Wednesday, November 23, 2005

From Death to Birth

When we first see Blake (Michael Pitt), he is attempting to swim in the stream behind his stone mansion. This simple act, like many others we will see in Last Days - pouring cereal, making macaroni and cheese, tying a boot lace - seems almost impossibly difficult. For Blake, a famous musician hiding from his band after a stint at rehab, every waking breath must be counted as a triumph. He's reminiscent of Didi and Gogo, resolving to go while always staying still.

Blake is, of course, Gus Van Sant's semi-fictional interpretation of Kurt Colbain, and Last Days is - as the title suggests - the account of the uneventful days leading up to the suicide of an artist. Anyone who has seen Gerry or Elephant, the previous chapters in Van Sant's thematic trilogy on violence, can already guess that these days will be recorded with an adherence to minimalist narrative and characterization. We follow Blake as he wanders around the mansion, eating, fiddling with instruments, and hiding from his housemates (including Asia Argento and a monkeyish Lucas Haas). Visitors come and go, including a Yellow Pages ad salesman (Thaddeus A. Thomas, playing himself) and a private eye (Ricky Jay) hired to find Blake. A representative from the record label (Kim Gordon) has a conversation with Blake that is loaded with questions but contains no answers. Blake's story has a melancholy inevitability; this film could have been torture, but Gus Van Sant's assured direction has created a small masterpiece of loneliness and emotional dislocation. His images exist somewhere between the films of Abbas Kiarostami and Beck videos, placing his film at an intersection between 1994 and forever.

Midway through the film, there is a scene where Blake, strung out in a dark red dress, passes out while Boyz II Men's "On Bended Knee" video plays in the background. Van Sant cuts to a close-up of the television and lingers there for the remainder of the video. The effect is at first disorienting, then laughable, but ultimately very striking - Boyz II Men becomes the soundtrack to our hero's descent into the abyss, just as we are so often uncontrollably bombarded by crap culture in our most human moments. This lack of control is key, I think, to Van Sant's understanding of Colbain. Any work of art that becomes popular is unavoidably commodified, and Kurt/Blake's muse has been unavoidably stolen by this process. Nirvana, like Boyz II Men, reduced to a neverending hit parade - the soundtrack of our lives - and as time passes, the differences between the two become less important. The catalog becomes larger than the artist.

Van Sant juxtaposes this with the housemates' repeated play of Velvet Underground's "Venus In Furs." They recite the lyrics along with the record, and the effect is not unlike a Catholic prayer. Inspiration has given way to ritual. Meaning fades with each repetition. We forget where we came from. Blake performs a song about "a long lonely journey from death to birth," and Van Sant's film is concerned with the same. What happened? What comes next?

I find myself unable to be more specific about Last Days. My aim is not to be evasive, but rather to avoid stealing the experience of the film away from you. Any attempt to claim that I "get it" would make me a total asshole - what does it mean to "get it"? What a sad, reductive phrase. Van Sant's film is poetry, and ever since Plato banned the poets from his polis, all art, particulary art with this kind of purity, has been at odds with formalist interpretation. I will say this: Van Sant and Pitt have taken a subject that could have been the fodder for tv-movie trash and made a subtle, profound rumination on art, creation, and implosion. It deserves mention alongside films like Sid and Nancy, Velvet Goldmine, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a great rock and roll movie. And at its end, Van Sant gives us a moment of sublime grace. These moments are always rare in art, and in a culture on bended knee (or trapped in the closet), they're especially hard to come by. Treasure this one.

No comments: