Nevermind The Narrative
Luis Buñuel liked the sequence in Umberto D that follows the ostensibly trivial activities of a maid going through her daily routine, which he saluted for the "raising of the commonplace act to the level of dramatic action." Such an endorsement of quotidian realism might have seemed surprising from the author of the surrealist flamethrowers "Un chien andalou" and L'âge d'or; in the same essay, "Cinema as an Instrument of Poetry," Buñuel argued that movies should mimic dreams and "express the life of the subconscious"--not a world immediately evoked by the sight of a house servant putting a pan on the fire. Buñuel's implicit point was that big-screen contemplation of homely movements could be as radical as a close-up of a blade slicing an eye. Given the chance to wander over an image that's jarring for its very familiarity, the mind might start screening its own projections, opening its own doors of perception.
Hypnotic and oblique, Gus Van Sant's Last Days presents a person you know performing "commonplace acts" that are filtered through the dream-state prisms of drug addiction, depression, and fame. A nature doc shot through a thick, disorienting cloud of heroin and musique concrète, it finds a vantage point on the occluded final week before Kurt Cobain's suicide via his doppelgänger Blake (Michael Pitt), a zonked-out musician who shares the Nirvana frontman's blond hair, junk habit, buggy thrift-store sunglasses, and solitary demise. Beautiful and apparently kind, Blake is almost completely inaccessible. He's an Elemental Man whose nonmusical means of expression runs to a mumbling mentalese--a survivalist (he sleeps shelterless in the woods and bathes in a waterfall), a hunter-gatherer (he prowls the grounds of his decaying stone mansion with a rifle and prepares Cocoa Krispies).
Owing a debt to Abbas Kiarostami's notion of the "half-made" film and employing the long, mobile takes of Hungarian master Béla Tarr (Werckmeister Harmonies), Van Sant's premature-death trilogy--each installment shot by Harris Savides--locates its rhythms in the characters' perambulations. In the throat-clearing stunt Gerry (2002), two young men embark on a desert trek and only one returns; in the eerily calm and meditative Elephant (2003), which reckoned with the Columbine massacre, the camera strolls down endless corridors of a high school that becomes a sprawling death trap. Last Days meets Blake tramping through the forest, hospital ID bracelet still around his wrist. Coiled and determined, slender body bent in a scoliotic hunch, Blake appears to be a man escaped--even from his own tucked-away house, which he repeatedly flees in order to elude a private investigator (Ricky Jay). Savides's camera stalks Blake from behind much as in his bravura opening shot of Jonathan Glazer's Birth; in a rare moment of enunciation, Blake mutters to himself, "I'm being treated like a fucking criminal." Knowing that Blake's inspiration had recently penned an album-length suicide note called In Utero, you might say that Blake is also a temporary fugitive from his appointment with oblivion.
Blake is what he does and what he can offer. He is usually alone, and when he's not, someone wants something from him. Hanger-on Luke (Lukas Haas) wants help with his demo; hanger-on Scott (Scott Green) wants better heating for the sinking mansion where he has taken a bed; a record executive (uncomfortable Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth) wants Blake to clean up; his bandmates on the phone want him to play some gigs. Ravishing in eyeliner, black slip, and unlaced hiking boots, Blake politely receives a Yellow Pages salesman (unflappable Thadeus A. Thomas), but nods out by visit's end. The supplications of the outside world even beam in via the television, where the Boyz II Men video "On Bended Knee" plays in its entirety. Blake sits on the floor and slumps against a door--a momentous feat in his pharmacological condition--while an R&B geyser of Tourette's-like melismic hysteria pours forth from the TV, and Van Sant achieves Lautréamont's "chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table."
Last Days several times places a song at center stage--the Velvet Underground's sado-smack dirge "Venus in Furs," Blake/Pitt's convincingly Nirvana-like solo thrash "Death to Birth"--and uncorks Hildegard Westerkamp's musique-concrète selection "Doors of Perception" (which takes its title from a line by Blake's Romantic-poet namesake). Low-flying planes hover overhead and ever-chiming clocks signal a looming deadline, the dissonance and dislocation of sound and image thickening the oneiric blur. As in Elephant (which also used Westerkamp), chronology is an undulating Venn diagram. Time expands, liquefies, and doubles back on itself, while the superb Pitt often exists in another gravitational pull entirely.
While its pockets of idle vérité conjure faint inklings of the celeb-reality shows that never would be (Newlyweds: Kurt and Courtney), Last Days respects Blake's stubborn evasiveness right down to his final act. A close-up of Blake, his face unobscured for the first time, is as close to revelation as the film will come. He fixes his clear eyes on some horizon line we can't see, and then it's all apologies.
Also in this issue: His Own Private Biopic: Gus Van Sant shuffles past his subject's greatest hits by Rob Nelson.
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