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Last Days’ depicts rock star’s final days

Jonathan R. RETARTHA | Monday, October 3, 2005

In “Last Days,” Gus Van Sant offers a stunning portrait of humanity in his depiction of a rock star’s final hours.

The film surrounds a rock star named Blake (Michael Pitt), a drug addict who spends his time at his poorly kept mansion wandering around, passing out, fumbling with music, dressing up in women’s clothing and occasionally going on trips into the woods. Blake’s friends or groupies come and go, but most of the film is centered upon Blake’s everyday activities.

While Van Sant never explicitly describes Blake as a direct reference to Kurt Cobain, the similarities are striking enough to give the correct impression without Van Sant having to say so. Blake is clearly channeling Cobain in his appearance and performance, with the straggly blonde hair, cutoff jeans and flannel shirt that were signatures of the former Nirvana front man who committed suicide on April 5, 1994 after battling a long addiction to cocaine.

What makes “Last Days” different from other rock biopics or programs like “Behind the Music” that sensationalize celebrity deaths with flashy news headlines and dramatic buildups to epic death scenes is the static, almost portrait-like framing of the film.

Most scenes happen either inside or outside of Blake’s decrepit northeast mansion, and in the film’s 90 minutes, very little happens plot-wise. Time is often skewed and jumbled, and most scenes are dialogue-free and simply follow the clearly stoned Blake stumble around as his lackey friends shuffle in and out while paying little attention to him.

The purpose of such a technique, one that is similar to Van Sant’s other films “Elephant” and “Gerry,” is to eliminate the hype and conspiracy theories that surround high profile deaths like Cobain’s or the Columbine shooters in “Elephant.” For Van Sant, it is impossible and unnecessary to try and understand the psyche of such socially polarizing people. Therefore, Van Sant connects the audience with Blake by showing everything that was going on in his world at the time of his death, instead of focusing on Blake’s psychological state.

The littlest things, from watching TV to dealing with visitors to wandering around in the woods presents a complete picture without trying to explore Blake’s motivations. Blake rarely speaks, and when he does, it is in the mumbled, barely understandable jargon reminiscent of Cobain.

The only revelation that the audience is given into the psychological world of Blake, therefore, is through visually experiencing his world. The film moves at an extremely slow pace, and the fluctuations in time and space are meant to impart the experience of Blake’s drug induced stupor onto the audience.

Blake’s death comes at a slightly unexpected time, but is played matter-of-factly, like every other event in the film.

Van Sant refuses to address any of the theories of murder or conspiracy that surrounded Cobain’s death. He does fairly explicitly suggest that it was suicide, but does not create a bloody, graphic death scene out of it. Instead, the final shot of Blake is one of the most complex and beautiful shots in the film. To Blake and the viewer, his death is more liberation than termination.

“Last Days” is a complex film that is unlikely to appeal to anyone outside avid Van Sant fans or the art film community. In its simplicity, though, Van Sant probably provides the best glimpse anyone could have into the final hours of Cobain or those like him.