I dislike Gus Van Sant for much the same reason I dislike David Lynch: Everyone I meet at parties loves them and, worse, expects me to love them too, which is to say, loving them is part of the rules about being a certain kind of person. Back when we were allowed to use the word ideology, we used it for this exact situation. Lovely images and boys float through Van Sant’s films; I just can’t believe I’m supposed take all that Cough Syrup Lyricism so seriously.
On the other hand, I love Kurt Cobain’s story for much the same reason I love Axl Rose’s: They’re the two leads in pop’s most compelling narrative since the auto-da-fé that put the ’60s in the grave. Last Days‘ suburban mansion, where “Blake” hides out from rehab and everything else, is shot until the very end as if it were in the middle of nowhere, his own private Seattle echoing with the songs that won’t be written there. One thinks naturally of My Own Private Idaho‘s ramshackle redoubt, that Shakespearean shithole fit for a king. But one thinks as well of Axl’s castle, the one that haunts his last videos and that he now haunts in turn, killing time and wondering where the spark went. Lynch would have set these two in parallel, a bifurcated story that can never quite be annealed into a single narrative. Gus Van Sant, on the other hand, just chooses the road less hygienic and sets out running. Or shambling. As the set of references coalesces in Last Days‘ mise-en-scène, one suspects the director is actually piecing something together, some deep structure of the national myth. The pure products of America go crazy and retreat to fortified strongholds.
This is why I spent the duration of Last Days thinking about Vanilla Sky.
There are plenty of swell movies with crazy musicians (Kings and Queen, most recently) and quite a few dedicated to image replication (not just homage-porn à la Tarantino, but oddities like The Cell). But Vanilla Sky, as you no doubt recall, spent a couple hours of our lives all to re-create the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan for a single shot, with Tom and Penélope Cruize filling the body slots. Amid the sterling idiocy of the rest of the film, this one frieze was cunning and quick, and so had to be explained to us at the end.
Last Days requires no such coda; Van Sant maneuvers Michael Pitt’s mumbling Blake at Van Santian velocities through a series of iconic accessorized poses: Kurt and his Chuck Taylors, Kurt in his hunter’s hat with the goofy earflaps, Kurt with his plastic truck stop shades. It’s Vanilla Sky, that is to say, mixed with the director’s cover of Psycho; a whole bunch of shot reproductions so that we can revisit one of the primal death scenes on which our culture is founded. Wait a minute, isn’t that Elephant?
It’s really something, but I’m still not sure what. In a movie where every sequence hums with the exhausted vacancy of fait accompli (and which pointedly wastes the sexiest woman in filmdom), the tension that makes it interesting is whether we’re supposed to be thinking about Kurt or Gus, about the death drive of rock or the esprit de corpse of the image. Both/and, of course. It’s impossible to ignore Van Sant’s tradition and how intertwined it is with gorgeous gueros dying young; still, one doesn’t forget that Cobain, having taken the scepter from Axl, reigned over the last days that rock was the world-historical form of pop music.
It would be foolish to suggest that restaging the Passion of Kurt is simply a kind of wish to return to that moment, when rock ‘n’ roll heaven was still a vanilla sky. It’s long gone. All the film’s characters are lost to history, nothing but spirit. They are the most ennui-filled people in the world, entirely without content. And Van Sant is in love with whiteness in the same eroticized way he’s in love with fatality; in his image-world it’s all ghosts all the time, moving so slowly they seem for a couple hours to be almost human.