Cinematical writer Kim Voynar already reviewed Last Days for us after catching it at SIFF, but upon seeing the movie in general release this weekend, I had some alternate ideas that I thought were worth throwing into the fire.
At one point in Gus Van Sant's Last Days, his alternately satisfying and maddening elliptical watercolor of the demise of Kurt Cobain, Michael Pitt's Cobain doppelganger Blake creeps into a bedroom in a hunting cap and a slip, and aims a shotgun at two sleeping hangerson. With Pitt's hunched junkie stumble and unintelligible murmer, the scene has an undeniable Elmer Fudd quality to it, and despite the unquestionably powerful text of a stoned, pre-suicidal rock star aiming a gun at friends unawares, it's the loony comic subtext to the scene that struck me as more available. I'm not the only one - a good three-quarters of the audience I watched that scene with chuckled throughout.
Pitt's performance in this scene and certain others would be read in a different film as a comic tour de force. The ultimate problem with Last Days is the way Van Sant contrasts scenes of labored pathos (Pitt in the corner of one long shot, acheiving his sole act of articulation in the film through a wrenching acoustic guitar performance that constantly doubles in intensity as if made up as he went along) with out-and-out slapstick comedy. It's as though the director simply doesn't have a full grasp on the equation he's working with. The fact is, there's a fundamental disconnect, in Last Days, between what is slavishly recreated (the post-mortem image of Cobain's sneakers, as seen through from outside the greenhouse window, is replicated in all concievable detail) and imaginatively reconstructed. The gaps where the two don't match up create comic tension, intentionally or otherwise.
It's tempting to say that Cobain has become bigger in death than he was in life, and it's probably true that his shadow will ultimately extend longer because of the circumstances of his demise. But the guy was a huge star for the last couple of years of his life. Grunge-smudge - from 1991-1994, Nirvana were the only band in the world that mattered, and they mattered in a way, and on a scale, that rock n' roll simply no longer does. And, like it or not, Kurt and Courtney Love were the Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson of the era. Sure, they travelled in a haze of cigarette smoke, toting cheap Japanese guitars instead of Louis Vuitton, and infused the daily practice of celebrity with swearing, dirty clothes and an inestimably high toxin count -- but the tabloids of the day were just as interested in tracking their marital motions. Kurt's death was the rare celebrity event that stopped media dead in its tracks. Behind Princess Diana, it was, without question, the number two celebrity death of the 90s.
So -- understatement alert -- Cobain was a visible guy. It's baffling that Van Sant would take the time and effort to replicate certain distinct details and images from Cobain's life and demise whilst inventing others. But beyond that, it's interesting that one would have to make up anything about Kurt Cobain at all. He left behind a lot of ghosts, both animal (Courtney, Frances, Dave Grohl) and vegetable (the journals, the records, the SPIN covers) in nature. But there's little if anything to suggest what the guy was like on his own time. As far as the way he'd actually perform in many of the situations Van Sant has imagined for him, the clues certainly aren't available in the zeitgeist.
So where does the text of this film come from? On what is Van Sant imposing and embellishing? It's impossible to say for sure, but his guidance of Pitt's interpretation of Cobain's "personality" (if you can even call it that) is striking for the oddness of its identifiable sources. Pitt is "doing" Cobain as a cross between a hipster caveman and the long-lost unwashed Marx Brother. It's a burlesque built out of a handful of visual clues. Is this what Van Sant is going for?
Most of Pitt's scenes feel in some way or another like "bits", "routines". He approaches a television in a black lacy slip, sizes it up and bats it around. He stops just short of scratching his chin and doing the monkey dance. Once he finally gets it on, he leaves it on MTV, and a Boyz II Men video floods the screen with its high-production value and frantically choreographed "despair". Blake proceedes to fall into a dope nod that resembles avant garde dance. Sign this kid up with Twyla Tharp - get Marc Jacobs to design the costumes, and heroin ballet could be huge.
Why do people keep dropping by the house? Blake and friends recieve one unexpected visitor after another: a phonebook salesman, a pair of Mormons, magician Ricky Jay playing a detective, Kim Gordon essentially playing herself. Judging by the way they're recieved - dead eyes all around, Blake in a slip nodding off - you'd think all of Seattle would have learned a lesson about ringing this particular bell. It's like a Bing Crosby Christmas variety special, as concieved by John Paul Sartre.
And yes, Pitt has been styled to look an awfully lot like the actual rock star, as has been well reported. But his actual facial features conspire against him: he's too pouty, too pretty, too pampered looking. Cobain was great looking, but there was a roughness to his face, something in those otherwise sad blue eyes - a potential for danger. Not only does Pitt not have that, but his sidewalk caricature of Cobain as a dopey doped-up dope fiend, a slow dance set to the rythym of slapstick, is so cartoonish (a feat, for a performance nearly devoid of intelligible words) that it precludes any real kind of sympathy.
The most misguided moments are those in which Van Sant tries to elicit pity for Blake. Because a), his film has no emotional arc, and b) he's already set Blake up as a comic figure, it's counterintuitive when the filmmaker asks us to seriously consider the weight of Blake's plight. It gets to the point where one hopes Van Sant thinks he's making a comedy, because with the exception of Blake's guitar solo, the bulk of the scenes that don't seem intentionally funny come off as extraneous.
The take-away question would seem to be this: would this be a story worth telling if one was to remove the spectre of Kurt Cobain? My thought is, probably not. But Last Days gets a kind of magic from all that it burlesques, and the displacement of Cobain's idiosyncrasies into comedy is an enjoyable, almost cathartic thing to watch. If nothing else, the scene where Blake tries to make macaroni and cheese is one of the most inspired comedy routines I've seen in years, and Pitt's pitch perfect reading of the punchline ("Oh. Christ.") points to the subversive gem this movie might actually be.