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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Last Days

Posted By on Wed, Aug 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM

The Pixies’ Kim Deal once gave an interview in which she railed against movies that she felt glamorized drug use, among them Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. It’d be interesting to hear what she has to say about the director’s latest film. A portrait of a drug-addled rock star (loosely based on Kurt Cobain), this deliberately garbled and unromantic film makes the “this is your brain on drugs” commericals look like trailers for a Michael Bay film. As a resolutely anti-sensational portrait of a too-far-gone addict, it feels completely authentic. Never has the term “wastoid” seemed more appropriate.

If you’re familiar with Van Sant’s recent efforts — the stranded-in-the-desert epic Gerry and the Columbine-inspired teen drama Elephant — then you’ll be sufficiently prepared. If not, then you might want to bone up for his latest exercise in meditative minimalism by listening to the ambient noise in an empty room or staring at some rustling trees for hours on end. Once a master of kinetic, suspenseful, verbose films, Van Sant has taken a page from the World Cinema Masters textbook and decided to make films out of the stuff other directors would leave on the cutting room floor: incomprehensible dialogue, deliberately unresolved plot threads and often-nonprofessional performances.

What plot there is in Last Days is audience-supplied; it’s a blank slate on which to project your own memories of friends, rock stars and any other tragic wastoids you might know. The film consists primarily of long shots of the Cobain-like Blake (Michael Pitt) as he takes a piss, peers into his daughter’s empty bedroom and evades all acquaintances in general. The hospital bracelet on his arm may or may not indicate he just got out of rehab. The palatial house he and his cronies occupy is exactly the kind of thing an eccentric rocker with newfound riches would buy: a fixer-upper that he never bothered to fix, with yellow, flaking wallpaper, ancient telephones clattering and old cars rotting in the driveway. There hasn’t been a mansion this creepy and evocative since Jack Nicholson started chatting with dead bartenders in The Shining.

The women’s sunglasses, mac ’n’ cheese and mohair cardigans favored by Blake are all meant to evoke Cobain, and the director allows you to impose as much grunge baggage on those details as you want. But you get the feeling that the film is influenced as much by Van Sant’s friendships with other reclusive, gone-too-soon talents, such as River Phoenix or Elliot Smith, as it is by Cobain. The director’s mournfulness and unspoken regret seethes in every frame of the film. As with Elephant, he makes some minor miscalculations, and although Pitt’s blankness is appropriate to the part, you can’t help but wonder what an actor like Phoenix would bring to a role as symbolic as this. Still, by demystifying an icon who never really wanted to be one, Van Sant can rest assured that he’s done right by Cobain.

 

Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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