For fans of the music of Nirvana--and more importantly, for followers of the mythos of Kurt Cobain--the 21st century has, at times, been a little hard to stomach.
Over the past three years, we've contended with a painfully reductive "Best Of" compilation, been suckered by a bottom-feeding box set, and waded through the mass publication of notes, letters, shopping lists, and other sophomoric drivel bound together under the guise of Cobain's "journal." At the hands of his widow and his former bandmates (or rather, their mutually dwindling bank accounts), the all-too-brief legacy of Cobain has seen a decade-late addendum where the larger than life rock 'n' roll mythical figure has been reduced to an angry, tragic, self-indulgent fool--too stupid or too stoned to suspect the intentions of his terrible company. Adding yet another onion layer to this troubling revisionist history is Gus Van Sant's Last Days, a molasses-paced film based on one of the last remaining mysteries of the Cobain fable.
The final film in the loose and controversial trilogy Van Sant began with 2002's Gerry and continued with 2003's Elephant, Last Days imagines the final, undocumented days of Kurt Cobain's life following his escape from a Los Angeles rehab center. Officially only "inspired" by the events of Cobain's death, Van Sant does little to specifically alter the known facts of the story--the setting is slightly altered, e.g., "Kurt" becomes "Blake." Van Sant's shallow "inspired by" qualifier is, then, either a thinly veiled sidestep around the notoriously litigious arm of Courtney Love, or just a means to indulge the director's creative license. Whichever the case, the responsibility Van Sant dodges from the onset in Last Days is but the first of several shots fired squarely at his film's foot.
Starring a competent Michael Pitt as our mumbling, junk-sick rock star, Last Days is shot almost exclusively in and around a secluded castle, inhabited by Blake and a handful of his no-account junkie friends. As with Gerry and Elephant, Last Days is a quiet, deliberate meditation inspired by actual events; an act of stripping down the extreme drama of headline fodder to a simple, mundane reality. And like Elephant, the film's narrative is circular and overlapping--it leans heavily on the unseen, and presents only a brief, omniscient window into the circumstances of the subject matter. (This means, for example, that our hero is more likely to spend several minutes preparing and consuming a bowl of cereal on camera than he is to utter an intelligible sentence--let alone offer any insight to the contributing factors of his ultimate decision.) Like the other films in his trilogy, Van Sant has sense enough to reward the viewer visually, even as he stretches all bounds of the audience's patience with the narrative--and through all of its faults, Last Days remains a very beautiful film.
But where Elephant succeeds--translating the horrible sensationalism of school shootings into a sort of random, monotonous universality--Last Days collapses before it even begins. Here, Van Sant deals with the implosion of a rock star under the strain of drugs, fame, and depression--a construct that could hardly address a less universal experience. And even as Van Sant insists that the film is not about Kurt Cobain, his film expects a certain familiarity with Cobain's circumstances to even begin to justify this often-arduous meditation: Without the looming specter of Cobain's celebrity, Last Days is just a tedious rumination on a faceless, largely unsympathetic junkie as his life (very) slowly unravels. Conversely, if we enter with our assumed knowledge of Cobain the Grunge Hero, Last Days essentially reduces the man to an incoherent, barely functioning mess of despair--a vision that hardly seems to align with the celebrity persona that is supposedly eliciting our sympathy. Van Sant demands a sort of hybrid understanding of these polar truths for his film to work on any narrative level--a ridiculous assumption that ultimately sabotages not only the film's premise, but the film itself.