‘Last Days’ misses Kurt Cobain’s fall

Director Gus Van Sant errs with too much celebrity and too little empathy

by Keri Carlson

Director Gus Van Sant makes a big assumption in his latest film, “Last Days.”

He assumes viewers know the story of Nirvana – the seemingly flukish rise to fame that put grunge into society’s mainstream consciousness and the suicide of Kurt Cobain. More importantly, Van Sant assumes you already care a lot about Cobain.

Though the film asserts it is fiction, the character Blake is obviously based on Cobain – Blake even wears yellow sunglasses and a striped sweater that Cobain has been pictured in, and actor Michael Pitt emulates Cobain down to his scruffy stubble.

Van Sant imagines what Cobain’s last days before the singer’s suicide might have been like. The result is an hour and a half of watching Blake mumble and stumble around a large house somewhere in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, while his friends sing along to a Velvet Underground song.

“Last Days” uses the same style Van Sant employed in 2003’s “Elephant.” The camera stays focused on a scene with very minimal action to advance the plot; instead, characters are developed through long pauses, subtle motions and mundane practice sessions.

Because this style strays from that of the traditional films and lingers more like an artsy foreign film, “Last Days” has attracted as many fans as it has detractors.

To some, a scene in which Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” video plays almost in its entirety while Blake lies on the floor, shows how depression has left the musician completely depleted. To others, it’s laughably ridiculous.

Even if you fall into the first group and think Van Sant’s masturbatory approach is filled with meaning, the film’s ending marks a new low for cinema, as Blake’s soul rises up (naked, of course!) and begins climbing invisible stairs while his body remains sprawled on the floor. Blake, ascending into heaven, appears horribly cheesy and destroys any point Van Sant was trying to make.

But the biggest problem with “Last Days” is that because the story is based on someone famous, Van Sant offers no reason to care about the characters in the first place.

If Blake did not resemble Cobain so closely, “Last Days” would be seen as a film about annoying, whining, drunken twentysomethings who should probably lay off the pot and pick up some Prozac.

“Elephant” worked – kind of – because the high school characters were allowed to expose their insecurities, confidence, humor, sorrow and anger all at the same time. Van Sant gave them a sense of depth and mystery.

Blake is only seen one way: as an incoherent bum. But because you should already know everything about Cobain, Van Sant feels free to only portray this one side.

For hardcore Nirvana fans, maybe this is all that is needed. But if you haven’t listened to “Nevermind” for a while, this film won’t make you want to remember.