Last week I wrote about My Own Private Idaho, a weird but wonderful work of art by writer/director Gus Van Sant. If the idea of a partial adaptation of a Shakespearean history through the lens of gay street hustlers doesn't convince you that Van Sant has a love for high-concept, try these on for size: A shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho; a queasy and deeply disturbing fictionalization of the Columbine Massacre; an all-but-in-name bio-pic of the last two days of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain's life. It's that last one I want to talk about in this entry, 2005's Last Days.
Some movies are all about entertainment, some are about a mix of entertainment and art, and some make no pretense to entertainment whatsoever. Last Days is one of the latter. This isn't to imply that it's a bad movie or that it's boring, merely that it never really interacts with the audience. Whereas comedies have overt devices designed to make us laugh, horror movies have devices intended to scare us and dramas have devices in place to emotionally compel us, films like Last Days don't really employ devices of any sort. Whatever's there exists for itself, not to elicit a particular reaction out of the audience.
Take the opening scene in Last Days. It is a long, meandering bit of non-narrative as Blake, the Cobain stand-in played by Michael Pitt, explores the property surrounding the country house where he and his bandmates live and record. This scene tells us nothing about this character, who I hesitate to even call our protagonist. We only learn that he's in a band much later through bits and pieces of conversation.
Long, hypnotic scenes are really what holds Last Days together. Take this scene in which Scott Green plays a "Venus in Furs" record by The Velvet Underground and just sits, trying to remember the lyrics. Where the traditional rock bio-pic would take this scene to demonstrate some kind of stylized decadence, Van Sant just lets his characters wander and be no more or less wild than any group of 20-somethings hanging out at home.
Then there's the film's unofficial centerpiece, a dark, psychedelic sound construction by Blake/Michael Pitt called "That Day". It's more or less a portrait of the artist at work, but Van Sant's decision to shoot it as a stationary top-down scene that lasts nearly seven minutes makes it the most uncommercial part of an already uncommercial film. At the same time, this scene is the emotional core of the project, an abstract depiction of the story only hinted at by Blake's wanderings. In its most literal sense, the scene has Blake surrounding himself with his own anguished screams and the simultaneous therapy/torture that is his art. When it's all over, Van Sant's shot lingers for nearly 30 seconds on the empty space where Blake used to be. It's an oblique but powerful reference to the character's sudden suicide. One moment he's there making music, the next there's just a messy void where he used to be.
Talk of a full-on Nirvana/Cobain bio-pic has been batted around Hollywood for years. A seemingly official announcement in 2007 made it look like Courtney Love was ready to get the project off the ground and there have been recent reports of director Marc Forster helming the Cobain story. For my two cents, I'm not sure anyone could do Cobain much more justice than Gus Van Sant and Michael Pitt. Last Days doesn't deify Cobain or try to pithily explain why he chose to die so young. In its way, this movie is far more reverent and honest than any soft "based on a true story" picture could ever be.