I've fallen under Gus Van Sant's hypnotic gaze. I've always liked his more conventional films, "Drugstore Cowboy" and "To Die For" especially (and I'll always have a soft spot for "Good Will Hunting," for reasons that, if you read this humble space on a reg basis, should be immediately apparent), but for years he fell off my viewing radar, and when he released "Gerry" in 2002, the description of it didn't rouse me to rush to the theater ("Rental" I told myself, like Harmony Korine's "Julien Donkey-Boy," neither of which I've yet seen). Then came "Elephant," Van Sant's interpretation of the Columbine killings, and here my interest kicked in. I've long been fascinated with and horrified by school shootings, seemingly a unique American phenomenon, and one I can sort of understand on a raw conceptual level, having been a bullied teen myself. But unlike the other Columbine flick, "Zero Day," which packs immediate punch, "Elephant" drifts slowly along, taking its time while playing with time, gently but steadily placing us in the middle of an innocuous high school day, only we know what's coming, and the long single takes before the violence erupts increases our anticipation and anxiety.
Truth be told, I didn't like "Elephant" upon first viewing. It was my initial exposure to Van Sant's newer, smaller, slower style, and I was extremely impatient while watching those kids walk and walk and walk across school grounds and through the hallways. Still, the film stayed with me, and when I watched it again about a month later, I enjoyed it a lot more, and understood, cement-head me, what Van Sant was attempting and appreciated what he achieved. So when he followed "Elephant" with "Last Days," I knew that I had to allow the film to guide me, and not force my attention on it. Releasing my grip, I got so much more out of the viewing, watching it twice over the weekend.
"Last Days," as I'm sure you know, is about, well, the last days of a popular drugged-out rock star named Blake, who is clearly modeled on Kurt Cobain. Nothing much happens. The majority of the action, such as it is, takes place inside a dilapidated rural mansion where Blake and his two bandmates (along with their two girlfriends) shuffle around, get high, listen to music, watch TV, sleep, fuck, eat, pet kittens, stare off into space. A Yellow Pages salesman and a pair of young Mormon missionaries enter and leave quickly, and there is a subplot of sorts (never developed) where a private investigator, sent by an unseen Courtney Love-ish character, is looking for Blake, but doesn't find him as Blake, in a rare burst of energy, bolts outside and hides amid the trees. And that's about it. Blake says practically nothing to anyone, and when he does, you can barely hear what he's muttering. He continually changes his clothes, nods off here and there, plays a little guitar, but overall seems imprisoned by his own emotions, his drug habit, and by the financial pressure to go on tour, which he doesn't want to do. So he slowly wastes away, seemingly convinced that whatever is passing for reality really isn't worth engaging.
Van Sant's single, slow, beautifully-shot takes hauntingly convey Blake's numbed-out world -- a dope-tinged voyeurism where you feel the heaviness that weighs Blake down. I've never done smack, or anything close, but I have, in younger times, participated in days-long drug & booze fueled communal partying where everyone stumbled over each other, doing nothing constructive save for keeping the buzz going for as long as possible. Though unlike Blake and his band, we did from time to time engage in political/artistic discussions, however hazy and unfocused. But I know that underwater-like sensation, and Van Sant captures it well. It's depressing as hell and counter-creative and reserved for the young and supposedly fit. Yet when you watch Blake walk as if he's eighty-years-old, the physical endurance of youth seems fragile and easily destroyed. For Blake, it's the self-inflicted punishment for fame.
The clearest performance in "Last Days" belongs to Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth who, I'm guessing, is playing herself. She urges Blake not to be a "rock star cliche" and offers him a chance to escape his slow suicide and get cleaned up. But Blake is beyond escape, mumbling from under his dirty blonde locks, and Gordon reluctantly leaves him to his fate. I know that Nirvana got its first big break opening for Sonic Youth, and that Gordon and partner Thurston Moore were quite close to Kurt Cobain. I don't know if either of them ever tried to get Cobain some help, but this scene feels as if Gordon is talking to Cobain's ghost, sadly chastising him for making such a foolish and predictable choice. It's perhaps the film's most conventional scene, the sole direct attempt to shake Blake out of his stupor. The look on Blake's face after Gordon exits shows that he's aware of where he's soon headed, but he's either too weak or too resigned to do anything about it.
"Last Days" ends with Blake's dead body discovered by a gardener. Though he's been playing with a shotgun through parts of the film, we never hear a blast nor see Blake pull the trigger. There's no "Kurt and Courtney" speculation about whether or not Blake had help ending his life (that film's director, Nick Broomfield, believes that Kurt Cobain acted alone) -- just a thin pale corpse in tattered jeans and sneakers, finally free of this mad world, naked soul climbing up to something presumably better. After enduring Blake's ponderous and painful final days, the last scene seems somewhat happy, or as happy as one can hope for in a story so layered in sadness.