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November 17, 2005

Last Days

Gus Van Sant - 2005
HBO Video Region 1 DVD

The same day that I viewed and wrote about Where the Truth Lies, the Self-Styled Siren (see link at right) posted a blog concerning biographical movies. While the major part of the siren's piece concerned actors who may not have physically appropriate to impersonate the real life characters, one aspect concerning virtually every film is the question of factualness. Where the Truth Lies avoids many of these problems by changing the names of characters, having them share some aspects of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, but also being more concerned with using the characters as a tangent from which to explore the nature of truth and paired relationships. Gus Van Sant tries to play it both ways by including a statement at the end of Last Days stating that his film was inspired by Kurt Cobain and is also a work of fiction. The fictional aspects of the film were out of necessity as there is very limited information concerning Cobain's activities prior to his suicide. As Van Sant is more concerned with the mood of the character, rather than reportage, on could call this an impressonistic biography.

Like his previous films, Elephant and Gerry, this is a very formal, sparse film. Van Sant frequently uses literal framing devices - window frames, door frames, television screens, and a fire place as part of his visual motifs. Also used are window reflections. One could say that while the characters in Last Days can sometimes observe each other, they are not capable of looking at themselves. Two key scenes are of the Cobain character, Blake, seen from a distance through windows, first playing guitars and a drum kit, and at the end when his dead body is discovered. Van Sant also uses the window pane frames as a ladder which Blake's ghost climbs. The ghost also resembles a reflection on a window.

Like Elephant, which was inspired by the student shooting at Columbine, Colorado, Van Sant does not offer explanations for Blake. We see Michael Pitt as Blake, virtually stumbling through a wooded area, his house and a guest house, mumbling to himself. A word or two may be picked up, but the bigger clues to the state of Blake's like are relayed by the people who talk to him, or talk about him. Visual clues to Blake's state of being are conveyed by the deteriorating interiors of his houses. The only time that Blake seems to be in control of his life is when he plays his music. Like some other artists, Blake can express himself more clearly through his art than he is able to verbally.

In an interview in The Guardian, Van Sant comments about Last Days being the last of a trilogy about death. While Last Days can not be called entertaining, it is for me, the most watchable of Van Sant's recent films. I do feel that as an artist, he is at a standstill. Perhaps this is a reflection of my own prejudices, but I realized while watch Last Days that Van Sant has never really made any films about adults. Virtually every protagonist has been an adolescent or post-adolescent male. Even Psycho's Norman Bates was adult only in age and not behavior. Maybe one can argue that Van Sant, as an artist, has chosen to live in his own private Idaho. To which I say, get out of that state, Gus.

Posted by peter at November 17, 2005 03:35 PM


Thanks so much for the mention. In a way, this post connects my musings on bad casting in biopics with a post Girish made about not liking too-literal adaptations of books. "Last Days" doesn't necessarily sound like my cup of tea, but Van Sant has probably made a film that's streets ahead of the average biopic just by taking artistic license as far as it will go.

Posted by: Campaspe at November 22, 2005 09:57 PM