Some years ago, a friend of Gus Van Sant's dragged him to see Bela Tarr's Sátántangó, the greatest seven-hour film of all time. Said Van Sant, "It was exactly what I needed to see at that exact moment in my life. It also summed up some things that I'd been thinking about for a long time and been influenced by but never put to use. The film was accomplishing those things, and a lot of that had to do with the timing of the story and how long he would take to describe certain actions that are simple yet the more you watch them the more they grow in their illumination. It was very inspirational."
The result of this experience was Gerry -- a masterpiece of minimalism that is Van Sant's best film, and a welcome return following a disappointing mainstream three-picture run in Hollywood. (Yes, Filmbrain hated Good Will Hunting.) The Tarr influence was perhaps even stronger in Elephant, his take on the Columbine shootings. While not quite as perfect as Gerry, it was still a fascinating thing to behold, and its long takes, behind the shoulder walking shots, and liberal use of time loops (where the same scene is repeated from a different perspective) was straight out of Sátántangó.
Van Sant's latest film, Last Days, is the final (?) chapter in his trilogy about death (and walking). Though not a biopic, it is inspired by the life of Kurt Cobain, or rather by the days leading up to his suicide. While Gerry was a buddy pic (of sorts), and Elephant a collective, Last Days is (for the most part) a one-man show. Pretty boy Michael Pitt is pretty damn good as Blake, the shaggy, mumbling rock star who glides ghostlike through the film. We hardly ever see his face, and much of his performance relies heavily on lumbering, lethargic movements, which at times have an almost balletic quality to them.
Though there are a handful of people on the periphery of Blake's life -- from the parasitic entourage that live in his dilapidated mansion, to the band and family members who try desperately to reach him by telephone -- they function as little more than white noise. Blake makes no attempt at communication (he often hides or scampers away from them), and they, for the most part, pay little attention to him. It's only when a door-to-door Yellow Pages salesman shows up that Blake makes a genuine effort to communicate -- he longs for contact, just not with those closest to him.
The first half-hour or so is tremendous -- Blake stomping through the woods, building a fire, singing Home on the Range, coming home, attempting to eat a bowl of cereal, walking through the house in a black negligee -- it's a shame the entire film isn't like this. The introduction of the other characters changes the mood tremendously -- and not for the better. Sure, it's nice to see Kim Gordon on the big screen, but her scene, like Harmony Korine's, doesn't really bring much to the proceedings. Mamet-staple Ricky Jay gets to tell one of his infamous magician stories, and though it resonates somewhat with Cobain's death (a suicide, deemed "death by misadventure") it too seems awkward and out of place.
The problem with Last Days, at least when compared to Gerry and Elephant, is that it draws too much attention to itself -- you become more conscious of the conceits and the narrative "tricks" than in the previous films. The use of time loops, for example, which was used to great effect in Elephant (actively following several characters over the same period of time) isn't quite necessary here -- and it comes off as more of an afterthought, and somewhat gimmicky. The other characters (Asia Argento, Lukas Haas, et al.) just aren't significant enough to warrant their own perspective. Then there are the moments that suffer from being a bit too obvious -- the kind of things that Van Sant avoided in the other two films. The mansion as metaphor for Blake -- strong and guarded on the outside, but crumbling on the inside. Or Blake stepping into his daughter's bedroom to find three kittens purring by the crib. (This coming after record producer Kim Gordon asks him if he's spoken to his daughter lately.) Unlike Gerry and Elephant, which Filmbrain was completely drawn into, trance-like, from start to finish, Last Days has too many moments that pull you out -- as if Van Sant was tapping you on the shoulder and whispering in your ear. It's not that it ruins the film, but does make it seem like a step backward from Elephant, rather than forward.
Still, there are quite a few great moments in Last Days, including one which might be the most memorable of 2005 -- Blake, in negligee and boots, slowly slumping to the floor in a drug-induced stupor while a Boyz II Men video plays in the background. Pitt performs two musical numbers in the film, including a multi-layered guitar-sampler-drum piece that is shot from outside a window, with the camera slowly pulling back during the entire sequence. These two scenes, along with Harris Savides' cinematography, and the musique concrète sound design are reasons enough not to miss the film.
J. Hoberman (Village Voice) considers Last Days to be Gus Van Sant's masterpiece, and the best of the trilogy, calling it "productively reductive" -- certainly a true statement for the first third. Filmbrain would probably agree with Hoberman's assessment if Van Sant had let the entire film play out this way -- as a true solo performance. Instead, Last Days turns out to be an uneven affair, where pure cinematic poetry is marred by moments that border on the pretentious. That said, with each day that passes, the desire to see it again grows stronger.