Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Last Days

Last Days is a film where not much happens centering around a man who is not capable of doing much. It seems useless to consider the film out of context - it appears to be a biopic of Kurt Cobain, but there are few biographical details in the film and the expository nature of the film seems accidental, where present. It is more of an elegy than a biopic, but not a reverent elegy. If I had to relate it to anything it would be a screwball comedy, albeit one whose screwball is drowning in heroin withdrawals and with a plot lacking any sense of direction. This hampered aimlessness happens to be the perfect combination for a special subset of screwball comedy, however, as it turns every trivial physical action into a sequence of bodily movements that seem far too complicated for any one man to achieve. I am still to this point marveling that Blake was able to make something resembling a bowl of macaroni and cheese. In describing the film as an irreverent elegy it should be clear that I feel there is a thick vein of comedy, and I find it rooted in the self-inflicted helplessness of the ill fated protagonist. When a man makes his bed so high, or himself so low, that he cannot get into bed then it arouses little pity from me when I see him sleeping on the floor. Even though the film is about the last days of a man soon to die, I found the film’s ability to generate a reverence for the man’s life out of such deliberate self-destruction a surprise, given the circumstances. One could say that the film’s early events represent his attempt to kick his addiction, and thus his living stupor represents his brave struggle against addiction, but then the end is far more cowardly by contrast than if he is high for the duration of the film. If he is high the entire time, then it really is just a man enjoying the consequences of his actions and his death is simply the inevitable result of a slow, knowing suicide. Regardless of the reason for his state of being, I think Van Sant manages to suffuse a humanistic reverence into the somber comedy situated at the end of a lifelong chain of errors.


 Though Blake is a mere shell of a man, as useless as a film protagonist as he is a living being (aside from a single instance where he manages to become quite the stealth action hero), the way the film captures him sauntering about a dense wilderness (at least in contrast to my southern California residence) serves to highlight the disparity between the explosion of life around Blake and his own pitiful imploded life. I feel nothing in particular for Blake, so I can’t say that I sense any tragedy in his demise to offset its bleakly comic nature, but there is a certain soothing calmness to his existence that almost makes him seem more like a diseased plant than a human being. The color of the film exudes a certain dampness which reminds me of another film, shot in a similarly observant style equally reminiscent of Tarr, whose opening scene concludes with a slow pan up the trunk of a healthy tree, something Last Days could serve as an ironic counterpoint to. Blake barely contributes more to the world than a motionless tree; his actions are labored, his speech is barely discernible, and he leaves evidence of his presence strewn about, yet his ability to stumble through a human residence and meander about his exterior surroundings makes him marginally more useful for a film than a dying plant (arguably! I already disagree!). His lethargic movements at times look as if they were captured in time-lapse. To think of him as a dying plant comically withering away in the shadow of a lofty canopy seems to be a perfect description. The heights of human interaction seem far beyond him, incapable of a relationship or even taking interest in the things going on around him. When one of his housemates talks to a pair of Mormons it provides a stark contrast to his own inability to understand the concept of a phone book, and the housemates’ web of romantic entanglements only serves to heighten the disparity of his solitude. When a private detective is shown blathering on and on about some obscure celebrity musician it doesn’t cast Blake’s inability to form a coherent sentence in a poor light, as there seems to be little worth hearing, but his own inert state of being does not offer a promising contrast, either. What I find the most perplexing, odd, and somehow perfect contrast of all is the extended focus on a Boyz II Men video. This song serves to set the period, and it serves as an oblique reference to Cobain’s own musical stardom, but those seem of minimal importance when compared to the simple aesthetic contrast between the video’s depiction of a direct, emotional, and glossy fiction contrasting with the film’s dour fiction, one seemingly closer to reality. The duration that the video is allowed to run is surprising in that there is little content to be drawn from the video itself, but I think the duration itself serves to heighten the importance of the video as more than a mere cultural reference and elevates it to an in-kind companion with Blake’s live, improvised performance. This performance seems to be both the fullest expression that Blake can manage at this point and a marked contrast to his ineptitude in other human affairs, so cleverly masked by his public image. If there is a tragedy relating to him, it is that his music dies with him and only a hazy reflection lingers after his death.

