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Last Days C
Year Released: 2005
Gus Van Sant has made three claustrophobic features with elliptical meanings, and his technique is nothing short of astonishing. In Gerry, Elephant, and now Last Days he uses roving Steadicam shots to follow characters across vast stretches of terrain (the desert, high-school hallways and auditoriums, and now a massive stone house and the surrounding woodlands); he uses cut-up storytelling techniques in which he'll show a scene from one point-of-view, then radically shift and reveal what's happening in the other room, or lines of dialogue we didn't catch before. He has long stretches without dialogue, following characters as they engage in banal activities like cooking macaroni and cheese, and these images are fraught with heaviness because we know the young man cooking will be dead soon.
Van Sant is using cinema boldly, but he's also lifting these techniques from international filmmakers he's beholden to: Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry), Hungarian maverick Bela Tarr (Satantango), and late British radical Alan Clarke (whose original Elephant provided the template for Van Sant's). These filmmakers are more difficult to track down, and it's nice to see an American director adopting their stylistic choices, but unfortunately when Van Sant photocopies their style, as he did in his shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, it becomes a style choice. That does not mean the choice is substantial. Watching the films of Kiarostami, Tarr, and Clarke (when they're at their best), the pacing and narrative techniques shed light on a theme, usually an angry or despairing one.
Theoretically, Van Sant is doing the same thing by paring down stories of two boys lost in the desert, Columbine, and the death of Kurt Cobain down to their "essential" elements (i.e., nothing much happens for long stretches before bursts of something radical interfere). So why do his movies feel so vacuous? Gerry was a slow, slow meditation on something, and gay colleagues projected their analogies onto it (perhaps because Van Sant could be considered a part of the so-called Queer New Wave), but that seems an oversimplification. Either that or there's nothing there, and it depends on the audience to fill in everything. Regardless, it gave very little to me. Again, though, it's infuriating to see Van Sant trying to ape another filmmaker: Chantal Akerman, who made movies in which the entire point was Nothing Happens and it was somehow riveting. It was a philosophical statement. Van Sant's movies feel like someone who saw Akerman's films and thought they were cool, and wanted to do a cover album. Give me the real thing.
Elephant was the most successful of the three, perhaps because it played like a riveting, compulsively viewable horror film (waiting for the Columbine kids to arrive; then waiting more as the same anticipatory half-hour gets repeated from multiple points-of-view; then the day told from the perspective of the killers; then the drawn-out act of violence). But it was bloated with self-importance and ultimately asked an unanswerable question, then patted itself on the back for asking.
Which brings us to Last Days, a difficult film to review per se because, as lead actor Michael Pitt describes it, it feels like a poem with a few lines. It can't be viewed without the ghost of Kurt Cobain hanging over it, and yet Pitt's monosyllabic performance feels like a strange photocopy in its own right. In the most arresting and visually stunning sequences, Pitt shows himself off as a remarkable (if self-pitying) musician, and the best scene in the movie is a slow tracking shot away from Pitt's estate, viewing the musician through a window as he plays guitar and riffs on the drums, creating an aural and electronic symphony of howling pain and elegiac beauty. It's an image that will remain with me, preceded by an interminable length of footage of Pitt's character wandering in the woods, singing "Home on the Range" by the campfire, dealing with four deadbeat friends lounging around his house, and other banalities. He puts on a dress and has a dialogue with a Yellow Pages salesman; some Mormon kids show up at the door.
Yes, things happen. But those events are so "unimportant" that they become Important, and that's the rub. These moments don't achieve significance or profundity because of what they surround. They feel like artificial moments prescribed to the viewer. Somehow, despite the beautiful photography and good-looking actors and naturalistic locations, it strikes me as bogus -- as a performance-art stunt that casts a ghostly sheen and becomes a spectator sport for slacker-philosophers. It's easier to discuss the great scenes in Last Days, usually revolving around music: Michael Pitt watching Boys II Men on MTV ("On Bended Knee"), music his grunge-rock character probably wouldn't listen to otherwise that, knowing the character may wind up killing himself, achieves a marked profundity. Or a bunch of drugged-out kids listening to "Venus in Furs" and singing along to the drone (though the scene is better when we're just watching the kids sitting around; Van Sant stumbles when he incorporates a moment of dialogue between Pitt and one of his lackeys that again seems Important and thus reductive and, dare I say, corny). Or Pitt, alone on the far right-hand side of the frame, playing a song on guitar and singing along (though when we decode the lyrics, it's agonizing rock star self-pity).
The end of the movie shows a visual representation of a soul climbing up to heaven that feels too literal (and a close-up of Pitt that wishes it were Dreyer and this young actor were Falconetti; nix on both counts), followed by an agonizing sequence that's probably all of two minutes and feels like two years in which Pitt's friends have a realization and go for a drive. After the Cobain character is gone, it's torture to linger with his hangers-on. I wonder if that's the point of the ending, and if so I refuse to separate the theme from the content. It's infuriating. The self-pity of wealthy rock stars is only surpassed by the weakness of their sycophants. Does Van Sant regard them with empathy? His cipher's gaze allows the viewer room for their own interpretations. OK, fine. I wish I was not there with them. This kind of exercise is the sort of love-it-or-hate-it filmmaking we need more of, even if I have to begrudgingly admit how much I hated it. Van Sant, are you a sum of your own parts or of other filmmakers? When you imitate them, do their choices become yours, or does that transform you into them? And if they already exist, do we need more of their voice? I would rather hear more of yours.
Review published 07.12.2005.
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