Being someone who creates and who is supportive of those who create, I sometimes find myself conflicted when I encounter a piece that rubs me the wrong way, or that downright turns me out. At the same time, my stint in Art School taught me that it’s okay not to like every painting, every installation, every work of cinema. But, it’s also important to look at art with a critical eye, good or bad. You don’t have to like every piece of art you see. Gus Van Sant’s films seem to conflict me in this way.
Case in point, Last Days; a Van Sant film from 2005 that was inspired by the last days of Kurt Cobain (this was even said in the credits), but this was very much a work of fiction (Van Sant’s words). Being a minimalist filmmaker, Van Sant chooses for the imagery to speak for itself. If the camera pans on a driveway for five minutes, that is supposed to say something. If it stares at an actor sitting on a log for five minutes, that also says something, or so I am made to think, as Gus Van Sant’s take on Cobain’s final days is full of scenes like this, where not much really happens. That said, not too many character-building details are revealed in Last Days, but enough clues are provided that your mind can fill in the gaps.
Cobain’s fictional doppelganger goes by the name of Blake, a guy with shaggy blonde hair who just escaped from rehab and returns home to his delapidated rock mansion where his loafing freeloading strung-out “friends” are sleeping off last night’s orgy. Through bits and bobs of near incoherent dialogue we learn that Blake is a musician who is trying to dodge everyone in his life, including someone named Blackie (which I assume represents Courtney Love here), and record execs who are pressuring him to get back out there and tour. His friend Donovan (who represents Dylan Carlson, Cobain’s best friend) arrives with a Private Investigator to the house looking for him too…and Blake somehow manages to hide out from them all while slamming doors and dashing out the back until they leave. Sooner or later he hangs out with the interloping friends staying at his house who shamelessly ask him for money. This is all interspersed with scenes of Blake eating Cocoa Rice Krispies and Kraft Dinner, beating up on a drum set, or sitting on the floor in a drug-induced high, grunting nonsense. The plot does not evolve much until the last eight minutes when (spoiler alert) he is found dead in the greenhouse by the gardener.
Van Sant used relatively unknown actors to play in Last Days. About the only substantial actor of recognition is Lukas Haas who played one of Blake’s interloping friends. Interestingly enough, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth fame was also pulled in to play one of the record execs, begging Blake to return to rehab.
One thing I hand to Van Sant is that he manages to give the viewer a sense of suspense without trying too hard, but where I find fault is there was no climax, reveal, or “ah-ha” moment. The viewer can tell something “ain’t quite right” with Blake, yet Van Sant’s “…wait for it…” method of suspense made me impatient with this film. Showing a person for 5 minutes doing nothing more than sitting there didn’t move the plot along, and definitely frustrated me. Some might perceive this as a work of genius, and that’s fine. I prefer more meat on them bones. Not providing a full picture on the character development and focusing plainly on sweeping scenes alone made the film feel empty and pointless. But, maybe that was the point…
Dir. Gus Van Sant
**Full movie is on YouTube for those interested