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End of the Road

Lightness of being: Van Sant's existential Kurt Cobain movie is an opaque masterpiece

Last Days, the brilliant concluding chapter in the death trilogy that inspired Gus Van Sant's artistic rebirth, wafts through the final 48 or so hours of a Kurt Cobain–like rock star. Nirvana fans, be forewarned: This sensuously entropic elegy is the most elemental and circumscribed of biopics. It sheds no new light on a generation's defining pop-cultural tombstone (biographer Charles R. Cross's pieced-together account of Cobain's uneventful final week is broadly similar) and doesn't come close to illustrating In Utero's working title, I Hate Myself and I Want to Die. But in place of psychological clarity, Last Days affords a woozy existential coherence. Cobain for one would have appreciated its contradictions. Not exactly a radio-friendly unit shifter, Last Days is a biography without a story, a sustained monologue that can barely be heard, an interior portrait that denies access to inner life.

Like Elephant, Van Sant's Columbine meditation, Last Days zeroes in on the hallucinatory stillness of a final countdown. It shares with the earlier film a compressed time frame and aspect ratio, as well as a slippery, cosmic, almost four-dimensional sense of space and time, achieved again via remarkable technical means: Harris Savides's fluid camerawork, Leslie Shatz's layered sound design, Van Sant's instinctual editing. As in Elephant, the iconographic details of a mythic tragedy are faithfully reproduced, and they float by in a narcotic fog, charged with meaning but untouched by the organizing principles of conventional narrative.

Van Sant's critics find his arty lyricism too coy and convenient (or even morally troubling), but both Elephant, with its ticked-off list of red-herring "motivations," and Last Days, an abstract inquiry strewn with unnervingly literal clues, are willful reconsiderations, subjecting tabloid-processed calamities to a sort of reverse mythopoeia. The films pick apart what we think we know about a high school massacre and a rock 'n' roll suicide to reveal what we can never truly know. Explanations are moot in movies that so palpably shoulder the weight of predestination, and indeed, Last Days bypasses cause altogether to focus on numb, inevitable effect.

Come as you are: Pitt
photo: HBO Films/Picturehouse
Come as you are: Pitt

Details

Last Days
Written and directed by Gus Van Sant
Picturehouse, opens July 22

KURTAIN CALL: A decade after his death, a new movie imagines the final days of Nirvana's elusive frontman

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    When the film opens, the Cobain figure—christened Blake and impeccably impersonated by Michael Pitt—is for all intents already dead. He's first glimpsed stumbling through the woods, a very ape vision of unwashed blond androgyny, inpatient bracelet around his wrist, heading to a roaring waterfall to pee and bathe. The morning after, the pajama-clad wild child, named presumably for the visionary artist-poet and ranting mad genius, retreats to his tumbledown mansion, where a posse of hangers-on is encamped. Avoiding the amorphous entourage (which in turn keeps its distance), he plays dress-up with a wardrobeful of Kurt-iconic outfits, toys with a shotgun, prepares cereal and macaroni and cheese, and—in an amazing sequence—nods out to Boyz II Men's "On Bended Knee" video. Van Sant interpolates the whole damn thing, and the worlds-collide dissonance, the swelling tension between the video's madly dissolving montages and Blake's somnambulist biorhythms, practically causes a fold in time—an effect the director augments by approaching the moment twice with one of his now customary temporal pretzels.

    Later, in a loop that drowsily puns on stuck-groove heroin/vinyl needle use, Van Sant does the same with "Venus in Furs," which includes the phrase "down on your bended knee," not to mention the chemical-slumber mantra: "I am tired/I am weary/I could sleep for a thousand years." Blake's own music surfaces only twice—the slouching-toward-Nirvana dirge "Death to Birth" (a Pitt composition) and an improvised jam captured in slow zoom-out—but sound is a key factor in his mental breakdown. As in Elephant, Shatz's queasy audio mix prominently deploys Hildegard Westerkamp's musique concréte piece "Doors of Perception," a disorienting echo chamber of chimes, creaks, and birdcalls (named, like Aldous Huxley's mescaline chronicle and Jim Morrison's band, after a William Blake epigram).

    Speculative and opaque, Last Days is a biopic that resolves two opposing dicta. One from the original William Blake: "Do what you will this life's a fiction/And is made up of contradiction." The other from Cobain himself: "What else could I write/I don't have the right." In his hidden fortress, Blake dodges the clamoring outside world, evading phone calls (one from his screeching widow in waiting) and an amusing procession of visitors: a Yellow Pages salesman, two Mormon brothers, a detective played by Ricky Jay, a concerned Kim Gordon.

    No one in the film can get near Blake, and neither can you. Forsaking the helpless-angel vantage of Elephant's Steadicam stalking, Van Sant and Savides isolate Blake, rock star that he is, in the middle distance, his face perpetually obscured. Radiating an invisible force field, this severely withdrawn cipher is all the more remote for being almost always unintelligible. His running commentary is a mumbled, vaguely obsessive torrent, and what little you can decode has a banal poignancy. One of Blake's most audible lines, murmured as he scribbles in a journal: "I lost something on my way to wherever I am today." (Its blunt resignation belongs on the In Utero lyric sheet, along with "Now I'm bored and old" and "I do not want what I have got.")

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