Montreal Film Journal


I have mixed feelings about Gus Van Sant's trilogy of death, endless tracking shots and minimal dialogue. Gerry is a curiosity more notable for what it's not than what it is and Elephant is ultimately a shallow horror thriller given the art house treatment1. Now comes "Last Days", which applies the aesthetic of the two previous pictures to the tragic tale of Kurt Cobain's demise.

As fictional Cobain doppelganger Blake, Michael Pitt does nothing except mumbling and sulking for 90 minutes, yet he connects with Cobain's lost soul on a visceral level. It's not just the bleached blonde hair, skinny body and grungy rags either- it's the tortured look in his eyes (when he's not hiding behind novelty sunglasses) and the unmistakable raw singing voice. Blake only performs two songs in the movie, but both are unforgettable. One's an instrumental punctuated by heartbreaking screams, the other is a chilling acoustic ditty called From Death to Birth that was written by Pitt but sounds like a lost Nirvana classic.

Tellingly, those scenes are the only ones in which Blake is the slight bit focused. The rest of the time, he's walking in the woods, talking to himself, swatting bugs only he can see, eating Cocoa Rice Krispies, playing dress-up, ominously messing around with his shotgun... You never actually see him shooting up, but it's obvious that this is a man who's done too much dope and is practically dead already, a rock star zombie whose only moments of clarity come when he picks up a guitar.

Music and sound in general are central all through "Last Days". One has to laugh when Blake opens the (M)TV, passes out and leaves us watching Boys II Men's On Bended Knee (all of it!), but when The Velvet Underground's Venus in Furs plays during the pivotal Kraft Dinner sequence (!), the lyrics "Severin, down on your bended knee" provide an eerie echo. I'm not sure what the bended knee thing actually relates to (masochism?), but it can't be a coincidence. The significance of the imaginary church bells heard through the film is also open to interpretation, and all these elements make up amazing soundscapes that are often more telling than the generally banal things on screen.

Even though loneliness engulfs Blake's last days, other characters come in and out of his dilapidated home. There's an intervention by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, who tries to convince the musician to escape his self-made prison, a visit by a P.I.2 hired by Blake's estranged wife, a crash-in by a bunch of other burn-outs that includes a nerdy emo guy who talks of a girl he hooked up with while touring in Japan3, cold calls by a Yellow Pages rep and Mormons... Last but not least, there's a pointless but enjoyable cameo by Asia Argento's ass (you'll see).

Not much happens in "Last Days" like in Gus Van Sant's previous narrative-free ventures, but whereas Gerry's ending felt randomly abrupt and Elephant's exploited a real tragedy for cheap thrills, the death scene here is a poetic grace note, downbeat yet strangely moving.

1 Incidentally, local hip hop visionaries Gatineau's 5-minute summary of Elephant is more haunting than the film that inspired it

2 The P.I. is played by Ricky Jay, whose anecdotes about magicians don't really have anything to do with anything, except for that great punch line: "Death by misadventure".

3 Am I the only one who was reminded of Weezer front man Rivers Cuomo? Minus the part where he makes out with another dude, natch. What is it with Van Sant and gratuitous homoerotic scenes anyway? Oh, right.