Near the end of Gus Van Sant’s fictionalized elegy to Kurt Cobain, the
rock star, barely disguised as a disintegrating musician named Blake with lank
blond hair and the stubbly face of an angel, is visited by a record executive
— played by another indie-rock icon, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon — who tries to persuade
him to come away with her, and asks him whether he’s spoken to his baby daughter.
“Do you say, ‘I’m sorry that I’m a rock & roll cliché?’” she says sadly, and leaves
empty-handed. Doped to the gills and barely registering the world around him,
Blake (who’s played by The Dreamers’ Michael Pitt) comes close to
the stereotype of the suffering rock idol. But Van Sant’s startlingly beautiful
and original film serves precisely to rescue Cobain from the clutches of the mawkish
biopic that, sooner or later, will be made about him. Imagine a Kurt Cobain movie
by Oliver Stone — rubber tourniquets biting into a skinny arm, flashbacks to warring
parents, fawning crowds, Courtney losing it on- and offstage, the imploring eyes
of their neglected baby, the climactic shot ringing out — and you’ll see everything
Last Days is not.
Next to nothing is known about the immediate circumstances surrounding Cobain’s death, but one senses — and that’s the operative word in this preternaturally silent, impressionistic and intensely descriptive movie — that Last Days edges closer to the truth of a soul burning itself out than any documentary could, and I mean no disrespect to Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney. This is not a film about sex (the nearest thing to an erotic encounter — not counting the one between the camera and Asia Argento’s lovely bum — happens mostly offscreen), drugs (nobody actually shoots up) or, for that matter, rock & roll (the one sustained piece of music is not from Nirvana but from an MTV video of Boyz II Men singing on “Bended Knee”). There’s no stand-in for Courtney Love, and though Blake totes an old hunting rifle over his shoulder, we never see him die. Instead, a camera at once matter-of-fact, poetic and intermittently goofy tracks Blake as he stumbles around his leafy Pacific Northwest estate (shot in upstate New York­) and his cavernous, decrepit mansion, mumbling to himself, flicking away mosquitoes, making macaroni and cheese, watching television. The phone goes unanswered, people come and go. Blake runs away from friends, his record producer, a private detective (Ricky Jay) and proselytizing Mormon twins, then — in one funny and unnerving scene in which Pitt appears clad in a lacy black slip and combat boots — he courteously receives a Yellow Pages salesman, murmuring his assent to the pitch as his head sinks closer and closer to his knees. Pitt’s terrific performance is clearly improvised yet also superbly controlled and minimalist. Van Sant’s camera rests on Blake, or pulls away slowly as what remains of the
artist rallies in a brief burst of musical creation, or shifts slowly to the foliage
and the house that dwarf him, the band members and hangers-on who alternately
ignore and importune him. Last Days is all of a piece with Van Sant’s
two previous movies, Elephant and Gerry, both torn from the headlines,
both quiet stories about unquiet events. Van Sant offers no history, no psychology
of Cobain, only what’s happening — or more crucially, not happening — in the moment.
The physical landscape is transformed into an emotional geography of appalling
isolation, and we are brought to feel what it’s like to grow so indifferent to
the world and the self, to be so unable to speak in words or song, that death
seems the only escape. Cobain is neither deified nor exonerated of responsibility
for his decline. Instead, Last Days makes a virtue of not knowing.
LAST DAYS | Written and directed by GUS VAN SANT | Produced by VAN
SANT and DANY WOLF | Released by Fine Line Features | At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, Laemmle’s
Monica 4-Plex and Laemmle’s Playhouse 7

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