For me, the most enveloping aspect of the film relates to Van Sant fully realizing his expression through his filmmaking, largely focused on the setting of the film as opposed to its human inhabitants. I was struck by the film’s compositions, with the actors often being little more than artifacts, and while the film's central human elements amount to a sort of melancholic comedy the film’s aesthetic elements amount to an incredible set of withering sculptures. It’s not enough to treat the images simply as static photographs or paintings, but there’s rarely enough movement to suggest something beyond the plastic arts, and yet it is there. When Blake’s posture slowly slumps he is like an unfired clay statue melting in the summer heat. When the camera slowly peels away from his jam session it is as if he is being cocooned inside the immobile mansion, but still chipping away from the inside. Blake’s reflection on the glass after his death is like the last specks of paint falling off a Roman statue. The plastic arts aren’t plastic, anyway. Whether stone or canvas and paint they fade and crack and chip and break; film merely accelerates the process before suffering a similar fate. I’d be reaching to say that the death of the film stock mirrors the death of the art produced in the film whose death is caused by the death of the man, but I’m getting there via another route so I may as well reach now for the fun of it. Here’s a more sufferable route: I feel little sympathy for a man who carelessly let his life slide away, but even the film’s veiled imitations of his process recall the potential of the artist. In general, of Kurt Cobain - it hardly matters to me in this case, as little as the facts of Cobain's case, because Van Sant’s realization manages to eulogize lost art moreso than it manages to eulogize a lost man or artist. The appearance of the Boyz II Men video may be comic and unexpected, but its presence contrasts not only with Blake’s performance but also with his inept culinary episode, showcasing that even this sterilized music video represents more of a contribution than his life-as-stupor lost in the fog of time. The facts of those last days are lost, but the reverberations of a lost artist live on, and when Van Sant’s film captures the stale air of a decrepit kitchen it serves to eulogize the rotting artist within Blake’s living body by encasing his ineptitude in a cocoon of blissful lamentation. Actually, elegy may be a more accurate term than eulogy, and the film bears a strong resemblance to the elegies of Aleksandr Sokurov (far more than the superficial comparisons others have made to Bela Tarr). Like with Sokurov, that inscrutable titan from the north, it may be a hopeless pursuit to categorize and extract any specific meaning to every element in the poetry of Last Days, but inscrutable impressionism is often a beautiful thing. To say too much on this point may be beside the point, and I do want to re-emphasize how bizarre I find the film, so perhaps I can summarize the film as a comic elegy realized as a melting sculpture lost somewhere in a thick wood.

2 comments:

  1. Nice! I've always liked this film, and thought that it was really badly misunderstood and underappreciated. The emphasis on Cobain in so much coverage of this film risks overshadowing how little of Cobain actually appears here. Approaching it as a black (bleak) comedy makes more sense of it. It is darkly funny, especially when the missionaries visit the house and try to chat up the spaced-out Blake. Like all of the films in Van Sant's unofficial "death trilogy," Last Days is a consideration of the sadness, grime and absurdity lurking behind tabloid headlines: the naked, shambling truth is so much stranger than the sensationalized media saturation that tries to profit from these stories. Think of Casey Affleck's Gerry mysteriously, surreally perched atop a rock that he couldn't possibly have climbed. Blake's story, this abstracted version of Cobain's story, is similarly absurd and silly and yet, as in that fiery guitar improvisation, also seething with passion and real feeling. All this stuff is papered over by the hyped-up popular reactions to events like this, and I think the response to Last Days, as seen through the filter of the media version of Cobain, has been similarly misguided.

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  2. I don't know if you've ever seen Sokurov's Moloch, but that portrait of Hitler's mountaintop palace is probably the closest comparison I can make to this film. It's funny, it's ethereal, it's visually stunning - none of these qualities are what people are accustomed to seeing in portraits either of evil dictators or of rock icons, but I wouldn't have it any other way. It's difficult to take the negative responses to films like those too seriously, because people get attached to ideas of what the film should focus on, namely the facts of the cases, which the filmmakers seem fully content to leave to the historians. Since when were the facts relevant to fiction? Van Sant does the coy name change thing, but that may have just convinced people that he was trying to portray the 'real truth' that 'the man' doesn't want you to know, who knows. There's no escape from the hyenas.

    There's another element that runs through Van Sant's trilogy (and it seems like a pervasive thread that runs through a lot of American culture these days), and that's this idea of there being 'no heroes'. Whether it's exposing the limitations of suffering in Gerry or setting up an anticlimax with Benny in Elephant or demystifying an icon in Last Days it avoids the sort of 'one man overcomes all odds' mystique that comes out most obviously in superhero comics. Even those have had their comeuppance, like the morally dubious Batman and the completely ineffectual Kick-Ass and the real life renunciation of the heroic lie surrounding Pat Tillman. Those other elements really came around through the latter half of the decade in the disillusionment with the Iraq war, but Van Sant was well out ahead of the pack. He may also be ahead of the pack in bringing the 'hero' back, with Milk, albeit one whose mortality is always at issue. Will the new Captain America movie be just that? Or maybe it will just be a good ol' syrupy pacifier, who knows.

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