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An oblique look at the price of fame

Glean what you will from Gus Van Sant's latest, focusing on a Kurt Cobain-like figure.

July 22, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

A skinny guy sporting a stringy platinum pageboy and pajama pants wanders around the forest somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. He's muttering to himself as if arguing with someone he can't bring himself to confront. Later he jumps in a river and spends a night in front of a campfire alone, singing "Home on the Range." In the morning, it's revealed that the wooded acreage he's been wandering is his own private property, and that it houses the turn-of-the-century mansion he and a handful of his rock-kid hangers-on call home. There, he fills his last days experimenting with eyeliner; eating sugary cereal and macaroni and cheese; avoiding the phone and occasionally settling down with his guitar. He watches a Boyz II Men video and entertains a Yellow Pages salesman. Once in a while, he clutches his stomach in pain. All the while, the camera is extraordinarily still and patient, letting him ramble and sprawl across the screen. It knows he's not going anywhere. It knows we know how this ends.

Blake (Michael Pitt) isn't Kurt Cobain, exactly, although he's a dead ringer for him at a distance, his hair veiling his face. And his house isn't really in Seattle. ("Last Days," Gus Van Sant's latest in a trilogy of untimely death movies, was shot in upstate New York.) Very little of what happens on-screen is verifiable as fact, and none of it could be mistaken for an attempt at psychological inquiry or insight.

The opposite of a biopic, "Last Days" assumes -- and to some degree requires -- that you pack your own back-story, biographical information, treasured memories, what have you, before embarking on this particular cinematic experience. Like "Elephant," Van Sant's amazing existentialist rumination on the Columbine High School massacre, "Last Days" is the fictional phenomenology of a specific time in the singular life of a character who resembles a particular rock star. Nothing is explained, and really happens -- except that, as soon as it starts to become clear that the little bumps in the reverie aren't about to become major plot reversals (at one point, for instance, a strung-out Blake puts on a hunting cap and pokes a shotgun at a sleeping slacker, Elmer Fudd style, but no tragedy ensues) you start to wonder: What if you didn't know who this kid was supposed to be? Would the speaker-phone call from his bandmates clue us in to his superstar status? Would the mansion, with its tenement kitchen and romantically peeling paint, adequately symbolize his sudden, massive wealth in all its absurdity? Would the screaming, swearing female voice on the telephone tell us all we needed to know about his marriage? Beats me. What "Last Days" offers is a blank and narrative-free, but pitch-perfect, dreamscape on which to project your own personal ruminations on Kurt, fame, whatever, nevermind. If you have none, you're on your own.

Shot on digital video for very little money, the cast includes an actual Yellow Pages salesman; a well-known magician, Ricky Jay, in the part of a detective who detects nothing; and the mother of alternative rock, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, playing a concerned friend who tries to convince Blake to leave the house. This scene is enhanced by knowing that Gordon's career has been as long and influential as her personal life has been stable. (Her husband and bandmate, Thurston Moore, is credited as music consultant.) Gordon accuses Blake of skirting dangerously close to "rock star cliche" territory; a funny thing to say, since "Last Days" is at once unstintingly specific and willfully vague.

Lyrical and unaccountably mesmerizing, "Last Days" is Van Sant's third film in a row -- with "Elephant" (2003) and "Gerry" (2002), in which Casey Affleck and Matt Damon play friends who get lost in Death Valley while on a routine nature hike -- to feature people dying young. Interestingly, Van Sant has taken the kinds of "true life" stories that are routinely exploited in television movies and turned them into quiet objects for contemplation. A beautiful, if often trying, film from an important American filmmaker "Last Days" feels like Van Sant's own private Nirvana. Maybe yours too. Or maybe not.


'Last Days'

MPAA rating: R for language and for some sexual content

Times guidelines: Partial nudity and implied drug use

A Picturehouse release of an HBO Film. Director Gus Van Sant. Producer Dany Wolf. Screenplay by Gus Van Sant. Director of photography Harris Savides. Costume designer Michelle Matland. Music consultant Thurston Moore. Art director Tim Grimes. Set decorator Sarah McMillan. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

In limited release.

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