|BELIEVE THE HYPE? GUS VAN SANT'S LAST DAYS.|
Gus Van Sant has done that rarest of things: He's made a film that I don't like but makes me doubt my own feelings about it. I'm pretty sure it's not very good, but I don't know if I'm right. It's an odd feeling to find in yourself.
Van Sant has been doing this to a lot of people lately. His trilogy of
austere, impressionistic films -- Gerry, Elephant and now Last Days -- assumed that the half of the audience that would hate them wasn't worth pleasing anyway. In a career that's bobbed and weaved improbably from indieland to mainstream for over 15 years now -- Drugstore Cowboy, To Die For, the terrible Good Will Hunting, the Psycho remake -- this new triptych has been his artiest, as if he's trying to convince Filmmaker magazine that he won't ever make
another Finding Forrester.
Whether he wanted to regain his critical credibility or just decided small films heavy with pretension were the way to go, Van Sant has managed to create a significant little cult of cineastes and indie writers who unabashedly adore him all over again. It's easy to see why. Like last year's The Brown Bunny, these movies (united only by languid takes and their characters' certain death) don't resemble anything on the American moviegoing landscape. And while you could also call them "personal" films, that's too vague a word to describe what Van Sant has achieved -- more than just about any other director right now, he has made a series of films that feel like the product of one individual's sensibilities and ideas. Read the film quarterlies to understand his allusions to Bela Tarr and William Blake, but all you need to know is that Van Sant's trilogy is compelling cinema, even if Last Days fails more than succeeds. Sometimes people's misfires are better than other people's "good" movies -- if, indeed, Last Days is a misfire.
Just as Elephant took Columbine's tragedy as its jumping-off point, Last Days recalls Kurt Cobain's suicide but wanders its own path, getting as lost as the two buddies in Gerry's desert. Played by Michael Pitt, Blake is Last Days' drugged-out, beyond-help rock star, mumbling to himself in the woods when he's not hovering comatose in his dilapidated house. Though it's not explicitly retelling the Nirvana frontman's last days -- those moments are mostly mystery, anyway -- Last Days has certain biographical similarities to the real thing, right down to Pitt's eerie resemblance to Cobain.
Those who detested Elephant mostly objected to Van Sant's appropriation of Columbine's sad reality for a free-floating meditation on violence, America, teenagers, sex, popularity, all of it. With its mannered camera movements and editing style, Elephant got accused of both trying to "explain" Columbine and glibly simplifying the emotional anguish of the shootings for some hip time-structure shuffling and pseudo-profound pronouncements. I see those arguments, but it doesn't diminish my impression of Elephant, which I consider one of the most gut-wrenchingly gripping films in recent years, a movie whose blasé characters and banal setting make the approaching dread of the massacre all the more sickening. I acknowledge Elephant's limitations but believe Van Sant leapt right over them thanks to his bold aesthetic choices.
With Last Days, the aesthetic choices are again bold and unconventional -- exciting, in their way -- but the overall product never comes together. It's the weakest leg of this particular cinematic triangle, but the film gets so close to succeeding it almost becomes mandatory viewing anyway. In truth, the failure of Last Days demonstrates just how miraculous it is that Elephant and Gerry ended up as good as they did -- those thin lines between brilliant execution and suffocating affectation get slimmer all the time.
Since I still worship Nirvana -- through their heyday to their dissolution, through their canonization to the backlash -- you might assume my grievances stem from the fact that Last Days differs from the agreed-upon Cobain biography: troubled but talented, brilliant and funny and sensitive, but scary when he got into a mood. As with Elephant, Van Sant is treating recent history as a rough draft, as the raw material for the story he wants to tell. But whereas Elephant used the facts as a springboard for acute observations about social ills, Last Days is more allusive. To be more honest about it: I don't think he has anything interesting or novel to say this time around. Both Gerry and Elephant amplified simple stories with such emotional reverberations that they became elemental and overpowering, like a force of nature. Last Days, by comparison, is simply small, plumbing the shallow depths of half-baked notions about celebrity and art and depression.
