Thursday, October 27, 2005

Last Days

The last review I did was of Domino, a film I praised for its absurdly quick cutting and constant visual stimulation. So, it's a big jump to this review, of Gus Van Sant's Last Days, a film that is extremely minimalistic, dwelling on the most mundane everyday things to build a unique atmosphere.

Last Days is the follow up to Van Sant's Elephant, a film I loved. Both films feature very little in the way of a traditional plot and are primarily about building a world and feeling that the characters inhabit. Elephant was a bit more focused, since everything led up to a big event at the end. Last Days also builds to something, but it's not as clear or impactful an ending.

It was widely noted in the press surrounding the film's release that the last days of the title are Kurt Cobain's, and knowing at least something about Kurt's life is essential to understanding the film. I suppose you could figure it out, but at no point in the film do they explicitly say that this guy is a huge rock star, or that his fame is likely the reason for the ennui he's experiencing now. I did some reading on Cobain after seeing the film, and it's made things a lot clearer, but the film itself gives you very little understanding of the circumstances of what's going on. Normally I'd say go into a film completely fresh, but this is one where some outside information is helpful. I think it might have been wise to give a bit more exposition on who this guy is and why he's feeling the way he does, but with the film there's a conscious decision to avoid the typical biopic structure, meaning that if you bring the information you need, this can go a lot deeper than a traditional biopic, because it's more about putting you in this guy's headspace than trying to convey objective facts.

The film's got a lot of funny moments, mainly playing on the mundanity of everyday life. I love Blake making mac and cheese and dumping the cheese pack into the water, or when Blake is having cereal and accidentally puts the cereal back in the fridge instead of the milk. Similarly, the awkward conversation with the yellow pages guy and the Mormons are highlights. Particularly with the yellow pages guy, it's unclear why Blake is placing an ad, or if this store even exists, but the scene itself is strangely compelling. It's the only time in the entire film that we see someone coaxing Blake out of his self imposed mental cocoon and out into the real world.

In the entire film Blake speaks about three intelligible lines, most of the time he's just mumbling and we can barely understand him. This is annoying at first, but once you realize that the narrative is irrelevant, it becomes clear that the way he's saying things is more important than what he's saying. The entire film gives you this weird feeling of living this shiftless life, functioning at a distance from the outside world. So, the most powerful moments come when Blake comes into contact with regular people, as in the afforementioned yellow pages scene, or notably the scene with Kim Gordon, who calls him out on his lifestyle. That's the most emotionally affecting scene in the piece. Another really interesting scene is when Blake wanders into the town and goes to the rock club.

I think the film's biggest problem is that, other than Blake, we really don't know who anyone is. In Elephant there was a huge cast, but they all played off of archetypes, here there's just a bunch of random people. It's unclear whether they're in the band or just his friends. One of them looks a lot like Dave Grohl, and I doubt that's coincidence, but the phone call early in the film seems to imply that his band is somewhere else. So, the scenes with these people are difficult to decipher, and generally end up as strands without meaning. You see this guy listening to 'Venus in Furs,' but there's no meaning beyond that. It's just the surface of things. I suppose the point is to show Blake's distance from the people in his life, but it's all kind of unclear.

The film isn't entertaining in the traditional sense, or even something particularly thought provoking, it's more like going on a drug trip, entering this alien headspace for a while. You're not sure exactly what's going on, but there's an odd feeling about everything going on. However, the film is a bit self indulgent and actively confronts the viewer with long shots of essentially nothing, and countless diversions from the barely there main point.

In the end, it's not like everything came together, but the image of Blake's soul leaving his body is striking, and provides an apt conclusion for things. Stuff just happens and we caught some of the end of this man's life. Is the film a success? It certainly acheives what it sets out to do, but I think more could have been done with the premise, without turning it into a conventional narrative. Van Sant's minimalism is so concrete as to alienate the viewer. It's not a good thing when you have to turn to wikipedia afterwards to understand the basic premise of the movie.

But still, it works as a completely unique cinematic experience. I finished the film and wasn't emotionally affected, but I felt different, I remained in that odd state of mind after the film was done, that's a powerful piece of cinema.

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