It’s interesting that no one can ever know all the facts of anyone else's life except for the person who lived that life, which is why biography is such hard work, and why filmmakers like Gus Van Sant can make films like Last Days with the caveat of “a fictional story based loosely on the life of Kurt Cobain.”
The trouble is, even if you asked a person himself to write his autobiography, you would not get an accurate story, because he would edit and cut and paste and paint a pretty picture for you because he would show you what he wanted you to see. In short, the person writing the autobiography is not a reliable narrator. In this case, Kurt Cobain would not have been a reliable narrator. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he’d be among the worst narrators and would edit all over the place, portraying himself only as he wanted.
Shit. Who can blame him? Would not you or I do the same thing? Especially if I were suicidal, using drugs, and maybe even manic depressive (about which one should have no shame, but maybe just wants to keep private, as is one’s right), maybe I’d edit that out. Maybe you would, too. We are then, all of us, unreliable narrators of our lives. Hence, we have biographers and they do the digging. Good ones will paint a balanced portrait that may even accurately portray our life as it really was – from our point of view and and that of others.
But Van Sant proceeded and did a fair job, using the character Blake as a stand-in for Cobain, and he did a good job of capturing the last few days of what we can only speculate Cobain’s life was like. We know Courtney wasn’t there. I forget where she was, but I do know she wasn’t about. I remember her speaking to us, Cobain’s fans who had gathered, and as I recall, she had a mike or something and was telling us that he was an ‘asshole’ or something of the sort; but that’s it, and memory… well, I believe this is how it went down, but you tell me.
But the film…
The film opens with a disoriented Blake, as the main character (the fictionalized Cobain) is called, rambling through the backwoods near a stream during what looks to be a not-so-warm time of year, stripping himself naked of everything except his boots, and diving naked into a stream of cold water near a heavy waterfall. It looks ice cold. It looks like it could be a wake-up call, which perhaps he wants. Blake is trying to wake himself up, but it doesn’t help much. He’s trying to connect it seems, but failing at every turn, and it’s hard to watch.
Cut to the next scene and Blake is dressed, sitting in the woods in front of a fire, dressed in the Seattle grunge style Cobain was known for, his socks hanging on twigs to dry and his Converse All Stars resting on their sides to dry out since he wore them into the stream.
After this rather strange scene, Blake cuts a path through the woods to his house (why he was in the woods at all is a mystery, but maybe he just wanted to get away, or maybe he was just high as hell, or depressed as hell, and people will do strange things when pushed hard enough — this I know). Maybe the point is that there is no rhyme or reason. Or as Lewis Carroll would say, "Rhyme? and Reason?" Does there have to be any real reason to just take off for a solo camping trip? Obviously not. Sometimes we just do to get away from ourselves… and others… or our own shit. Whatever the case, of course it’s valid.
Maybe Blake just wanted to see if he could just feel, to see if he could feel alive again. Who knows? I don’t know whether Cobain really did this or not – as I said, this is fictionalized – maybe he did. It’s certainly conceivable, anyway, that he would do something to feel alive before taking his own life. That makes sense to me – one final effort to get the blood pumping, because we want to live. Nobody wants to die — not really. It’s only when we really give up, that we really, really, really give up and then usually it is because we give up on others who have given up on us, or the world that we perceive has given up on us, or we give up on it. Complicated.
It’s the contrast between the exterior of Blake’s house, his stone mansion, and his working shed (set outside the mansion) that is most interesting of all. This serves as the backdrop for the entire film, with constant pans back to the peaked and simple one-room shed off to the side that seems airy and light, but we know all too well what is going to happen there. Anyone familiar with the Cobain story knows what happens in that shed, so it’s hard to keep seeing it in the shot and not think of where this train is headed.
