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Rock 'n' roll suicide
A region 2 DVD review of LAST DAYS by Slarek
 
"Every living creature on this earth dies alone."
Grandma Death – Donnie Darko

 

The annals of rock are peppered with tales of fast lives and young deaths, whether it be by accident (Marc Bolan – car crash) or drug abuse (do I really need to make a list here?) or, in the case of Nirvana's iconic lead singer Kurt Cobain, by shotgun-assisted suicide. We are left with a sense of waste, of what might have been were it not for the intervention of fate, but also a feeling that in a world in which those who are at an age when experimentation is the norm suddenly have access to anything they want, there is a sad inevitability to such stories. The principle concern of Last Days, which follows a wasted rock star as he gradually implodes within the confines of his decaying mansion estate, is not the how and why of what happens, but to connect us with the experience of the person it is happening to. Whether it succeeds in doing so has been a matter of some very passionate debate.

The first thing to note is that this is not a biographical film. The poster suggests it is about Kurt Cobain, a lot people think it is about Kurt Cobain and director Gus Van Sant has freely admited that it was inspired by Cobain's untimely passing (he even says so on the closing credits), but that's as far as it goes in terms of historical fact. This is a supposition, a reality-suggested fiction, and charges of technical inaccuracy have no place here. It's not this that has caused most of the disagreement, of course, but Van Sant's narrative and cinematic minimalism, rejecting traditional storytelling in favour of creating a sense of the location and the mindset of his main character, an approach first explored in his previous 'wasted youth' films, Gerry (2002) and Elephant (2003). If you've seen either of these then you'll at least have an idea what you're in for, if not then you may be unprepared for what you get.

As with Elephant, dialogue is initially of little importance and effectively absent for the first twenty minutes, as Blake, the musician around which the film is centred, stumbles through the countryside surrounding his house, walking with undisclosed purpose up paths and driveways mumbling almost incoherently to himself. This aspect may well prove unintentionally comical to hardened Monty Python fans, sounding as it does somewhat similar to the grumblings of the caterpillar man who blossoms into a butterfly in one of Terry Gilliam's more memorable animations. But it is both appropriate and authentic, and as the film progresses it becomes as much part of the soundtrack as the clock chimes, splashing water and motorised whines that drift into the background – inappropriate to the location, they act like fragments of trace memories, something good or bad from Blake's past that he cannot shake off, that continue to haunt him even in his permanently bombed-out state.

The camera unhurriedly follows Blake as he carries out the most mundane of tasks, or rather as he attempts to, pouring milk onto his cereal and then returning the cereal box to the fridge and ignoring the breakfast, his focus gone and his memory span down to that of a goldfish. His vastly decreased ability to verbally communicate has him listen silently to an agitated phone call from what sounds like his manager, sit bemused with a Yellow Pages salesman who gives him a cheery sales pitch in spite of his client's black negligee and dazed demeanour, and almost comically flee the arrival of music industry player Donovan and a talkative private investigator. A small number of what we presume are band members and their girlfriends are also staying at the mansion, but their contact with Blake is fleeting, showing passing concern when he loses consciousness, complaining about the heating, and requesting help from him with their songwriting. They all talk to him but are essentially unconcerned with his state of mind and body, wrapped up as they are in their own immediate needs and shallow enjoyment. We learn from grabbed conversations that Blake has recently spent time in drug rehabilitation, very recently if the plastic strap on his wrist is what it appears to be. It clearly didn't work and Blake has once again fallen, but his companions have seen it all before – Blake is wasted, Blake is uncommunicative, but that's how Blake is. No-one tries to actually connect with him any more. At the height of his fame, at the peak of his talent, Blake is utterly and completely alone.

There is no suspense regarding Blake's inevitable demise, but this is clearly deliberate – you don't link your film to the suicide of Kurt Cobain and call it Last Days if you are intending to surprise the audience with an eventual suicide, a point nailed home by Van Sant's decision not to show the act itself. Which brings us back to the film's real focus and its attempt to connect us with Blake's state of mind and his sense of dislocation from the world around him. Whether it succeeds in doing so is certainly a subjective judgment (but then what film isn't?), and a friend who was at our cinema screening was left in no doubt that the connection was not made, echoing the review in Sight & Sound that suggested the film was visually compelling but emotionally hollow. I beg to differ. I will freely admit that we never get to connect with Blake as a person or to understand any of the pressures or temptations that drove him to this condition, but the sense of a life in complete emotional and intellectual self-destruction is sometimes overpowering. As played by Michael Pitt, Blake's body language effectively defines his character, as he walks to his house, fools around comically (but by association ominously) with a shotgun, slips in and out of consciousness, and writes final words in a journal that provide the only hint at his feelings and motivation. In one extraordinary sequence, as we watch him crumble slowly to the ground under the weight of drugs we never see him take, the soundtrack seems to well up and swallow him, a near-perfect marriage of image and sound that is as vivid a cinematic realisation of drug burn-out as I've ever seen, and done in one static shot without a hint of visual tomfoolery.

Such moments appear throughout the film, unfussily shot sequences in which picture and sound combine to arresting effect, such as when band member Scott sits half-wasted and sings along to Venus in Furs by The Velvet Underground, lost in the moment and switched off from those around him. It's a strangely spellbinding moment, though perhaps, once again, a subjective one – watching Scott I felt I was watching myself, as someone who has in his time been out of his head and screamed along to his share of rock songs, this one included. I was left in little doubt that Van Sant (and maybe actor Scott Patrick Green) has done likewise, and this is precisely how the film connects us with Blake, through the sense of a shared experience, how it FEELS to be lonely, wasted, disconnected, suicidal, lost. Far from distancing us from him, Van Sant's technique connects us sometimes electrifyingly to his state of mind, albeit in an semi-abstract manner.

