The sell-out of Portland, Oregon’s Gus Van Sant to Hollywood (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) seemed to slap a tombstone on the career of a genuine artist (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho). But his conscience and his soul must have shown Van Sant the light and helped him to find such stunning artistic rebirth that this event will stand forever as an inspiration to artists who have lost their way and wandered into the dank swamp of commercialism. (Some, alas, have toiled all their days there.) Courage! his example proclaims; There is yet hope. Now Van Sant has completed the trilogy that marks this rebirth. Last Days, Van Sant has said, is “a meditation on isolation, death and loss.” The same could be said about the first two installments of the trilogy, Gerry (2001) and Elephant (2003). In Gerry, death comes from Nature—from natural causes—as two young men, alone, lose their way in the desert. In Elephant, death comes from mass murder in a high school, in which other students no less than the killers are each isolated in a difficult adolescent life. In Last Days, in a remote natural setting, a beleaguered man tries desperately to find space all his own before drifting and stumbling into suicide. (An incredibly moving shot afterwards, as the camera ascends a ladder, suggests that this man’s spirit has found this space at last.) Last Days, like the incomparably beautiful and haunting Elephant, confirms Van Sant’s place in the pantheon of great American film artists, along with Chaplin, Keaton, Ford, Lynch, Flaherty, Jost and Welles.
Much, including his appearance, tells us that the film’s main character, Blake, is based on Kurt Cobain, guitarist, lead singer, composer and lyricist for the grunge band Nirvana in the 1990s. Cobain became addicted to heroin, which helped him cope with pain from stomach ulcers. He committed suicide—it may have been his second attempt—when he was 27 years old. Haunting life’s dead-ends, Cobain’s songs include “Lithium,” which many take to be about a man on the verge of taking his life. Last Days depicts in a fashion both highly particular and nearly abstract the last two days or so of the protagonist’s life.
Cobain was born in 1967 in a small town near Seattle; he died in Seattle in 1994. His young parents divorced when he was eight, and he was passed from one relative to another, ending up, at times, homeless. He withdrew into himself. Like the killers in Elephant, he was targeted for abuse, in Aberdeen, by high school “jocks” and called “queer.” (He would later say defiantly, “I’m not gay, but I wish I was just to piss off the homophobes.”) Nirvana was born in Olympia in 1986 and became, a few years later, one of the world’s most popular bands, highlighted by the intensity of Cobain’s onstage performances and the brilliance of his guitar-playing. (In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine adjudged Cobain to be the twelfth greatest guitarist of all time.) In 1992, Cobain married Courtney Love, who was pregnant with their daughter, and who had her own band, Hole, was a few years older and more than two inches taller than he. Many Cobain fans have painted her as the bane of his existence, and there have been tabloid rumors of the most dispiriting kind. (Grasping at squaws?)
Certainly Blake in Last Days draws heavily upon Cobain. However, Van Sant’s film is yet more personal. For Blake also suggests another Pacific Northwesterner (from Madras, Oregon) and a contemporary of Cobain’s, whom Van Sant befriended when he directed him in a legendary performance in My Own Private Idaho (1991): River Phoenix, whose inadvertent drug overdose triggered a fatal heart attack, at 24, less than six months prior to Cobain’s death. River’s death left Van Sant grief-stricken, and his 1997 novel, Pink, was written so that he might work his way through the grief. Van Sant remains, of course, haunted by the loss of this friend.
While the film is largely composed of Blake’s seemingly random, haphazard actions and activities during his last days, including eating a bowl of cereal and making macaroni and cheese, it is bookended by music: the King Sisters’ gorgeous rendition of “La Guerre,” a choral piece apparently from the early sixteenth century, by French composer Clément Jannequin, or Janequin, or Jancquin. The sound of this recording, in effect, contains the film, imparting an otherworldly feel to it in contradistinction to the film’s cut-and-dried realistic matter and minutia. One may say, therefore, the film comprises opposite motives: the earthly and mundane, and the spiritual; the seemingly random and scattered, and the formally rich, rounded and complete. The co-existence of these opposites is correlative to the film’s attention to Blake’s last days and the eternity to follow.
There is a wonderful shot in which Blake walks past a tree and the camera remains fixed on the tree once Blake has walked out of the frame. It is a technique that Robert Bresson often employs with rooms and doors and other objects. In Last Days, the juxtaposition is between Blake’s transience, his restless, anxious spirit, and the tree’s sturdiness and permanence (its treeness)—like the stars in Matthew Arnold’s poem “Self-Dependence” that chide the anxious poet with their composure and effortless radiance (their starriness). Blake, in flux, will shortly pass from earth, but the tree will remain. This contrast is sufficient to claim a kind of brilliance for the shot. However, there is even more to it; for by holding the shot of the tree at such protracted length, Van Sant is able to extract from its materiality the opposite: the spiritual life that the tree’s integrity implies. In this shot, materiality yields to spirituality, thingness to mystery, before our eyes, telescoping Blake’s odyssey through three days the third day of which is the moment of resurrection and eternity.
Like Elephant, this is a film of long takes; shots, like the one of the tree, are held a long time as a matter of course. There is much in the film to suggest Van Sant’s familiarity with the minimalist work of Belgium’s Chantal Äkerman; long takes of mundane kitchen activity, especially, recall passages in Je, tu, il, elle (1974) and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Brüxelles (1975), in the latter of which the accumulation of such moments prefaces the implosion of the main character. Something like that also happens in Last Days.
Van Sant employs another technique, borrowed from the cinema of another contemporary of his, Hungary’s Béla Tarr, that he also used to mind-bending advantage in Elephant: a looped-around action giving us a different perspective on the action as it is replayed—picked up—from a new perspective. This, like the shot of the tree, likewise contributes to the film’s thematic development. It implies an elasticity of time that again, in turn, implies the soul’s journey from one dimension to another, from the mundane that fills, possibly anchors, life to something more complete beyond.
Roger Ebert has correctly noted Van Sant’s refusal to manufacture drama in order to explain, or explain away, Blake’s behavior and actions. (This, too, is Bressonian.) This makes Last Days very pure, nondramatic, unaffected. To view it is to feel one’s soul refreshed.
In line with this, Last Days eschews the sensationalism in which media coverage of Kurt Cobain’s death indulged. For instance, Cobain’s suicide takes place off-screen. Van Sant’s approach to his material allows the viewer throughout to roam the film with his or her anonymity, humanity and imagination intact. Moreover, the camera’s ascension of the ladder as Blake’s spirit approaches nirvana is given a heartfelt lift by our not having seen Blake’s last mortal act. Van Sant has created a work of great dignity.
How, then, has Van Sant achieved his own artistic resurrection? He has taken to heart and mind films by filmmakers he greatly admires, and he has meditated on their aims and accomplishments in order to search out what in himself spiritually identifies with these. He has applied to his art Arnold’s lesson in “Self-Dependence,” which I revise for contextual relevance here: Resolve to be thyself; and know that he/ Who finds himself loses Hollywood.
And for the third film in a row, Gus Van Sant has made Portlanders, including me, grateful and proud.
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