Last Days, Gus Van Sant's film about the isolated stupor that his fictionalized account suggests was the mindset of the last days of Kurt Cobain, feels like it was filmed when the director himself was in a heroin nod. In take after take, we gaze for protracted minutes at the lanky blond hair of actor Michael Pitt as it swings forward in the famous greasy, neglected curtain that Cobain sported and, sometimes, hid behind. But he didn't hide behind it all the time. Van Sant's character seems barely to exist -- his withdrawal is so profound that he seems suspended in a world between life and death. But this world is far from the one we recognize as one Cobain inhabited. As Blake (Pitt), the Cobain figure, wanders in the Northwest woods, he's imagined as a wild child on the verge of returning to nature. While this is occasionally interesting -- Van Sant's filmmaking has always had a poetic lyricism -- the inescapable memories of Kurt Cobain keep butting in to make you wonder why Van Sant has eclipsed so much about the complicated, smart, sarcastic, artistic person the film is based on.
The friend I saw the film with argued that Van Sant's version subverts the conventional objectifying or fetishizing treatment of a celebrity subject and in fact erases our ability to identify or even respond to him, as a way of underlining his own self-negation. I disagree. To me, Van Sant's replication of Cobain's raggedy clothes, his oversized sweaters and jackets and his filthy T-shirts, along with that perfectly streaked and endlessly memorable hank of blond hair, is an objectification. The faithful, even loving, rendering of Cobain's physical self can't be dismissed as incidental when it is often all we have to respond to in this slow, inexpressive movie. The physical details recreate for us the memory of a famous and beloved artist whose mental anguish is physicalized in this stumbling, stupefied cipher.
And what about the wild child emphasis? It's interesting that Van Sant chooses to place Blake so often in lush green landscapes, shambling through woods or gazing at a river in an endless reverie. But the world of heroin addicts is more often enclosed -- as Cobain's reportedly was. Accounts of his heroin days describe him holed up sometimes for weeks at a time, drawing or painting, watching TV, but above all avoiding the outer world. While it might seem simplistic to complain -- but that's not the way it was -- when Van Sant insists he has simply used Cobain as a jumping-off point for a study of death in life (thank you, Fran Carlen), it's impossible to shut off the mind's knowledge of figures like Courtney Love and her importance in Cobain's life at the time (she's in the movie as a whisper, a passing mention) and the knowledge that in Cobain, a lively mind was engaged in an array of dialogues with warring influences. Michael Pitt's Blake mutters almost inaudibly throughout the film, and speaks intelligibly only in an entertaining scene with a Yellow Pages ad salesman. To deprive us of almost any articulation of Cobain's thoughts and feelings, even imagined ones, leaves us stranded in a romantic, Lawrentian vision of a caustic, contradictory, bitterly postmodern pop star.
What does any of this matter, if the film is an exploration of the inner world of someone lost to drugs and suicidal wishes? Maybe its strength is that at times it does feel like the inside of Cobain's mind when he was about to go. But the problem is that the film is desperately boring. There's a disconnect between the director's absorption in the image of Pitt's Cobainesque figure and the audience's ability to find the same resonance. If the film's sluggish rhythms are an effective recreation of the hermetic world of the heroin addict, that's an argument for its draggy feel -- but mainly one you are forced to entertain yourself with during the long, dull periods of observing Pitt.
Is there something intrinsically unbearable about suicidal rock star bio pics? Maybe. Watching Sid and Nancy, a friend and I became so irritated with Chloe Webb's abrasive whining in the role of Nancy Spungeon that we started whispering to each other, "Go on, Sid, stab her!" Similarly, in Last Days you may find yourself hoping one of Blake's lonely stumbles will be his last, so the dreadful, formless boredom will end. The film creates a sense of the profound despair that leads to suicide: a person gives up will, ego, desire -- everything that makes us human. Van Sant's achievement is that he does convey this state. But he leaves out so much of what brought Blake to this condition that it becomes an empty spectacle. - Kristy Eldredge
Ms. Eldredge writes about rock and roll, books and movies. She also writes fiction, comedy and songs. She would like to be either George Eliot or Joan Jett, or a clever merging of the two.