Man of Few Words

“I knew him a little bit,” Gus Van Sant says of former Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain, who put a shotgun to his chin and ended his life in 1994, at the age of 27. “I never had what you could call a conversation with him. But I met him at his manager’s house, and one time he called me to ask whether a friend could work on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Then came the final curtain, which was so dramatic — he died, and it kind of put the candle out, at least in my concept of what grunge was.”

Van Sant and I have met to discuss Last Days, a movie loosely inspired by the final hours in Cobain’s life and set almost entirely within a seen-better-days 19th-century stone mansion somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The wallpaper is peeling, the chimney pipes wail an atonal dirge, and a despondent rock star named Blake moves about in a zombified trance, surrounded by bandmates, fair-weather friends and assorted hangers-on. Other things happen in Last Days — a Yellow Pages representative turns up to deliver his sales pitch, and a detective tells a long, rambling story about a sham Chinese magician — but mostly the movie is about how King Blake, like his castle, is beginning to crumble.

Like Van Sant’s two other recent films — Gerry (2002) and Elephant (2003) — Last Days, which premiered at Cannes and opens locally next week, is the product of a rigorous stylistic formalism that sees time elongated, dialogue and plot employed sparingly, and actors used less to inhabit characters than as representative figures in some vast, untenable landscape. “With the type of movies I’d made up until Gerry,” Van Sant says, “you’re constantly leaning over the editing bench going, ‘Gotta cut away from that or you’re gonna lose the audience.’ And you say stuff like that all day long. It’s all about getting the next scene up there and moving things along. You don’t want to lose the beat, you don’t want to let the audience stray, you want to grab them and hold them all the way through for an hour and a half. Whereas these last three movies are about trying to forget that kind of hyperconcept and hoping that people don’t need to be grabbed and held or strapped in their seats.”

While these high-wire experiments — rooted in the work of such European directors as Miklós Janscó, Chantal Akerman and Béla Tarr — haven’t always been to my own liking, Last Days is the one part of Van Sant’s minimalist trilogy in which the movie’s formal daring seems symbiotic with (rather than at the expense of) its content. To my mind, it’s Van Sant’s strongest work in years — an immaculate study in death and decay, and maybe the most creepily atmospheric depiction of bottomed-out rock & roll living since Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy. But despite having Cobain as its starting point, Last Days’ development process was no more conventional than is the end result. “It was something that I collected notes on and thought about making something about,” Van Sant elaborates, “though I wasn’t sure what. I had been involved in biopics on Warhol and Harvey Milk, and I’d realized that you can show parts of lives more successfully than you can show the whole thing. Even Lawrence of Arabia — it’s a portrait of this one area of his life; you don’t see him growing up or going through the military, and still they needed four hours.

“When I started thinking about Last Days, originally it wasn’t even about Kurt, but about somebody who stood in for him. I cast this one guy from a Thomas Vinterberg short called The Boy Who Walked Backwards — he was 14 years old and from Denmark and I was going to shoot at my house with my 16mm camera and it was just going to be about a boy walking around the house. Last Days still is about a boy who walks around the house, but as it turns out, he looks quite a bit like Kurt.”

That “boy,” Blake, is played by the 24-year-old actor Michael Pitt, best known for his central role in a music-industry melodrama of an entirely different color: John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, where his Tommy Gnosis is erstwhile lover and muse to the eponymous transsexual rocker. In Last Days, Pitt almost never speaks, and spends many scenes with his mass of straggly blond locks so completely covering his face that he resembles the Addams Family’s cousin Itt. But if what Pitt does fails to match up with most people’s definition of a dramatic performance, it’s nevertheless a tour de force of movement and gesture, capped by one long scene where Blake slowly contorts his body into a strange crouching position — all while Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” video plays on a nearby television in an echoey, mostly empty room.

“The scene is based on several different things,” says Van Sant. “One is that I heard that Kurt Cobain watched a lot of MTV and, during that same time, I watched a lot of MTV. I would be writing and would have the volume turned down low and, whenever something came on that I wanted to see, I would turn it up and watch. When someone said Kurt liked to watch MTV, I assumed it was probably in a similar fashion. So I thought we should have a scene where he watches MTV, and then I thought it could also be the scene where he seems to be under the influence of something.

“In particular, the thing he’s doing — sort of falling over slowly — is something you can see drug addicts do in the Bowery. Then there’s the whole discrepancy between Boyz II Men and the music that Blake would be playing. They’re both in the rock & roll world, but they’re opposites. And then the shooting style of the video is really big — they’re using every trick in the book and there’s a lot of information they are trying to impart, because they have like six band members and each one has a love story and so there’s a lotta stuff going on. It’s going really fast, which isn’t like our movie, which is going really slow.”

To put it mildly. Like Gerry and Elephant, Last Days is assembled in a “sequence shot” style: Each scene unfolds as a single unbroken camera take. And in Last Days, the cumulative effect is a distending of actions and events that might otherwise be compressed — the Boyz II Men video, to cite just one example, plays out in its entirety — until we, not unlike Blake, feel trapped in a single, unending moment. For Van Sant, whose 1998 remake of Psycho lives on in contemporary movie infamy, it’s another of Hitchcock’s films, Rope, that now seems a guiding influence. “The close-up/medium shot/wide shot model is a certain process where you’re on the set gathering shots to use later in editing,” Van Sant says. “You’re not choosing the palette. You’re just getting all the colors together so you can choose the palette later. You’re also combining different time frames — you’re using a shot that was shot at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning intercut with one shot on Thursday at 4 in the afternoon.

“Even though it works — Orson Welles would combine a shot taken in Greece in 1952 with one from Rome in 1958 — our minds, I think, recognize that as a particular type of cinema. And with this type of cinema, there’s just another vibe to me — organic, almost unseen, almost like the medium itself is different.”


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