Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 29, 2005 7:26 pm 
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"It's a long lonely journey from death to birth:" Gus Van Sant's rock epiphany

Not everyone will love Last Days. Nonetheless it concludes a minimalist trilogy that does more to build Gus Van Sant's cred as a serious and original filmmaker than anything since Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. And in its way it's every bit as good as its predecessors, Gerry and Elephant, and like them is HBO-sponsored and exquisitely filmed in a boxlike and claustrophobic small format. The irony is that this career-making role for the young Michael Pitt that Last Days contains is one in which he only mumbles and hardly speaks. But he embodies and lives and becomes his role as few actors you will see this year have done. He goes to a dangerous and disturbing place. River Phoenix might have taken the part, but maybe it's a good thing for him he never did.

Pitt channels the dying spirit of Kurt Cobain as he was, isolated in a big house, avoided by people there and avoiding them and almost everyone who came looking or called. Once he picks up the phone when his producer is calling and he listens, but never speaks. Blake (Pitt's character's name) is a shaky, peripatetic Howard Hughes, who goes native in the first sequence, wandering in a daze, walking into the woods, bathing in a river, spending the night by a bonfire of sticks. The mumbling is eerie, it's eavesdropping without insight for us. As he returns to the house, stumbles about, prepares makeshift meals in the kitchen, puts on a dress and brandishes a shotgun, the lack of human interaction brings home as no dialogue-written scenes ever could how isolated and mad he has become.

Since Last Days is largely a mood piece -- a splendidly original, dreamlike one -- setting is crucial and the old stone house with its crumbling, paint-peeling walls and mess and sound equipment and instruments and paintings, is a major player, so well represented in the elegant, original cinematography of Harris Sayides that it resembles no place else you've ever been. There are three or four other people in the house -- the action's so chaotic and haphazard you may not quite know who or how many. One's clearly "Asia," Asia Argento, and she's sleeping with "Scott," Scott Green, and there's "Luke," Lucas Haas, tall and gangly in Coke-bottle glasses. Blake sneaks up on Asia and Scott with a shotgun when they're in bed together sleeping. Typically, nothing happens. He doesn't shoot, and they don't notice him. They and other people go out to and return from nightly revels. Blake is… just there.

As in Elephant Van Sant's approach is neutral. He does not analyze or explain or judge, and the actors are free to improvise and be themselves. Blake's respected because it's his house, but he's also a kook. Random visitors who're let inside are grotesque and comic: first it's dorky but cute twin Mormon "Elders," then a large well-spoken black man selling a renewal of a Yellow Pages ad from the year before. "How's your day so far?" he asks as an opener. "...Another day…." mumbles Blake. He's cooperative in a rote sort of way but there's little indication he knows what he's talking about. There's a detective and a young man who once knew Blake, who escapes them and other people by running outside to the woods again. These two are neither sinister nor funny; they just are, they're just interlopers, like everybody else, into Blake's lost world.

The method in this trilogy has in common that it requires quiet acceptance of the proceedings; that if you give yourself up to its sometimes real time sequences (especially in Gerry, where Van Sant says they're influenced by Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr), they're hypnotic and special, and if you don't, they're just irritating and boring. The experience requires a lot from the viewer. It's hard to describe a movie in which little happens. Nothing turns out to be quite a lot and you might remember that James Joyce wrote a long detailed novel about the events in the life of a little man in a single day in Dublin. It's certainly important that Pitt is deeply in character. If his acting was mannered or theatrical or unfelt, nothing would work. When he finally sings one song, a plangent cry of despair with the refrain, "It's a long lonely journey from death to birth," it's very Cobain, but Pitt's own song and passionate, exciting performance.

There's a kind of climax here, but there's nobody (but us) to witness it. Luke and Scott are up in bed with each other. As in Elephant, several sequences repeat. Blake seems to be dying repeatedly, as Asia stumbles upon him lying on the floor and he seems to nod out, though you never see him do drugs and maybe it's just the after effect of them from long before. Finally he's gone. We don't see him do that either. His soul quietly climbs naked up out of his supine body, like a Duane Michals photo. Then there's all the police, the ambulance, and the other inhabitants sneak off, as Blake did. It's all a pageant. I felt right at home in it remembering Oregon, Washington, the hippie days of the Sixties, the druggy displacement of feeling: it was there for me. I know it was Grunge Rock and Kurt Cobain, to whom this film is dedicated, died in 1994, at 26. The point is that it feels real. But its relation to real events is tangential. And if you give yourself to it and take it in its own context it's a wonderful film, a beautiful funny-sad experience of doomed-damned youth and a deeply felt meditation on isolation and death.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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