Hypnotic 'Last Days' Of a Rock Star

Tortured rocker Blake (Michael Pitt).
Tortured rocker Blake (Michael Pitt). (Reuters)

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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 5, 2005

YOU CAN say at least one sure thing about "Gus Van Sant's Last Days." It's definitely not a conventional biopic about Kurt Cobain. (Nor, as its title oddly suggests, is it about the demise of writer-director Van Sant.) It's a tone poem, an elliptical, fictionalized meditation about the ill-fated rock 'n' roll superstar who stoked up an entire generation and, not long after his surge of fame and artistry, was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in 1994.

For many fans -- some eager to anoint a hero to bring higher meaning to their consumerist lives, others simply appreciative of a great songwriter -- Cobain was something of a secular messiah. And as Blake, a muttering, reclusive musician with tousled, dirty hair and an enigmatic manner, Michael Pitt fulfills the loaded archetype: Cobain as Christlike rock star.

Blake lives in virtual seclusion in a spacious house surrounded by woods. There are hangers-on and band members (including Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green and Nicole Vicius), who float in and out of his home like pa ssing ghosts. "Last Days" avoids direct mention of Cobain's real wife, Courtney Love, a strategy that Van Sant acknowledged at a press conference at this year's Cannes Film Festival. There is one sarcastic reference, however, to a certain "Herself."

The subordinate characters' interaction with Blake is minimal. His only significant oral encounter -- which could have been scripted by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch -- occurs when a bewildered Blake speaks to a visiting salesman for the Yellow Pages. Blake is avoiding everyone, retreating from the world, tumbling deeper into the vortex inside himself.

He stumbles down a slope in his estate and toward the river below. He dives into the water. Gets out and urinates. Night falls, and he's sitting in front of a campfire, drying his clothes and vaguely singing "Home on the Range." When he returns home, he shuffles to the kitchen. We see him at breakfast, pouring cereal into a bowl. On another occasion he makes macaroni and cheese. Barely functioning, he constantly speaks garbled words to himself.

What is he saying? The barely audible blatherings of a junk-addled rock star cliche? Or the poetic, pained words of a sensitive individual tormented by this almost-spiritual role being forced upon him by everyone from enrapt fans, agents and tour organizers to corporate record companies?

"Can't do anything," he says at one point.

"Any thought of good that my death will benefit . . ." he writes on another occasion.

"Last Days" pointedly uses Cobain's mystique to imbue seemingly uninteresting actions with higher purpose. It's easy enough to think of Blake in messianic terms and imagine his stumbling around to represent the last night in the garden of Gethsemane. And if there are any doubts about the Christian analogies, they are dispelled by the ingeniously conceived and beautiful manner in which Blake makes his final exit. But his activities could also represent ours, as we perform the functions of our every day, heading inexorably to our final stage. It's up to us to decide.

Like "Elephant," Van Sant's similarly masterful and metaphorical film about the tragedy at Columbine, the same actions are seen from different perspectives, so that the overlaps and repetitions appear to signify intersections of fate. So we watch for clues, significant hinges in the story, hints of what really happened. We wonder, for instance, why Pitt writes with his left hand and then strums a guitar right-handed. Why so many chimes throughout the movie -- are they dirgelike bells? What is in that small box he digs out of the ground -- drugs? Bullets? What's the significance of the black dress he slips on -- an ironic Shroud of Cobain? And why is he called Blake, the name of the 18th-century poet whose wife famously remarked, "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company. He is always in Paradise"? And on and on. Van Sant clearly intends for us to have and enjoy these introspections, for Cobain was about his fans as much as he was about himself. And so, too, "Last Days" is about the beholder as much as the beholden.

GUS VAN SANT'S LAST DAYS (R, 97 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and sexual situations. At Cineplex Odeon Shirlington and Landmark's E Street Cinema.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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