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Friday, March 31, 2006

No thanks, and good night

Last Days

Rating: * (out of 5)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The title "Last Days" ostensibly refers to this film's subject, the final hours grunge-rock icon and Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain spent in this world before taking his life on April 5, 1994. Upon viewing this miserable, indulgent time-waster, though, it's clear the title refers to director Gus Van Sant's relevance as a filmmaker worth following. After "Last Days," it's highly unlikely that there will be much of a following left to see his next excursion into pointlessness.

News photo

Like his last film, "Elephant," which dealt with the Colombine High School massacre, Van Sant again turns his eye to a shocking, haunting, generation-defining event . . . and again decides that the ideal approach is to have nothing whatsoever to say about it. He skirts around his topic like it's radioactive, a slave to a current sense of art-cinema cool that favors Warhol-like boredom and inconsequence. God forbid that events might actually be portrayed as having meaning or significance.

Van Sant's strategy in "Last Days" is simply to show a frazzled, incoherent, far-gone wreck of a rock-star named "Blake" (Michael Pitt, done up to look exactly like Cobain) as he putters around his secluded house and garden outside Seattle, avoiding visitors and mumbling to himself like a bag lady. Entire scenes are based on things like an out-of-it Blake trying, pathetically, to cook a packet of macaroni and cheese without burning the house down.

It may seem like I'm stating the obvious to say that long, loooong shots of Blake/Cobain loping through his garden and mumbling inaudibly are not only boring to watch, but also insignificant details in trying to empathize with a confused young man on the brink of suicide. It may seem obvious to you and me, but clearly not to Van Sant. He found plenty of time in his brief 96 minutes to show real-time ephemera like the above -- or like Cobain/Blake putting on a dress and makeup -- but no time whatsoever to show what it was that drove the musician to become disillusioned and depressed by his fame and success.

Cobain fans should be truly pissed-off by "Last Days." The singer's idealism and integrity, his musical gift, his charisma -- none of this is glimpsed here. We see the man at his weakest, most confused state, with almost no context as to how he got there. Van Sant implies, subtly, that the hanger-ons and fake friends who gathered around him, like mold on a strawberry, were somehow to blame. Or perhaps it was the pressures of touring and living up to expectations. But, you know, lots of people deal with that. What made Cobain different, or more sensitive to the stress? Was it the Ritalin he was prescribed as a child? Emotional scars from his parents' divorce? Marital problems? Don't look here for any answers.

A major reason for Cobain's frailty in his "last days" was his addiction to heroin. This is hinted at so obliquely in the film that you'll miss it if you blink. As such, "Last Days" gives the incorrect impression that Cobain was simply a head-case. And the painful health problems that were plaguing Cobain, the reason why he was self-medicating? Not a hint of this is offered in "Last Days" in the poor guy's defense. He had just dropped out of a European tour due to laryngitis and bronchitis, and had fled a stint in detox, resuming heroin use to kill the excruciating and undiagnosed stomach pain he had long suffered from. Van Sant ignores all of this.

Other speculation even has it that Cobain was murdered. There's evidence enough out there to make it a plausible, if not proven, theory -- see Nick Broomfield's excellent doc, "Kurt & Courtney" -- but, again, one that Van Sant has no time for. No, he's too busy filming important things like Kurt/Blake having an incoherent conversation with a Yellow Pages salesman who knocks on his door. Apparently, a Yellow Pages salesman actually showed up on the set of the film, and Van Sant, in one of those sudden flashes of "brilliance" that gives experimentalism a bad name -- decided right then and there to put him in the film. Apparently this was more important than, say, Cobain's acute distress over his fame, which was so great he couldn't even listen to "Nevermind," because he thought it sounded too commercial. He was also intensely troubled by the way his words could be misperceived, like in a much publicized incident in 1991 when a girl was raped while her attackers sang along to "Polly," an ironic anti-rape song that, in this case, failed to communicate its irony.

If you think that someday, when you are dead and gone, your life would best be summarized by a movie of you taking a leak in the morning with pillow-hair and half-open eyes, well then, by all means, go see "Last Days." If, however, you think there might be something more to a life than can be found in such mundane, inconsequential details, then you clearly disagree with Van Sant. While it's tempting to peruse a bio-pic that isn't all IMPORTANT MOMENTS in IMPORTANT LIVES -- as we get in all the airless, overly-composed bio-pics of the "Walk the Line" sort -- it's clear that Van Sant has entered some sort of diametrically awful extreme. Sometimes boredom is just that: boring.

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