Rejecting anything resembling a plot, Van Sant observes Blake and his roommates and buds. A few folks come to the door at different points to try and sell things to the occupants, and Ricky Jay and Kim Gordon show up on separate occasions to play fictional characters that might as well just be their real selves. Blake watches a Boys II Men video, plays a couple songs and kills himself. Unlike Van Sant's first two films in this series, Last Days has no narrative through-line, which strands the story (very intentionally, mind you) in a kind of stagnant ennui. The filmmaker has suggested that while Gerry and Elephant were about dying at the hands of others, Last Days is a look at taking your own life. As if we needed another reason to lament suicide -- it inspires mediocre movies.
Each film in the trilogy has paraded an obstinate streak, daring the audience to stick with its long, static shots of people walking, swimming, talking and then walking some more. But once you accepted their rhythms, they achieved a dreamlike state, hypnotic and seductive. The trick to his minimalist trio was that he was stripping away all the excesses that directors think they need to tell a "proper" story (backstory, expositional dialogue, character arcs, a clear ending) to get to an emotive purity. He was still telling stories, but they were ones loaded with primal iconography and basic human urges -- survive, kill, keep moving.
Last Days conjures a similar spell, but Van Sant purposely refuses to let us identify with any of his characters. And since Blake isn't fighting dangerous outside forces -- neither the unrelenting outdoors nor gun-toting teenagers -- he is a human blip, a nothing we know little about. We struggle to figure him out, but Pitt and Van Sant deny us entrance into the character. (We barely see his eyes, and good luck getting even a reaction shot out of him.) This man has permanently withdrawn from the world, and who is the audience to presume that they can show up now and figure him out?
What's most impressive is that Van Sant almost manages to pull off this gamble despite all the conventions he throws aside. Purportedly a film about falling apart, Last Days doesn't go for gimmicks like stilted sound designs or camera set-ups to suggest Blake's mental state. Instead, his deterioration is apparent in the peeling wallpaper, the stoned despondency of the characters, the utter Kubrickian stillness of everything. As with Van Sant's other movies, you at first find yourself fighting his methods and then you begin to relent and then you succumb. But once under the spell, there is no revelation to be made with Last Days, no straining on the character's part to live. That's part of the point, Van Sant would argue, but I don't think filming stasis automatically makes it brilliant. If that was the case, Matt Damon's Gerry would never have figured out how to get Casey Affleck's Gerry off that rock, and you wouldn't have developed some rooting interest in who lived or died in Elephant. Here, no character investment means I range from not caring to not minding to outright hating the different people who shuffle across the screen. Instead of the innocent victims in his first two movies, Last Days is populated with inarticulate ciphers -- it's surprising they even take up physical space on the screen.
While the intense Gerry was all of a piece, Last Days has too much of Elephant's chief problem: a twitching anxiousness to follow unnecessary tangents wherever they may lead. (I would like the critics who call Last Days any sort of indisputably great film to explain to me what Ricky Jay brings to the proceedings, what precisely is the point of the Yellow Pages salesman.) Elephant survived those failings because everything was building breathlessly to the moment of those agonizing gunshots and innocent lives destroyed; the randomness of plot strands was more menacing precisely because of what was to come. When your main subject is decay, as it is in Last Days, what can you do but twiddle your thumbs and wait 'til the end finally comes?
Since watching the film, though, I find myself uncertain about it. For every bad decision in it, I recall a beautiful moment, such as the two glimmers into Blake's musical talent. These brief flickers -- shot memorably, as everything in this trilogy has been, by cinematographer Harris Savides -- give tantalizing glimpses into the genius Blake might have been at one point. As with Cobain, I don't need to know why Blake got this way, but I have to understand and care. Last Days, more than Gerry and Elephant, frustrates viewer expectations, but I can't let it go -- my brain is still working through its lyrical passages. There is no question Van Sant made exactly the movie he wanted to make -- his movies are challenges, and they have such quiet assurance that they force you to meet them halfway.
And so here I am, at a little bit of a crossroads. Last Days is too maddeningly frustrating to recommend, and yet I cannot stop thinking about it. There's a point in both Gerry and Elephant -- a point that will be different for every viewer -- where everything finally clicks, where the experiment stops being "an experiment" and transforms into a moving experience. I waited and waited for that to happen in Last Days, but it never came. But this trilogy has worked on me like a drug. Like any other junkie, I don't want to lose that buzz, that thrill, that euphoria that the first two films brought me. Either I need an intervention or a second viewing.
Believe the Hype Rating: 4 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.