward or natural sounds rooting one to earth, but they are never so carefully crafted that one does not fell this struggle without giving it much afterthought. Finally, they are becoming expected; unanswered phones being the biggest cliché ever.
Like in Elephant, Van Sant uses Turen Der Wahrnehmung a/k/a Doors of Perception, but this time the piece is more foregrounded. Still, it does not resonate in the same way that Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven that served hauntingly as theme in Elephant. If anything the piece now feels like an unfunny inside joke. William Blake wrote the lines, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” The artist in Last Days is named Blake. Get it? One could even take the joke further and connect The Doors to this quote and the comparisons between Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Blake could begin to weave a web so large its not even worth comprehending. Flat out, the piece is not as strong. Not in this instance, it feels wrong footed, tacked on, and is there only to serve as some form of credibility. Perhaps, a Leadbelly song might have been more fitting, still an homage to Kurt Cobain, and less of a referential gag.
Outside of the soundtrack, there are various other questionable calls. For instance, the significance of a particular Boyz II Men music video escapes me. Why the video must drone on as the television screen commands the center of the film frame is confusing and feels like a flawed attempt at humor, much like an instructional karate video playing in another scene. If these are hip references I am not catching than my age is surely showing. Though, I was able to identify Kim Gordon, member of the band Sonic Youth, a group that helped discover Nirvana. My love for Sonic Youth was not enough to cloud the fact that Gordon just can’t act. Nor can Harmony Korine, or at least he can’t improvise. While making a cameo during a rock show, Harmony prattles on about the Grateful Dead, Dungeons and Dragons, and he even makes a sly reference to Gerry – a trend that has continued through Elephant (see the video game sequence). Thankfully, actors such as Lukas Haas and Asia Argento easily upstage the celebrities, though first timers like Thaddeus A. Thomas, Ryan Orion, and the Friberg twins, Adam and Andy, upstage both of them. Unknown faces help a film so full of familiarity.
Much of Last Days visual style, its long takes, roaming camera, and lack of close-ups, harks back to Elephant and Gerry. Cinematographer Harris Savides had exhibited great craftsmanship in Gerry and Elephant, but for the better part of Last Days, the film’s composition felt questionable. Odd objects blocked the foreground, blurry and out of focus. It was hard to tell if this was poor camera placement or some failed attempt aesthetic. Far too often the frame felt unbalanced, with characters being cropped off in odd ways, but never odd enough to be artistic choices. That these blemishes were so apparent comes from the duration of each shot, holding long enough to allow one to see the flaws, and the glaring fact that they are not aesthetically pleasing to the eye, nor make a great deal of sense in the context of the film. At times, the film does strike upon a visually arresting image – a dolly away from the house, a static image of a figure in the night. There is beauty in Last Days, but it’s not all thanks to Van Sant or his cinematographer. Again, the uniqueness of the images greatly depends on one’s own viewing history. A long driving shot with trees reflecting off a windshield, obscuring the driver and passenger’s face is straight out of The Bed You Sleep In by Jon Jost or was it Sure-Fire or Last Chants For A Slow Dance? Whichever one, it is nothing new about the camera tracking behind Blake. It was in Elephant, the Van Sant and the Alan Clarke versions.
Then there is Bela Tarr, that Hungarian director who seems to have inspired Van Sant to stop making film like Finding Forrester, at least for a little while. The slow re-mapping of time that comes from Santatango is a trademark for Tarr and an obsession for Van Sant. But, by now it is becoming old hat. In Last Days no new perspective is given with each piece of time that is shown from different viewpoints. Taking just the worst case in point, as it is one so ham fisted it needs to be thought about some more, there is a scene late in the film when Blake retires to a practice room and picks up an acoustic guitar. Upstairs, his two male roommates disrobed and hop into be with one another. Until this point the question of their sexuality was never a question. They had been seen with women or so doped up that one never bothered to imagine anyone being interested in sex. For no clear reason, this scene is somehow important to the story of Blake. Grasping at straws I can imagine a few things. First, that Blake and his music have somehow opened these two men up sexually. It is known that Kurt Cobain has admitted to having homosexual thoughts while in high school and that he often thought he might be bisexual. Still, this is a stretch. Then there is the theory that these two many some how be the ones who caused Kurt’s death. By either not looking after Kurt, hiding the fact that he was holed up with them, or by pulling the trigger for him, Van Sant leaves just enough room to let conspiracies flourish. Why they must be gay is still a mystery or why the beginnings of their lovemaking must be present to make this film work is confounding. Is it because Cobain once sang, “Everyone is gay”? This confused scene stands out like that of the two shooters in Elephant who take a shower together before going on a killing spree. They play like releases, letting people off the hook. “Oh they were gay.” As if this somehow explains everything. In the case of Last Days it explains nothing. At it’s worst it feels like a homosexual filmmaker placing homosexuality in a film for no reason. It’s as gratuitous as tits and ass.
The only thing more unwarrented than the homosexual scene is the obvious exclusion of all drugs. Outside of a small box dug up from the backyard, but never opened on camera, there are no scenes of Blake or any of his housemates taking drugs. Van Sant has tackled drugs before with Drugstore Cowboy and it’s a well-known fact that Cobain was addicted to heroin. In fact, he had been in and out of rehab clinics just before he was found dead. Heroin played a big role in Kurt Cobain’s life, but it does not even get screentime in the Last Days. While it is easily assumed that the cause of Blake’s wandering state of existence is drugs, they are never show, barely even referenced. There is more mention of touring, new records, new songs, and fame than there is of drugs, thus creating an uneven balance. Drugs played just as much of a part in the death of Kurt Cobain as did fame and fortune. Yet, Van Sant seems to have absolved his character, Blake, of this downfall. Sadly, the film could have had more to say about wasted talent, dead-end roads, and untimely deaths had Van Sant bothered to borrow from another Alan Clarke film.
