With even a hushed mention of Kurt Cobain, every flannel-swathed college kid heaves a thick sigh. His iconic presence on MTV — half-hidden under disheveled blonde hair and cardigan sweaters — is the stuff of cultural history. Now available at Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters, his angst and dissent have been marketed (successfully) by the very forces he loathed. A subject as sensitive as this shotgun-blasted deity would inevitably be enveloped in controversy: “Last Days” is a spring-loaded trap demanding backlash.
But Gus Van Sant knows his way around; his last film, “Elephant,” artfully recalled the Columbine massacre.
That said, “Last Days” has neither the dexterity nor the elegance of “Elephant,” a veritable masterpiece of contemporary cinema. “Days” often loses focus, sometimes coming off as insincere and forced.
Perhaps fans of van Sant’s directorial aesthetic, all plush Technicolor and tight framing, will overlook these flaws and find the film’s deeper intent. After all, “Last Days” at its best moments can be hypnotic and heartbreaking.
The film begins with its fictionalized Cobain hero, named Blake (Michael Pitt of “The Dreamers”), stumbling with zombie-like stupor in the foliage of some remote Seattle suburb. The scene is unequivocally Van Sant, with its unfettered love for the innocent male outcast, voyeuristic camera work and steady pacing. As in the gorgeous “My Own Private Idaho” or “Elephant,” Van Sant’s cinematography has the clean composition of a Renaissance painting. (Jerry Bruckheimer should watch this film with college-ruled paper and an erasable pen.)
On a primitive quest in the wilderness, which happens to be the sprawling yard behind his stone mansion, Blake looks like a hunter and gatherer. Only his loot is a box of buried heroin. The mumbling protagonist returns to his beautifully decrepit kitchen where he partakes in cigarettes, Cocoa Krispies and his drugs. The scene has V-I-C-E tattooed across the film reel.
Luckily the remainder of the film avoids such didacticism, instead exploring more subtle themes. After donning a black silk dress and combat boots — Pitt’s androgyny is unsettlingly attractive — Blake answers a knock at the door and listens to the wooden speech of a Yellow Pages salesman. Filmed using a deliberate axis of symmetry, the scene is a bit too staged but is entertaining and insightful nonetheles
After the confused salesman leaves Blake passed out on the couch, the incoherent rock-star awakes, returning to his room. During a slow and deliberate crouch, he implodes under the weight of a maudlin Boyz II Men single. The deft juxtaposition of the “Down on Bended Knee” video with Blake’s crushing desire for redemption is one of the film’s most powerful scenes, perhaps evens its creative apex. In a moment of Lynch-like brilliance, Vn Sant renders the conflicting brotherhood between the avant-garde and mainstream; the second suffocates and simultaneously inspires the first.
Too bad that it’s all downhill from there.
Blake shares his decadent squalor with leeching poseur friends; their presence is thoroughly annoying. Unlike Blake, whose flaws can be excused by boiling genius and torment, these lazy morons (with names like “Asia”) sleep in and dress like bored art majors. Guarding him against the real world, such as concerned agents and family, they catalyze his demise.
Van Sant’s use of these bastardly disciples is heavy-handed. While they certainly garner sympathy for Blake, they’re all too thinly constructed to reach anything resembling character complexity. And the evenness of their dope-laced performances — most likely indebted to “Method Acting” — is a transparent one-note joke.
Yet the same can be said for Pitt’s approach to Blake and Cobain. Masking intellectual complexity in an abstruse lexicon of groans and listless rants, Pitt loses the inner-workings of his character in a dense haze. His hero is too debilitated, too weak to muster the elegance demanded of his Christ figure. With the same template, the cherubic John Robinson (who happened to be an amateur when Van Sant cast him) captured the weightless intelligence in “Elephant” that this film and its central performance lacks.
“Last Days,” on the other hand, often feels forced and plagued by sameness. Blake’s isolation from society is certainly explored, but it is done too forcedly. As a result, the audience must suffer through ambient banality.
Van Sant’s abstraction of hedonism is one of his strong points, yet here it is overextended to the point that it loses credulity. In particular, the film is bogged down by an unnecessary gay sex scene. In Van Sant’s earlier work (“Idaho” is about gay hustlers), he manages to use gay sex and underlying homoeroticism to make profound cultural statements; here it feels obligatory.
But despite its creative mishaps and lapses in judgment — the most obvious of which is a finale that cannot be repeated here — “Last Days” remains an artful take on the cliched genre of rock biography, and an original take on the now-cliched story of Kurt Cobain.
Its downfall is a bloated scope, which devolves these tarnished social outcasts into something more cartoon-like than visceral.