Cast: Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento,
Scott Green, Nicole Vicius, Ricky Jay, Ryan Orion, Thadeus A.
Gus Van Sant’s startlingly great Last
Days introduces its Kurt Cobain stand-in (Pitt)
stumbling and vomiting through the woods, muttering to himself.
Coming to a stream, he takes off his shirt and pants (but not his
shoes), dives into the water and flails around for a while. Later
he sits by a fireplace and dries his socks, mumbling more, and eventually
bursting into a bellowing rendition of “Home On The Range,”
but the crackling of the fireplace sounds far cleaner, more coherent
and hypnotic than his inarticulate droning. He walks home the next
day and gets a shovel. Looking up to the sky as he walks forward,
instead of going down the steps, he takes a near-slapstick pratfall
down a grassy slope. Pitt is a mess, lurching between various non-functional
modes—now running away from others quickly and clumsily, then
crawling on the floor with kabuki-like slowness. In his first and
only conversation on the phone, he can’t even speak a whole
word. “Did you get my message?” the caller asks. “N-”
says Pitt, completely omitting the vowel.
Unlike Pitt, the film moves with great agility, more so than previously
displayed by Van Sant in his Arthouse II: After Finding Forrester
days. In Gerry, he started slow and went even slower: Whether
the shot was tracking, static, or a 360-revolution around a character,
everything moved somnambulistically. Elephant was basically
an exercise in Steadicam mastery in search of a better movie. Last
Days has greater technical deftness than either of its predecessors,
because it’s not afraid to switch aesthetic strategies rather
than sticking with one unrelieved method from beginning to end.
At the opening, we go from tracking Pitt with a pan in the woods
to static takes of him swimming to an eerie Steadicam track behind
him—coming close to his shoulder, then pulling back, momentarily
suggesting oncoming demons that threaten and then leave him alone
for a while (a feeling only strengthened by the use of Hildegard
Westerkamp’s “Doors of Perception,” a
slew of electronic frequencies and ambient sounds that—like
the use of a huge dilapidated house that Pitt wanders through—suggest
Wendy Carlos’s work in The Shining).
Rather than succumbing to the over-rarified atmosphere of Elephant,
Van Sant finally has the confidence to sustain a mode with multiple
methods; he’s evolved (back) into his own artistic voice.
When he remade Psycho shot-for-shot, some wondered why
such a formerly distinctive artist was suddenly becoming a copycat
apprentice, yet there were no similar objections when Van Sant openly
confessed his admiration for Bela Tarr and started
aping his lengthy tracking shots and purposeful obfuscations (probably
because barely anyone in the U.S. has had a chance to actually see
Tarr’s work). But Last Days settles comfortably,
never adopting one tactic too many times while feeling all of a
Last Days establishes an environment for Pitt, then tries
to disrupt it. People keep coming to the house wanting stuff, whether
it be young Mormon twins (Adam and Andy
Friberg) aching to convert the residents, a Yellow Pages
salesman (Thomas), or a P.I. (Jay)
sent (presumably by a never-seen Courtney Love)
to find Pitt. All attempts are unsuccessful, and the movie become
steadily more and more becalmed. At times, everything stops as we’re
asked to just listen: a static shot of Pitt playing a song on acoustic
guitar (one of his own), one of his hangers-on listening to The
Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,”
Pitt slumped catatonically against a door while a Boyz II
Men video plays on the TV. As with Gerry’s
decision to frequently film only motion and get the viewer to shift
his/her priorities into first and foremost the appreciation of abstract
motion, Last Days finds itself completely given over to
the power of audio at certain points. (Music nerds will also want
to argue about whether or not the black-glasses-wearing geek played
by Lukas Haas (who tells a rambling story about
going on tour in Japan, hooking up with a girl and then spurning
all her attempts to contact him again, and then asks Pitt to listen
a song he wrote about her expiating all his guilt) is a vicious,
dead-on, and completely irrelevant parody of Rivers Cuomo
and his overrated Weezer album Pinkerton,
Also back in Last Days—present in Gerry,
but absent from Elephant—is a welcome dose of unexpected
humor. Watching Pitt square off with a confident but completely
out-of-context Yellow Pages salesman is high comedy, and even as
Van Sant tells the saddest of stories, he pulls off a rare trick:
Like, e.g., Badlands, this is a story of tragic dimensions
that feels utterly uplifting. Van Sant doesn’t do “out
of context”: any scene with unexplained elements is sure to
be returned to again and shown with what came before it, or remixed
sound that lets us hear what we missed the first time. Van Sant
shows us the whole, lulling story, and in doing so creates pure
cinematic poetry. Last Days won’t be for everyone,
but it makes—finally—a strong case for Van Sant as a
true original voice in world cinema.
Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.
Itís worth a full-price ticket.
Itís worth a matinee ticket.
Wait for video rental.
Check out the video from the library, if you must.
While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...