The exterior of the estate, of course, is beautiful and perfect. It is so well put-together and is all you would expect of a famous rock star, but inside, the walls are peeling with paint (as if he had bought it as a “fixer-upper” that he just never fixed, which is entirely possible). There are lots of conversations between others who seem to occupy the house – some must be band members and their friends or girlfriends or hangers on – it’s hard to say. What I do know is that Courtney Love or a Courtney stand-in is not there and in real life, was not there.
But back to the house, because I find the dilapidated interior a good metaphor for what is going on with Blake/Kurt – the peeling paint, the fingerprints on the walls, the sullied walls, and in the staircase, the hollowed out corners from years gone by. (I’ve been told, on pretty good authority, that these were not merely decorative niches for statues etc, but served the initial purpose of leaving room for undertakers to move pine boxes up and down winding staircases without getting stuck, and, of course, the same for furniture. If you think about it, it makes sense. These things would not corner well, so cut-outs in walls would make sense.)
In Blake’s house, they may as well be part of a funeral home, for they hold vases shaped like those for ashes and long-stemmed dead and wilted flowers that nobody has bothered to clean out. In fact, nobody seems to have bothered to clean the house at all, perhaps not since moving in. Blake’s kitchen is a pit with white cabinets covered in grey fingerprints. The only food he seems to live on is a box of Cocoa Puffs that is prominently featured on the kitchen counter. The sink itself is filled with dirty dishes, but from who or what or when, I don’t know, since nobody ever seems to eat and Blake himself is rail thin (making even Kate Moss look overweight, or me, for that matter, which is a joke).
More, Blake’s so-called friends seem to enjoy staying up late, listening to the Velvet Underground’s banana album with Lou Reed blaring out "Venus in Furs," “… now bleeeed for meeee…” a line which is repeated over and over again. Did Kurt bleed for us? Is that the implication we are to draw from this? Because it’s not just coincidental that this song is repeated and that our attention is squarely focused and drawn to it. It is there for a reason and I’m trying to sort out why, and the only why I can sort out is that Van Sant is saying yes, Cobain bled for us.
Maybe he did. I don’t know. I never felt he bled for me. I certainly didn’t want him to. I never saw him as a martyr. I didn’t want him to martyr himself, and he certainly isn’t my personal Jesus Christ because I don’t have a personal Christ; I just don’t and that’s okay. I don’t believe anyone can truly save you except yourself. I do believe that others can help a bit along the way, but ultimately, kids, the onus lies with you and that’s the tough part. You have to be your own savior, much as that sucks, hard as it may be, you have to do operation bootstrap and, at times, that can be fucking hard and don’t I know it. I’ve not only been there myself, I’ve seen people go through it — people I love. Some have survived and others not.
Elliott Smith didn’t come out the other side, did he? I remember the summer he died and where I was on that day, but what a strange habit we have of remembering the worst days in history. Why is it we do not remember the best and where we were then?
I have also lost one brother to suicide. So that’s two right there who just pulled themselves out of the game, opted out when the going got tough. I do know this about my brother — he expected someone else to do the saving for him, which is just not fair. I know this part of the deal – I know it all too well and I wish like hell I didn’t, but I do.
Look — cruel as this may sound, but I know whereof I speak — if you’re going to commit suicide, you don’t go about announcing it first and ringing up your friends. Okay, maybe the odd suicide here and there does. For the most part, though, suicides will just do it, with no warning, no advance notice because that would be something to prevent the very action they intend to take. They intend to succeed and that’s the very point. Telling would decrease the odds of their success – hence, why tell if you’re serious? You just do it. You don’t sit in your misery with your Rolodex at your bedside, talking the ear off of any one of your friends who is still willing to put up with this guilt trip because, believe me, this is intended to make someone feel guilty.
In the film, Blake isn’t talking about killing himself; maybe he’s too doped up. I don’t know. He’s wearing a woman’s black slip and army boots, so who knows where his head is at. Obviously, not anywhere approaching reason.
