Thursday, September 01, 2005

Does Last Days last days?

I had tried to avoid reviews of Last Days, Gus Van Sant’s tricky minimalist dirge about the troubled passing of a Kurt Cobain-like grunge musican, because critical responses to his Gerry and Elephant (the first two parts of a loose trilogy) had, I’m pretty sure, goaded me through sheer polemical overstatement into a distorted take on both movies. The debate about Elephant’s aestheticisation of a Columbine-esque high-school massacre had yielded fiercely polarised reactions in Cannes, ranging from Todd McCarthy’s finger-wagging pan to a good number of rhapsodic raves, the Palme d’Or and the Best Director award. My own thoughts are here, and for the record I much preferred Gerry, which tended to elicit a more puzzled brand of admiration from those who didn’t dismiss it outright (and unfairly) as a confoundingly tedious exercise in auteurist self-gratification.

Cobain-like, Columbine-esque: Van Sant has a habit of hedging his bets around the “truth” value of these youth-and-death narratives, in pursuit of a higher philosophical truth that, in the case of Elephant, I believe ultimately eluded his grasp. Not forgetting that Gerry was also based on a true story, I wouldn’t want to suggest that the obscurity of the source material Van Sant was working with there was the movie’s chief asset conceptually, but there’s no denying that it gave him more imaginative breathing room; Elephant got so hung up on the vexed question of motive, and was so keen to position itself as essentially anti-explanation, that it began to seem mainly like a reductive and tail-chasing rebuttal to all that post-Columbine editorialising.

Last Days is faced with a similar problem, in that its portrait of Blake (Michael Pitt) tallies in so many of its essentials with what we know about Kurt Cobain’s death that the movie, for all its demurrals, has to be considered – sorry, Gus – at least partly biographical. Intentionally or not, it keeps throwing up parallels which return us to Van Sant’s source of artistic inspiration rather than taking us past it, an inevitably distracting interpretative avenue which Pitt’s minutely Cobain-a-like hair-do and smeggy wardrobe do very little to navigate us away from.

Curiously, though, the moments in which these thoughts intrude most damagingly tend to be those in which Blake himself isn’t present – the scene in which his bandmate Scott (Scott Green) answers a phone-call from a pointedly irate (unnamed) girlfriend, for instance – and these are always the moments in which Van Sant’s film fails most baldly to do justice to its own rather good idea. Irksome though Elephant’s circular rhetoric was, its precise divisions of perspective, and narrative backtracking, always seemed like part of a perfectly clear and organised aesthetic strategy; Last Days spends the bulk of its time shambling around with Blake, but repeatedly breaks up its own flow with jarring leapfrog shifts to the activities of his fellow band members. The first few scenes of Blake on his own – stripping for a swim in the nearby stream, doing a spot of gardening, pouring himself a bowl of cereal then distractedly sticking the box in the fridge – are carefully framed by Harris Savides to enfold us into a sort of glazed, companionable subjectivity that’s actually very different from the glacially gliding arm’s-length approach he took on Elephant; it reminded me more of the sort of subtly implicating first-person cinema attempted, and brilliantly, by David Cronenberg, Peter Suschitzky and Ralph Fiennes in Spider. When it’s working here it’s nearly as good: Blake drifts around the house like a bored ghost, utterly indifferent to the random clamour in other rooms, and responding to the occasional burst of interrogation from whatever corner of the frame only through an impermeable gauze of disaffect. The film’s best scene has him shuffling down the road to a gig in a nearby warehouse, where he’s accosted by (yikes!) Harmony Korine, their conversation (or rather Korine’s monologue) transpiring in a single side-on shot which entirely obscures Blake’s face behind a comical green hood and every word Korine is saying underneath a sonic foreground of oppressive grunge.

When Blake is just a mumbling clump of blond hair being confronted with stuff, the movie is really onto something, pushing its unexpectedly funny slacker minimalism further and further down the line towards a complete and tragic (if almost irrelevantly tragic) effacement of personality. Like the hard-to-please skeptic I am, though, I couldn’t help wondering whether the paucity of facial close-ups wasn’t really dictated by the problem of Pitt’s performance, which is too noodly and self-conscious to make Blake a blank slate for anyone’s empathy but the actor’s own (and perhaps Van Sant’s). He’s certainly no Ralph Fiennes, and all the Method muttering amounted for me to a wannabe performance-art exercise missing most of the necessary art.

If he’d coaxed a genuinely compelling central portrait from Pitt, Van Sant might have stuck to his guns, followed Blake from the first frame to the last, and given us something as good, as cherishable, courageous and beautiful as Gerry. But a yawning uncertainty of focus lures him into making cheap, judgemental points about the vultures and leeches Blake has surrounded himself with, as if exposing the demonstrable lack of musical genius or human feeling in his retinue were a way of implicitly endowing Blake with even more of all that. Having built up suggestive ambiguities in the moments just before and after Blake’s apparent suicide, Van Sant shoots himself in the foot with a terrible scene in which Scott worries about getting the blame while a TV news report blares on and on about the senselessness of Blake’s death. The chilling unconcern of Blake’s colleagues can’t be symptomatic of the same pathology that drove him to kill himself, since the rest of the movie has gone out of its way to contrast their behaviour – so why spend time with them in these crucial last minutes? Why, earlier on, let the camera rest on a vapid R&B video for a full 30 seconds, when the point about faked torment in love ballads versus the “authentic” kind Blake’s laying claim to is grasped within three? The movie’s proposition is quite beguiling, but it seems divided against itself, as addled and strung-out as its own suicidal subject.

Last Days: B-
Elephant: B-
Gerry: A-
Spider: A

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