“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

“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

“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.”

LA Weekly