Gus Van Sant’s Last Days will likely be remembered as the “Kurt Cobain movie”—more than as the final chapter (after Gerry and Elephant) of Van Sant’s young-death trilogy, and despite the film’s requisite claim that it’s a “work of fiction” merely “inspired by” the Nirvana frontman’s 1994 demise. As the similarly minimalist Elephant conjured Columbine, so Last Days (which opens July 22) resurrects the grunge-rocking author of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for 90-odd minutes of mumbled monologues and territorial pissings—the abstraction befitting our blurred memories of what we imagined a decade ago might’ve happened to a celebrity recluse who apparently killed himself with a shotgun while under the influence of drugs, depression, and a looming European tour.
Cobain, who adored Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, might well have approved this choice of biographer, whose method is far less journalistic than impressionistic—if not inscrutable. Clearest by default is the film’s climax: Van Sant appropriates the crime scene image of Cobain’s lifeless, sneaker-clad foot and splayed left leg, art-directing what little we know for sure with the same morbid fastidiousness of the shower murder in his shot-by-shot Psycho remake.
If Last Days‘ brand-new distributor, Picturehouse, is at all concerned about the commercial prospects of its maiden release, it wouldn’t be because the movie stands to offend Cobain fans with what it speculates—since what it speculates is more or less limited to the theory that he made macaroni and cheese in his last days and watched a Boyz II Men video. (The film even resists asserting that Cobain ended his own life—which some chat room commentators have fancifully construed as conspiracy theory, complete with lone gunwoman in the supporting cast.) The risk for Picturehouse, rather, is that the “Kurt Cobain movie” is also a bona fide art film: a rock biopic in which, Nirvana lovers might argue, nothing happens.
“I was afraid to fall into the trap of picking out the greatest-hits moments and getting lost in too much story,” says Van Sant by phone from the film’s press junket. “At one time I did start writing something that had the [Cobain] character’s life as a young man, the first forming of the band, the struggles of getting their first gig, rising to the top, fighting with the record company—all the clichés. I only wrote a couple of pages, but while I was writing them I felt myself wanting to use dolls like Todd Haynes did [in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story]. I guess that was a way to distance it—to avoid falling into that trap of having actors portray real people. I’m not sure that I did avoid it, but I was trying.”
Indeed, Last Days bids to be a double-album blast of Brechtian distanciation. Writing from the Cannes Film Festival, where the movie had its suitably hazy world premiere, J. Hoberman counted no more than three close-ups of “Kurt,” a/k/a Blake (Michael Pitt)—including, presumably, the ones in which the character’s face is shrouded by hair. Blake’s habit of hiding even from those who share his old dark house (not to mention his other habit) foregrounds the fundamental elusiveness of the subject. And yet Van Sant’s point here, as in Elephant, is to suggest that the evocatively vague variety of avant-garde cinema comes closer to truth than the contrived “reality” of TV news.
“One of the reasons I chose this story,” Van Sant says, “is that it’s sort of the rock ‘n’ roll suicide version of an overly reported subject like Columbine. [Cobain’s] death had 24-hour coverage, at least on MTV. But I feel the way a journalist composes a story [makes it] as fictional as a fiction film. And that fiction filmmakers—those with imagination who resist making ‘entertainment’—are the ones who can actually go in there and bring about answers. Not that [Last Days] was meant to be a literal investigation; it’s more of a poetic investigation.”
Van Sant’s fly-on-the-wall approach to an unraveling character is stubbornly anti-psychological—to the degree that Last Days scarcely reads as the picture of someone who’s about to kill himself. Yet the director’s astute description of how wish fulfillment would’ve further complicated Cobain’s profile mirrors the film’s perception of fame as an isolating force—a perception expressed largely through the distance between camera and character.
“If you’re thinking that Kurt actually did kill himself, without any outside forces coming in and assassinating him,” Van Sant says, as if to widen the net, “then there’s a good case to be made that his having been given whatever he asked for would have been difficult [for him]. In five years, he had gone from not being able to afford a $600 recording session to being able to demand covers on every music magazine in the world. It’s not supposed to feel bad when you get what you want. And when it does, the rage can come from a really weird place. You can be pissed at yourself. You have no right [to feel angry], and yet you have no other way to feel, either. That’s not a very good place to be. And maybe a troubled marriage on top of it doesn’t help.”
Ah, yes—the elephant in the room. Has Courtney Love—who “appears” in Last Days as a voice screaming at one of Blake’s many roommates over the phone—been invited to see the movie?
“I want her to see it,” says Van Sant, “because I know her and I wanted to offer her the opportunity. She just hasn’t had maybe the emotional chance to see it. I think it’s a very big thing [for her]. I know that if somebody made a film about someone I knew very well who died, I wouldn’t necessarily have to rush out and see it—because I have my own relationship to that person. So I can see why it might take a while. Or, you know, she might not see it at all.”