Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For June, we celebrate the birthday (and the sensitive, insightful eye) of Gus Van Sant. Read the rest of our coverage here.
By next April, Kurt Cobain will have been dead for as long as he was alive. Ever since the Nirvana frontman decided to burn out rather than fade away at the age of 27, innumerable amounts of ink have been spilled in the pursuit of trying to figure out the man wrapped inside those ratty thrift-store cardigans. The man with glazed over eyes obscured by big white sunglasses, tossing his fragile body into drum kits.
Depending on who you ask, Cobain was a lot of things. He was a punk purist who was also an aspiring rock icon. He hated being in the public eye but complained when MTV didn’t play his videos enough. He definitely lived under a bridge as a teenager, and he definitely did not live under a bridge as a teenager. And don’t even get started on the question of whether he took his own life or died by more nefarious means.
It seems the more time we spend trying to suss out who the “real” Kurt Cobain was, the farther away we get from actually accomplishing that goal. For Last Days—his fictionalized take on Cobain’s slow, sad demise—Gus Van Sant avoids this pitfall by forgoing any effort to make sense of his life, or for that matter, his death. If anything, it shrouds him in even more mystery. There is no “Rosebud” moment, no tearful goodbyes, no deathbed memories, just the tedium of life gnawing away until it doesn’t anymore.
Van Sant had been exploring this theme since reaching the disappointing end of his late ‘90s Hollywood sojourn. Looking to get back to his fiercely independent roots and inspired by the minimalist, glacially paced cinema of directors like Alan Clarke and Béla Tarr, Van Sant gave us a troika of outsider tales. 2002’s Gerry saw Casey Affleck and Matt Damon embark on a long, ill-fated walk through the desert. Elephant, from the following year and inspired by the Columbine High School massacre, initially got a divisive reception at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Then the jury shocked everyone in attendance by awarding the film the Palme d’Or and naming Van Sant as Best Director.
Since the mid ‘90s, Van Sant had occasionally toyed with the idea of a more straightforward Cobain biopic, even going so far as to seek the approval of Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love. However, he eventually realized that he was less interested in the specifics of Cobain’s life, and decided on a more elliptical, mysterious approach to conclude the “death trilogy.” As he explained to The Guardian shortly before the film’s release in 2005, “Gerry is about death by accident. Elephant is about death by insanity or retribution by someone else’s hand. The third is about death by one’s own hand.”
Indeed, when we first meet Blake (Michael Pitt), the gaunt, bottle blonde rocker who acts as Cobain’s fictional surrogate, he has already decided to take his own life. He floats through the film like some sort of living phantom, captured by DP Harris Savides’ stunning camerawork. He’s dwarfed by the decaying sprawl of his Victorian mansion and the magisterial natural beauty meant to evoke the Pacific Northwest (although Last Days was shot in and around Osborn Castle in Garrison, New York).
We follow Blake for almost the entire film. He makes Kraft Mac & Cheese, so we make Kraft Mac & Cheese with him. He nods off while watching a Boyz II Men music video, so we end up watching almost the entire video. However, he remains constantly at a remove, always 10 steps ahead of us, mumbling a ceaseless monologue that only he can hear.
But Blake is not only removed from the audience; he is constantly trying to escape those around him. Tellingly, they in turn tend to leave him alone, except for when they want something from him. Lukas (Lukas Haas) wants Blake to check out his demo tape. Scott (Scott Green) wants money to get to a court date in Utah. A chipper fellow from the Yellow Pages (Thadeus A. Thomas) wants to sell him ad space for the upcoming book. Harmony Korine shows up and wants his attention for a strange story about playing Dungeons and Dragons with Jerry Garcia. None of these people seem to realize that they are talking to a ghost, one long since drained dry by the demands that came along with his celebrity.
There is one notable exception, which leads to Last Days’ most poignant scene. Blake is visited by a woman who is only credited as “Record Executive.” Far from what her name might imply, she’s the only person in the film who seems to have any concern for Blake’s wellbeing. In a soothing, maternal, yet slightly disappointed tone, she reminds Blake that he has a daughter who loves him. She then invites him to come with her and get help for his addiction, implying that this is his last shot at redemption.
The woman is played by Kim Gordon, co-founder of Sonic Youth, the experimental indie rock legends who took Nirvana under their wing. (They later brought Nirvana on tour as documented in the essential film 1991: The Year Punk Broke, brokering their major label deal.) Gordon and Cobain grew especially close while touring Europe, although she pulled away from their friendship as his heroin problem got worse.
In her 2015 memoir, Girl in a Band, Gordon revealed that Van Sant allowed her to improvise her character’s entire exchange with Blake. Knowing this, it isn’t difficult to look at this scene as a melancholy bit of wish fulfillment, allowing Gordon to say all the things she probably wished she had said to Cobain before it was too late.
Despite the end credits title card that insists that Last Days is a work of fiction, it’s inextricable from both the life and legend of Kurt Cobain. In addition to Blake’s hair and wardrobe, there are times when Van Sant very subtly borrows or recreates imagery and sounds from our public consciousness. One particular example is the framing of the scene where Blake’s body is discovered, which mimics an infamous paparazzi shot of Cobain’s lifeless limbs sprawled out in his greenhouse. This is followed by Blake’s crew of sycophants learning of his death from the television, which plays Kurt Loder’s actual coverage of Cobain’s death from MTV News.
The question that kept popping up in my head while watching this hypnotic, meandering elegy unfold was, Would any of this work without its relation to Cobain? For example, if Blake was a totally fictional character, or say, a poet instead of a musician, and it didn’t take place in the spring of 1994 in Seattle, would anyone care one iota about anything that happens in Last Days?
Last Days is Van Sant guiding us on the long, lonely journey from the death of Kurt Cobain: The Man to the birth of Kurt Cobain: The Myth, warning us against attaching too much meaning to that experience.
It’s an unanswerable question, of course. But suffice it to say that with its lack of a conventional narrative, sparse dialogue, no original score, and largely stationary shots that can go on for three to five minutes a pop, many viewers will undoubtedly think it doesn’t work regardless of its relation to him. Perhaps I’m being an elitist, but it’s difficult to imagine that today’s young rockers who mostly know Cobain as a playable character in Guitar Hero are also big Chantal Akerman fans. I’d be happy to be proven wrong.
With that said, what is Van Sant trying to capture with Last Days? A scene towards the end of the film may provide some clarity: hunched over in a dark, cavernous room with musical instruments strewn about, Blake picks up an acoustic guitar. He begins to tenderly pick at some minor chords, and before long a song starts to bloom. It builds in intensity until Blake is screaming at the top his lungs (to call Pitt’s singing voice hauntingly similar to Cobain’s would be a huge understatement) and strumming the guitar with such ferocity that he rips out a string. The words are hard to make out, save for one phrase, repeated over and over again: “It’s a long, lonely journey from death to birth.”
That phrase holds the key to the entire film. What we are witnessing is the phase of Cobain’s life that we never got to see and will never begin to understand. One great artist contemplating the demise of another. Last Days is Van Sant guiding us on the long, lonely journey from the death of Kurt Cobain: The Man to the birth of Kurt Cobain: The Myth, warning us against attaching too much meaning to that experience. Death is the great equalizer. As Cobain himself once sang, all we know is all we are.