August 19, 2005

Last Days

Directed by Gus Van Sant Starring Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas and Asia Argento

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

From idiosyncratic portraits about fringe existences (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) to Hollywood pop thrillers (To Die For, Psycho) and coming-of-age weepies (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) to a trilogy of inscrutable headline-news abstractions, Gus Van Sant's artistic evolution has seemingly come full circle: his latest brings to mind his sparse and remote feature debut Mala Noche. The technical proficiencies and auteurist staples showcased in the trilogy are undeniably significant, earning him serious critical attention along with the 2003 Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or. Still, there's something disingenuous about these films that trivializes their artistic merits.

Just as Van Sant's Gerry drew its inspiration from a news item about two men getting lost in the wilderness and Elephant borrowed its from the Columbine High School massacre, the trilogy's final entry Last Days is a fictionalized account of events immediately leading up to the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. These films are hardly cautionary or meditative, and they also don't shed any new light on the real-life tragedies that comprise their bases. Van Sant obdurately sets out to effect the polar opposite of media sensationalism. He achieves detached and cryptic minimalism by deconstructing the very same facts and speculations that the media once beat into the ground.

Bleached-blonde Michael Pitt plays Cobain surrogate Blake. He aimlessly mumbles and crawls in a lethargic daze, barely interacting with the handful of groupies with whom he shares a run-down mansion. Except for the rare occasion when he's rocking out, Blake is practically a zombie in his final hours - he can't hold an intelligible conversation with a Yellow Pages salesman nor even follow simple instructions printed on a Kraft Dinner box. In fact, Pitt has only a few perceptible lines and even fewer close-ups throughout the entire film.

As with Elephant, Van Sant offers a slew of possible explanations for the tragedy, in this instance drugs, isolation and distaste for fame and scheming hangers-on. For all three films, the director stages each scene with an uneventful dread without striving for any character identification or passing any judgments. His takes certainly provide curious contrasts to the probing frenzy of news media, but he never offers any eloquent criticisms of such sensationalism. The insertions of a random gay subtext in both Elephant and Last Days raise the most alarming red flag about Van Sant's trilogy though. They expose the fact that these films are not meant as meditations, but rather they are merely soulless quasi-Warholian replicas of cultural icons passed off as art.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.