“Death by Misadventure”
written and directed by Gus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant, in the film Last Days, arouses more contemplation of Kurt Cobain’s final moments without addressing or deliberating the facts or the arguments surrounding them. Instead he has devised another trip in which he tailgates the mundane, rounding out a trilogy of films (the other two being Gerry and Elephant) denouncing the public appetite for justification. Some might insist that, in the case of Cobain’s death or in the true story that inspired Gerry, presumption of foul play permits inquiry, but the filmmaker’s empirical standpoint insists on the futility of such exhaustive searching. When it was the question of blame in school shootings condemned by Elephant, I hoped that conservative censors might get the hint. Now I long for Last Days’ influence over Oliver Stone if not Van Sant’s actual handling of John F. Kennedy’s fateful morning.
For the director to make another film in this style, though, would be too much. Already, Last Days verges on the redundant (especially if Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold is included as similar territory). Many differences exist, though. If his last picture is the equivalent of a fluid stream of consciousness, this one is of a babbling brook filled with mumbling, stumbling and stammering. And despite overall inanity, the prior two films at least have an order to the action that Last Days does not. The proceedings of Blake, the fictionalized but intended substitute for Cobain, involve aimless, drug-induced wanderings throughout his expansive property and its neighboring woods. At times Michael Pitt’s portrayal even evokes the cinematic depictions of Hunter S. Thompson while paralleling the writer’s own recent demise.
There are other characters in the film, so there’s more than only Blake’s reacting to incessantly ringing telephones, a box of mac and cheese and a nearby waterfall as if he were an out-of-time caveman. One amusing situation involves a confused visit from a salesman awkwardly played by Thadeus Thomas, a non-actor who actually makes his living selling ad space door-to-door for Yellow Book. At another point, Blake creeps about his estate wearing a hunter’s cap and aiming a shotgun at sleeping parasites (entourage would be too credible) who attempt to freeload by having as little interaction with the homeowner as possible. Ricky Jay shows up long enough to ad lib a story from his acclaimed “Journal of Anomalies” while playing a private detective unable to locate his mark. Kim Gordon and Harmony Korine make cameos that allow for a sense of association to music and film influences, respectively.
Associations can easily take control after a while (Gordon and Korine’s appearances are fairly late in the film) in a predominately uneventful story. Hardcore fans of Nirvana who normally wouldn’t sit through such a film might delight in Pitt’s costumes, recreations of Cobain’s most familiar articles from his black and red sweater to his white, oval sunglasses. Still, those who know enough to pick at Van Sant’s lack of research might dismiss the picture for not attempting more nonfiction than Michael Pitt’s mostly-obscured-face resemblance to their hero. They are reminded that Last Days is not Oliver Stone’s The Doors, although associative thinking provides many correlations to Jim Morrison’s embellished biopic (William Blake and “The Doors of Perception”; a scene set to early Velvet Underground).
The curious millions who’ve pondered Cobain’s death in the eleven years since may never know the real events leading up to his body’s discovery. Skeptics of the official suicide explanation will always exist but all their investigations, books and websites and even the acclaimed documentary Kurt & Courtney (sorry, Oliver, but Nick Broomfield beat you to this one) will never shed definitive light on “the real truth”. The how and why are inconsequential according to Van Sant; only the what is important, its hopelessness constant. He has reason to consider and attempt to extinguish the fascination with celebrity death, having dealt with the similarly tragic downfall of friends River Phoenix and Elliott Smith. Van Sant is only left with his personal reactions to and perceptions of his dearly departed, unable to turn back time or make amends, just like the audience’s one-sided involvement with Blake’s Last Days as well as the world’s experience with Cobain.
Edited: Tan The Man