Kurt Cobain died eleven years ago. I was in high school, I had the day off, and the reports flooded in on the radio. My parents had an on-again off-again relationship with cable, but we had it at the time, and I spent a couple hours that night watching MTV as it cycled through tenuous reports and airings of the Nirvana MTV unplugged episode. Then my two favorite bands were Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and this was something of a blow. I remember being a Freshman and borrowing a copy of the Smells like Teen Spirit single on CD. Fourteen years ago my only CD player was my laserdisc player, now I have seven between my home and car.
In those brief three years the band released Nevermind, Incesticide, In Utero, all of which I consumed gleefully, backing up to grab Bleach along the way. Nevermind hit MTV like a bolt of lightning, going quickly from the "alternative" show "120 minutes" to hourly rotation, with each single charting maximum airplay. It saturated. And as Incesticide was simply a collection of songs, with a couple worth savoring, it felt like a stop gap. But where there was always a dark side to Nevermind, In Utero offered a rawer version of the band/Cobain. Going from Butch Vig to Steve Albini stripped the pop sensibilities to a minimum, but this was also the way of the band and Cobain, or at least it seemed. Though Cobain never abandoned his hooks, In Utero still feels primal, naked, and deeply personal. When Cobain died, after In Utero, death sadly felt like what had to happen, something preordained. Perhaps it was in retrospect, or the mindset of my age at the time, but In Utero felt like an album qua suicide note.
So what do I make of Gus Van Sant's Last Days? I don't know yet. A tone piece (I've used the phrase "tone poem" too often, I must find a worthy surrogate) , it follows a Cobain surrogate named Blake (played by Michael Pitt) as he stumbles around his Northwest estate (or New York, where it was filmed, it could be meant to be either) in a deep fog. Whether the fog is caused by Heroin or a deep depression, or just being spiritually wasted, it's hard to say. But Blake is scattershot and mumbling, swimming in cold waters, building fires, having problems sitting, and crashing out almost narcoleptically. He fears most of those he knows and speaks the most to a Yellow Pages salesman, and only to the hangers on (Scott Green, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Nicole Vicius), who come to his place to (it appears) do drugs and have sex with whomever is closest at the time. Blake also spends time hiding from a friend who has brought a Private Detective (Ricky Jay) to find him.
The film is still and quiet, only letting us get so close to the smacked out Blake, who wanders like a ghost throughout, and barely speaking coherently when spoken to. He is also visited by a mother figure (Kim Gordon, serving two purposes in motherhood) who delivers the most pointed line of the film when she speaks of what he says to his daughter: "Do you say, 'I'm sorry, that I'm a Rock and Roll cliche?'" Unfortunately Gordon, like the late appearance of Harmony Korine, is not much of an actress, but her presence in the film feels so right.
It seems Gus Van Sant intimately knows this state of being, and observes it from a distance, using (as he did in the pretty but vacant Elephant) time schisms that cause overlaps and a sense of disconnect. It feels more appropriate here. We, like Blake, are lost. The film then builds to it's most emotionally charged sections as twice Blake purges with two songs, one a collection of noises, the other the song "Death to Birth." The second piece is a sequence that caused me waves of goosebumps, and to cringe as if watching someone getting stabbed in slow motion. Which was sort of like listening to In Utero shortly after Cobain died, or Where Did you Sleep Last Night as it constantly repeated on MTV.
It's hard for me to qualify Last Days at this point, it's more of an experience than film right now, and I have some reservations that I can't articulate. But that noted, what has been accomplished is a deeply felt work by Michael Pitt and Gus Van Sant that shows someone in such decline that they are gone before the body has stopped working.