But Blake does show some strange reason when he does take deliberate action – when he does kill himself, for in this, and only in this, he is orderly and neat. He found a quiet and safe place. He choose carefully. He told no one. Suddenly, the knowledge of the fact that he’d be dead in a day or two or in a few short hours might have been incredibly liberating — this fact alone can afford one the opportunity to be happy again. The world is suddenly light again because the end is in sight. Ironic, isn’t it?
Blake never breathes a word to anyone, not about his suicide, not about anything, really – not to anybody. The only person he does talk to is, in fact, himself – perhaps the only person who understands. It’s comical when the sales executive from the Yellow Pages arrives at the stone mansion about renewing the “automotive shop” advertisement Blake must have placed a year prior. (Did he? And if he did, clearly his circumstances have changed.)
Blake does listen, but says nothing. It’s not that he’s impolite; quite the opposite – the salesman is comfortably seated in a great room on a grand sofa, but Blake is almost curled up into a fetal position, unable to deal with the world – and I know this kind of depression because I’ve seen it and I’ve been it. It’s howling and horrible and you’d do just about anything to get the McFuck out of it — including taking your own life, and as I said, I’ve known one too many people who have. One is enough. One is too many.
Sure, part of the depression – a major part could be attributed to manic depression, or now bipolar illness, or maybe even drugs (though we never see Blake use drugs that I can recall). Cobain was not, at the time of his death, taking lithium or any other drugs that are used for manic depression, leaving himself untreated – a dangerous thing for someone in his situation, given the givens. A manic downswing combined with heroin would cause a major downswing. I would guess the best of us would wind up in the fetal position.
Other visitors to the house include two boys from the Church of Latter Day Saints in their neatly starched short-sleeved shirts and plastic name tags and fresh-scrubbed faces. These two are also invited in, but by others living in the house who carry on a long conversation with them and seem reluctant to let them go. And what contrast these two apple-cheeked boys, all Ivory Snow, are in contrast to the filthy interior of not only the house, but of the minds, which indeed, seem more and more sordid, of some of the other band members.
No, not Blake. Blake does not seem sordid. Blake remains an innocent – just lost, like a child, likely in a manic state, depressed clearly (hypomanic, not hypermanic), and probably shooting up, which explains his most-of-the-time almost catatonic state. What is interesting about the scene is the contrast between the innocence and almost sparkly cleanliness of boys and the dim and dingy house, the contrast between which I am sure is no accident. Moreover, the band members, unlike most people, seem oddly reluctant to let the two church boys go, which seems to sorta freak out the boys, and if they are freaked out… well, enough said.
It’s interesting that throughout the film there is, if you listen, the sound of church bells ringing – a full peal – ever so quietly in the beginning as Blake sits outside of his house, but each time a bit louder, such that by the end, before he enters the shed for the very last time, you hear the church bells full-on. This is when you hear the bell and realize for whom it tolls. It’s done well, and it’s subtle and you have to really be paying attention, but it’s there. Bells have always served as “a calling” – usually a calling to worship, but to Blake, obviously, a different kind of calling and a way out of what is not a good situation for him. Obviously, here there is deep sorrow and, perhaps for the first time in the film, we really see a close-up of Blake’s blue pool-like eyes, which, in fact, do seem filled with sorrow.
We know how this is going to end. We know because we were there when Cobain died. We remember it all too well.
The shed is shot from different angles, the door opened, then Blake’s (Cobain’s) body limply on the floor next to a gun. Soon, the body is taken away, police milling about here and there, others, all of the expected people, and it all seems so very sterile – no pomp or circumstance. We are all so very ordinary in our death. We all go out the same way; no matter how dramatic we try to make it, our final exit is dead boring.
It’s hard to say Blake/Cobain took the ‘easy’ way out because we know from what he wrote in his journals how much he suffered, so do we blame him for wanting out? Maybe I’d opt out, too. I can’t say. As they say, walk a mile in my shoes. I’ve used that line, too, and I mean it.
As Paul Westerberg says, “You be me for a while and I’ll be you…”
Thanks for listening.