This is most vividly realised in two scenes centred around Blake and his music, which has become his only effective method of communication – as the rest falls apart, it's the one part of Blake that remains intact, whole, and vibrant. The first is a slow, hypnotic track back from the window of a music room in which Blake moves from one instrument to another, playing each in turn as the soundtrack retains and repeats each one, building an initially melodic but ultimately chaotic symphony of his mental and emotional disarray. The other, also a wide shot, is a second take on an already viewed scene (a technique repeated, and slightly diluted, from Elephant) in which what on the first run appeared to be background music is revealed to be Blake playing one of his own songs. As the band members drift off to bed and sex, this second, alternate view of the scene stays with Blake as he belts out the tune with an urgency and passion that powerfully conveys the talent that still lives inside the crumbled remains of the man, and in a language he is still able to speak with considerable eloquence. Crucially, on both occasions he is alone, the others having become wrapped up in their own meaningless desires. When Blake is finally able to communicate, no-one is there to listen.

sound and vision

Framed 4:3, this is not a cropped print but very close to the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. It should be noted that the region 1 disc offers a choice between 4:3 and an anamorphic 1.66:1, and that in this case the widescreen transfer is the cropped version. The quality of the print and transfer here is first rate, especially given that the use of natural light in sometimes less than ideal conditions (Blake walking outside at night). Colour, detail and contrast are all impressive – some shots that I remember looking a little washed out in the cinema actually look fine here.

There are two soundtracks available, Dolby stereo 2.0 and a most unusual Dolby 3.1, which utilises the front three speakers and the sub and ignores the rears. Though I'd have welcomed a fully inclusive mix, given the strength of the film's soundtrack and its importance to the effectiveness of Van Sant's approach, this is still a gorgeously recorded and mixed track. Sound effects and music are reproduced with pin-sharp clarity, and the separation is remarkably precise, with sounds and voices placed at very specific points on the front sound stage. A lovely job.

extra features

Here Optimum's region 2 disc definitely has the edge on its American region 1 equivalent, with a quite reasonable selection of extras for a disc with no special edition label.

The Trailer (1:44) is anamorphic 16:9 and does a decent jon of promoting a film that is, frankly, not an easy sell.

The Making-Of Featurette (20:11) is non-anamorphic 16:9 (a nice spread of aspect ratios and formats on this disk) and includes some wobbly behind-the-scenes footage, plus brief interviews with actors Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Ryan Orion, Scott Green, the Friberg brothers (who play the door-to-door God boys), producer Dany Wolf, cinematographer Harris Savides, though not, surprisingly, Mr. Van Sant. Engaging though not that revealing, it does confirm the level of improvisation that took place on set, and reveal a similarity between some of the actors and the characters they play. It also confirms my suspicion that Thadeus A. Thomas, who plays the Yellow Pages salesman, is not an actor at all but – yep – a Yellow Pages salesman.

There is one Deleted Scene (7:47), which is more an unused shot, being a high angle interior of the mesmerising scene in which Blake plays a variety of instruments. Here it is very clear that Pitt is playing for real.

Music Video (4:26) has Pitt as Blake really doing the Kurt Cobain thing in a mocked-up music video for Happy Song, written by Pitt and directed by Christian Zucconi. It would have been nice to know if this is a Last Days tie-in or something Van Sant had created with the possible intention of using it in the film.

On the Set: The Long Dolly Shot (8:41) is more behind-the-scenes stuff, concentrating on the slow track from the room in which Blake is playing the instruments. The technical aspects of this are intriguing, with crew members having disassemble and remove the track which has already been passed over in order that it not appear in shot as the camera pulls back, then re-attach them to the rear to the camera to move onto later. As you might imagine, this was no one-take success, and suggests they were working on a pretty tight budget. As someone who has had to do multiple takes because of problems working with micro-budget tracking systems, I got quite wound up watching this. The celebration when they finally succeed is infectious.

Other Releases, being essentially a promo for other Optimum discs, is not normally something I'd include here, but it does include a trailer for Elephant (1:55), and if you've come to Last Days without seeing either of Van Sant's 'wasted youth' films it does point you in the right direction.

Finally we have a Michael Pitt Interview (26:17) in which the actor talks about the genesis of the film, his introduction to independent cinema, his music, the Kurt Cobain aspect ("It's not a film about him, it's a film for him"), the location, playing Blake, and working with Van Sant. A very laid-back talker, Pitt nonetheless provides some interesting background to his character and approach.

summary

Though there is definitely a love it/hate it aspect to Last Days, it also seems possible to sit somewhere in the middle and admire it for its technique and yet remain emotionally or perhaps even intellectually uninvolved. For my own part I have become more appreciative of the film's very considerable qualities with each viewing (four to date), but I do have to say that this is one work whose extraordinary hold is definitely diminished on the smaller screen. In the cinema it fills your field of vision, you notice the smallest things happening in the widest of shots, and your attention is not allowed to wander for a second, something you just can't say of home viewing, however big your TV or ideal the conditions. But it is still a remarkable work, and its DVD incarnation benefits from excellent picture and sound and some interesting extra features. It's definitely not for everyone, but this is certainly Outsider Cinema in the best sense of the term, a minimalist experiment that to my mind wholeheartedly achieves its aim.

Last Days

USA 2005
93 mins
director
Gus Van Sant
starring
Michael Pitt
Lukas Haas
Asia Argento
Scott Patrick Green
Nicole Vicius
Ricky Jay
Ryan Orion

DVD details
region 2
video
4:3
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby stereo 3.1
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Trailer
Making-of featurette
Deleted scene
Music Video
One the Set: The Long Dolly Shot
Other releases
Michael Pitt interview
distributor
Optimum
release date
Out now
review posted
15 February 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews