For three films now, Gus Van Sant has been hard-selling a form of cinema absentia, where the action that transpires off-screen becomes as important as what happens inside the frame. For directors of Van Sant’s caliber, shooting widescreen is more or less a given, but in Elephant and, now, Last Days, Van Sant uses the 1.33:1 aspect ratio to amplify the atmosphere of claustrophobia that overwhelms his character’s lives. Bresson did a similar thing in Pickpocket, and while a comparison between Van Sant and Bresson may sound audacious to some (sacrilegious even), the formal and theoretical rigor of Last Days unmistakably brings to mind works like Pickpocket and L’Argent; not only are Van Sant and Bresson masters of spatial dynamics, but they’re both uncannily concerned with the way spiritual turmoil manifests itself in the flesh and our physical surroundings.
Just as Elephant is and is not about Columbine, Last Days is and is not about Kurt Cobain. This state of dual being and not being isn’t pointless but a jumping off point for an intriguing study of determinism. In both these films, Van Sant’s aesthetic visualizes the death drive of his characters; the synchronicity of camera movement and human feeling is stunning but may seem smug and unworried, as if Van Sant was content to simply groove with the mechanism of the human death impulse without contemplating the social and personal traumas that converge to give this compulsion its power. Not so. Through a series of scenarios at once lofty and amusing, Last Days subversively takes on the “rock star cliché” pointed out by Kim Gordon’s character when she arrives to console Blake (Michael Pitt) at his home. It’s difficult to tell if Van Sant reveres or despises Cobain but it’s obvious that he is using the deceased Nirvana frontman’s life and iconography to chart the way people bow before the altar of a necessitarian social phenomena.
Pitt’s Blake lives in spiritual and mental squalor inside the confines of his mansion retreat. He grunts and groans, bathes near a waterfall, dries himself before an epically crackling fire, lamely makes macaroni and cheese, and strums his guitar, all the while remaining out of reach to friends and bandmates. Even when his friends come to stay with him inside the house, Blake remains elusive, like some pop-cultural yeti no one can put their finger on. Van Sant’s use of montage is slippery, intensifying the character’s hermeticism and elusiveness. The actors—Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green, Nicole Vicius, Scott Patrick Green—all call each other by their real names, which only adds to the constant mood of disorientation. Boys kiss; some may say this is par for course for a Van Sant film (even in Gerry it looks as if Matt Damon and Casey Affleck are making out when, in reality, one is strangling the other), but the tender physical exchange between Haas and Green is a self-reflexive gesture for Van Sant, evoking the naked emotion and acceptance of one of Cobain’s most famous and metaphorical lyrics: “What else should I say? Everyone is gay.”
In Last Days, a scene will repeat itself more than once, except there are subtle changes to the dialogue, gestures, and sounds within the scene. It’s never quite different but never quite the same. The effect becomes that of a film playing catch up with itself: two scenes forward, one scene back, and so forth for the duration of the film. This summons a profound sense of hesitancy, not so much a refusal to die as much as a refusal to conform. In this way, the film’s bracing purity of form and presentation runs counter to the Hollywood schlock that today lights up the American box office in the same way Nirvana’s music represented the antithesis of the music that was popular in the late ‘80s. Van Sant’s lengthy appropriation of the Boyz II Men video for “On Bended Knee” is not only subversive because you marvel at how lyrics like “can we go back to the days when our love was strong” are so far removed from the words Cobain wrote for Nirvana, but because the song and video represents a sad, pop-cultural tombstone atop Cobain’s legacy.
Van Sant doesn’t deign to presumptuously elucidate Cobain’s last days, and while he may intensify the mystique surrounding the singer’s death, he certainly shouldn’t be accused of sanctifying him (the stairway to heaven Blake’s spirit ascends at the end of the film doesn’t represent salvation so much as it does liberation). Last Days seems to understand the void represented by Cobain’s life and the emptiness his death left behind, and as such it’s appropriate that the film seems to exist and operate from inside a vacuum. One could say that style is the substance of the film, the building block for Van Sant’s deconstruction of the so-called alternative movement that was born with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and died with Cobain over 10 years ago. Appropriately, then, Last Days itself represents an alternative movement, which is what makes the film both difficult and generous: the way Van Sant makes his audience use pieces of dialogue, musique concrète, and perpetually shifting images to build its theoretical message, not only from the ground up but also on their own terms. As such, the director reveals himself to be as cool and charitable as Cobain himself.