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Last Days
cast: Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green, and Nicole Vicius

director: Gus Van Sant

93 minutes (15) 2005
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
While Last Days may be loosely based upon the final days of the life of Kurt Cobain, it would be foolish to see this as a biopic. Firstly, while Pitt's Blake may resemble Kurt Cobain physically and finish his life in the same way, Van Sant has no interest in getting the biographical details right. Secondly, biopics tend to be character studies and Last Days has no interest in explaining why Blake is the way he is, or even how he got there. It is instead an attempt to capture the essence of an artist in crisis, and it does so with very little concern for such traditional cinematic foibles as narrative, characterisation or dialogue.

Blake spends his final days in a perpetual fog. He aimlessly wanders around the grounds of his massive mansion, muttering incoherently to himself. The film portrays this haze by refusing to be drawn in to a linear narrative or a firm anchoring of sound to pictures. As Blake shuffles around, the sounds of the forest will blur into the sound of distant bells. The beginnings and endings of conversations are time-shifted as if to portray Blake's alienation from even such basic things as time and space. Van Sant runs us through several scenes repeatedly, each time from different perspectives and with different dialogue suggesting Blake's increasingly precarious mental state. This other-worldliness is such that scenes with understandable dialogue and narratives expand so as to seem immensely important, but they never are... instead they concern Blake eating cereal or Blake talking to a Yellow Pages salesman. Blake is so incoherent and psychologically remote that it is tempting to shift one's attention to his friend. This group of people with various agendas and foibles drift in and out of Blake's life but they are like ghosts to him. Anyone who has seen Broomfield's Kurt And Courtney will be reminded of the friends the real Cobain left behind. Some want him to get back together with his family, others are happy to sponge off of him; others want him to get back to work. The only moment where Blake shows any real interest in what is being said is when a record company executive played by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon tried to intervene and save Blake from his downward spiral (as she did with the real Cobain).

This is undeniably a beautifully made film. The use of sound and the languid unfocused movements of the camera wonderfully portray a man who simply is not interested in the real world any more. The incoherent narrative and lack of dialogue also add to the sense of alienation by making Blake seem utterly broken. In so far as Van Sant set out to portray the final days of an artist, this film is a success. However, I am left wondering whether this is sufficient.

Ultimately, while this is a beautifully made and intelligent film, it is not for everyone. Those who enjoyed Van Sant's Elephant (a similar take on the events leading up to the Columbine shooting) and who enjoy the works of Mallick, will doubtless adore the technical brilliance of the filmmaking and the challenging manner in which Van Sant refuses to express himself with words but chooses to allow the emotions to speak for themselves. However, while I can see the value in such a film and I do generally enjoy films of this kind, I can't help but be disappointed at the lack of intellectual focus and actual dullness of this film. While the film may be trying to convey emotional state, it is not clear to me why it needs an hour and a half in which to do it. Van Sant does ably portray the mental implosion of an artist but he refuses to either dwell on any particular aspect of this implosion in detail, or examine the consequences of the implosion or give us a wider historical context in which to understand the nuances of the mental degeneration. Van Sant simply does not have enough to say to keep the film going for its entire length, resulting in a film that is dull, unfocussed and shallow.
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