July 22, 2005

In The End, It's All The Same


Readers of this space know that the Cinecultist feels strongly about the young actor Michael Pitt (having eaten chicken in the same room with him) and so it was with pleasure that we attended an advance screening of the movie Last Days a few weeks ago.

After the film, we ran into our friend Andrew (aka the Filmbrain) exiting the screening room who wanted to know what CC thought. "I think I liked it," was our confused response. However, the more time we've spent letting the movie percolate, the more we've enjoyed it. It seems strange to think that a move going experience could be felt most outside of the theater, but that's been our reaction to Last Days.

In fact, we'd argue that Gus van Sant imbeds this reaction into this and his previous two films, Gerry and Elephant. Like much of van Sant's work, these three films are about ostensibly "real" moments made fiction. But particularly in these most recent pictures, the ending of the stories (ie. death) is already known by the audience before the film even begins. Going into Last Days, the two things you probably already know is 1) it's sort of about, though not exactly about, Kurt Cobain and that 2) Kurt Cobain killed himself. With death eminent for the characters we're being introduced to, there's a feeling of anxiety for the audience that is strong despite being entirely extra-textual. Unlike a horror film or a weepy drama, no music or lighting or obvious plot points hint at the death to come but still it's very much a part of the viewing experience.

It seems then, that van Sant in his movies is interested in exploring those banal moments prior to death. Not a whole lot "happens" in Last Days, which may contribute to our feeling that the movie is much more enjoyable when we're not actually watching it. Much of the movie is taken up with the camera contemplating Michael Pitt's character, Blake, a musician living in a rambling estate in the Pacific Northwest. The estate rambles and so does Blake, and meanwhile there's a bunch of grungy hangers on in the house who all seem to be looking for Blake but can't really find him. The timeline weaves in and out of this day leading up to Blake's death, sometimes showing us the same scene more than once but from a different angle.

Like in Elephant, the camera is one of the most interesting character's in the film, seeming to stand in for some omniscient, unnamed narrator. The camera always knows where Blake is, even if the grunge kids don't, though at times it'd rather observe Blake from a less advantageous point of view, like outside through a bay window. Harris Savides is van Sant's cinematographer on this project as well as Elephant and Gerry plus he also worked on Birth and Se7en, so his camera work is quite distinctive.

Another pleasure of the movie, though some might call it a distraction, is how much van Sant makes Pitt look like Cobain. He dresses him up in his signature clothes, gives him the greasy locks and has him mumble a lot so we don't hear too much of his voice, and it's an uncanny effect. Plus, Pitt's a pretty good musician surprisingly and his performances have a power that's unexpected. Certainly, it's hard to forget that we've seen so very much of Pitt in the Dreamers but he's an arresting performer with with charisma to spare.

Like the most powerful artists, van Sant is able to show us beauty and grace where we never expected to find it. The death of Kurt Cobain always seemed to us before like a moment to contemplate with sadness, nostalgia and a longing for what could have been. For van Sant it's something else as well, and his ability to propose this interpretation of a watershed cultural moment is something very powerful indeed.

Posted by karen at July 22, 2005 8:12 AM