In his BBC production Christine Clarke aimlessly follows the daily dealings of a suburban teenage junkie. Unlike most cinematic junkies, the girl is clean-cut to the point of being a boring wallflower. Her life is an unexciting serious of errands from one fix to the next. Using the same tag along style of cinematography that appears in both Clarke and Van Sant’s Elephant this attached camera forced viewers to follow Christine and helped expose the boring existence caused by a steady drug habit. Van Sant follows a similar trajectory, except for three key differences. He displaces time, thus creating an illusion of a mystery about to unfold. He focuses on a celebrity. He, finally, forget to tie much of the dreariness into a deadly addiction to heroin. The last change is the most costly, as it makes Blake appear to be more misunderstood than miscreant. While, it would be just as awful for Van Sant to blame all of Blake’s woes on drugs Van Sant does need to address key elements that he leaves in and out of his film as much as those that he chooses to leave in.
I have said little of the star, Michael Pitt. Serviceable at best, he is a model in Bressonian terms. More a dress-up doll of Kurt Cobain than an actor, he holds a believable body posture. With nearly a page full of understandable dialog his usual, inaudible mumblings often slip into expected grumbles. Here and there, a line rings out, but they are just what you’d predict a strung out rock star might say; everyone is out to get him, he’s misunderstood. They are there if you bother to listen. Warning signs, perhaps, another think Van Sant wants us to pick-up on, things Kurt’s friends and family didn’t pick up on? That’s what I expect they are. What I didn’t expect is the mishandling of the star by Van Sant. Allowing Pitt to write and perform his own songs, in a style very reminiscent of Nirvana, is a bit grating. I had read that it was Pitt and not Van Sant who insisted upon mimicking Kurt Cobain as closely as possible. While Pitt certainly resembles the artist it’s a questionable call for a film that continually skirts around being a direct biographical picture. Would it be of greater service to have gone with brown hair, like Pitt had in The Dreamers? Would that distance be enough or would you still see Kurt and not Blake? Was that ever really the intent Van Sant had? I doubt it. As for placing Blake in a room with new born kittens and showing his sensitive side, that is totally Van Sant’s fault and it’s a huge blunder. Cobain may have been a gentle soul, but this is too fluffy for even the most emotional emo-band members. It also is too much of an extreme. If Cobain is that sensitive then where is the great pain and torture, even the anger and angst stands out in Smells Like Teen Spirit, the song that captured the heart of a teenage populace when it hit the airwaves, the song that brought Kurt Cobain to the attention of the world?
The lack of angst, that becomes more apparent as I listen to Nirvana albums hoping to find clues to what went wrong with Last Days, it is surely not the worst miscalculation on Van Sant’s part. The biggest mis-step comes in crafting a story that is at odds with itself. Though he never constructs Blake as a rock legend, we do that by replacing him with Kurt, Van Sant wants us to make this connection otherwise the mystique of his story is wasted on a nobody. Starting with a premade rock icon, Van Sant reduces the rock legend to nothing in the hopes of finding the man behind the myth. At the same time he uses cinematic conventions to lift this blank figure to the level of deity. Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called it the, “grunge version of the Christ story.” To some extent I’d have to agree, though the deifying of Blake/Kurt is greatly saved for the end of the film where it is either obvious or obviously mis-read. Choosing to show Blake’s soul lifting up from his body and climbing out of frame, perhaps ascending a stairway to Heaven, comes across as so profoundly glorifying that snickers need to be suppressed. Instinctively, one sees this use of double exposure as a symbol for Blake’s spirit returning to Heaven, the upward ascension of the body makes for this reading. However, I am apt to give Van Sant some slack after thinking about the film for sometime.
Blake is really nothing. He’s Kurt Cobain only because we, the audience, have made him Kurt Cobain. This is not to confuse things and say that Kurt Cobain was someone else or had a different name. Kurt was always Kurt, but he was Kurt Cobain a kid from Aberdeen, Washington long before he was Kurt Cobain lead singer of Nirvana. Early in the film, Van Sant shows his creation, Blake, stripping down to his boxers and taking a swim in a cold body of water. At this moment of near nakedness Blake is most alive. For the rest of the film he is donning and doffing various costumes. It is only after he takes his own life that we see him naked, a spirit free from the identity that has grown up around the musician.
Perhaps, this is what Van Sant was attempting to convey and perhaps this is why he felt inclined to change the name of his protagonist. Yet, in changing the name he does confuse matters. People may have mocked him for making a film about Kurt Cobain that ends with the singer’s spirit climbing to the heavens, but it’s no less ridiculous to have the spirit of a stand-in do the same thing. After all, they are both just rock musicians, not gods. However, rock’n'roll has a power to transform normal people into deities and grunge was the second coming of punk. Kurt was the messiah and that’s a lot of pressure for a young, confused kid.
Van Sant was one of Cobain’s followers. The two had met. Kurt had wanted to act in one of Van Sant’s films. Van Sant had written films for Kurt. The two never collaborated, but nearly a decade later, Van Sant seems to have found his chance to work with Cobain, even if it just the myth of Cobain. I give the filmmaker credit for attempting to slow down the pace, focus on the individual, and to not even try to place many words, especially profound ones, into the mouth of someone he loved and appreciated. Yet, there is a tinge of exploitation in the air. Would Kurt have wanted this? Why disturb the dead?