Art or Indulgence: Gus Van Sant's 'Last Days'

After rising to mainstream glory on the back to back success of 'Good Will Hunting' and its basketball-based rehash 'Finding Forrester,' Gus Van Sant turned right back around and subverted it. He took the mantras of mainstream gold and started breaking them down, peeling back drama instead of artificially creating it, exploring people instead of characters and crafting experiences rather than telling stories. He began by turning story and dialogue into minimalist abstraction in 'Gerry,' then stripped violence and chaos of their excitement in 'Elephant,' and has now robbed an iconic rock and roll flameout of its sensationalist fanfare with 'Last Days,' his meditation on the suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain.

Blake (Michael Pitt) collapses amid his equipment.

Each one inspired by a story from the news, the films aren't so much reactions to the events as they are attempts to comprehend them. Human nature is anything but clear cut, and rather than simply throw his two cent into the debates, Van Sant's films eschew theses in favor of re-imagine the experiences and letting us decide for ourselves. 

What's most striking about these films and characters isn't their tragedy, but their normalcy. The headlines may be sensational, but the people are not. Before they committed suicide, got lost in the desert or were gunned down by classmates, these people were just going about the business of an ordinary day, and Van Sant's deliberately ambiguous dialogue and generic shot choices turn the mundane into an avenue to connection. These conversations could be any two people talking about anything, and the shared commonality both drags us into the experience and forces us to create our own meaning.

Though Van Sant's elliptical style and generic framing help keep the film as open to interpretation as possible, the removal of so many of the cinematic crutches we've become accustomed to can make film seem to drag at times, and his occasionally self-indulgent tendencies he points the camera at a Boyz II Men video and just lets it roll for minutes in one excruciatingly pointless scene don't help matters. But to write off the film as boring would be to miss the underlying tension and psychological interplay that make it such a fascinating glimpse into the human mind.

Blake (Pitt) receives a visit from a record executive (Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon).

By breaking down structure and limiting the external action, Van Sant cuts out a lot of the distractions in order to meditate on the internal struggles. He uses the visual and aural landscapes of the film to depict the inner turmoil and isolation of his iconic protagonist. Blake (Michael Pitt) spends most of his time wandering around mumbling to himself, preferring the primal company of the earth and the elements to the noisy intrusions of his housemates and hangers-on, who seek his attention only when they need help or favors. Van Sant takes some interesting detours to poke fun at the entourage hierarchy, capturing enough snippets of conversation to give us more insight into these so-called friends than Blake himself.

With only a few scant details revealed, Blake remains something of an enigma, a character whose complexity stays largely locked away in his own mind, leaving us to wonder about the battle raging within his head. The only people he engages are those who have no desire to cling to him a traveling salesman and a pair of missionaries as if he's slowly cutting himself off from attachments. He seeks solitude at all times, like a man facing his own demons or an animal going off to die alone. Even his face is usually obscured in some way by sunglasses, hair, hoods, or simply keeping his head partially turned. The first and only time we get an unencumbered look at Blake's face is at the moment of death, a transcendent scene in which Blake stares outward as if seeing something beyond, no longer concerned if we see him, because he's already moved on.

Pitt, looking like he could pose for a Nirvana poster.

Van Sant masterfully creates an atmosphere that mirrors Blake's state of mind, but the lynchpin is Pitt, who bears a striking physical resemblance to Cobain, from the dirty blonde locks and scruff of beard right down to the sunglasses and faded striped shirt. The similarities even extend into his song stylings hard acoustic strumming and raspy cigarette-laden vocals surging into tortured wails so eerily reminiscent of Cobain's 'Unplugged in New York' performance that it's easy to forget who we're actually watching.

And that's part of the appeal as well, the chance to remember a rock icon one last time. Though far more self-indulgent than 'Elephant' which had so many people to keep track of that there wasn't time to wander it's also more personal. Whether the film is atmospheric abstract cinema or simply an auteur's indulgence is ultimately left for the viewer to decide, but patient cinephiles will likely be rewarded for their efforts. Sad and sublime, 'Last Days' is a meditation on celebrity and success, an attempt to comprehend one's state of mind during his final days and a tribute to a fallen icon.

"Last Days" opens July 22nd in New York and Los Angeles.

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