For most of this decade, director Gus Van Sant has been running away from success, and, unlike his anti-hero Blake of Last Days, has so far lived to tell about it. Success has surely ruined some of the best of our artists, and it surely seemed to ruin Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, who took his own life in 1994 -- at the height of the band's critical and popular success, and yet at the depths of his despair.
The New Orleans Film Festival, which was forced to cancel last fall's festival thanks to You-Know-Who, will spend the early months of 2006 with a series of special screenings that kicks off Tuesday with a showing of Last Days -- inspired by Cobain's death. In many ways it's a typical New Millennium work by Van Sant, one of the darlings of 1990s indie cinema with a run that included Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) and To Die For (1995) before a series of more commercial work that began with the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting (1997) and continued with Psycho (1998) and Finding Forrester (2000).
But then, Van Sant pulled a complete 180, opting to direct the experimental Gerry (2002) that featured Good Will Hunting co-star and co-writer Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (Ben's brother) as two hikers who get lost in the desert. Then came 2003's Cannes Film Festival winner, Elephant, a near-brilliant, non-judgmental response to the Columbine High School massacre, and now Last Days.
Like his earlier work, these later films explore the alienation and isolation of youth, and are even more experimental in their eschewing of traditional narrative structure in favor of ambience, mood and tone -- particularly with the emphasis on movement with long tracking shots, conveying his subjects' relationship (or lack thereof) to their environment. While more challenging to watch than anything before, whether commercial or independent, these films represent a refreshing sense of artistic self-challenge that you almost never see in indie filmmakers who make it big (no matter how that's defined).
So it's no wonder that Van Sant was drawn to Cobain, who seemed completely crippled by success to the point where he continually withdrew within himself to the point where he saw no other path but the end itself. In one of many grindingly slow (and hilariously ironic) scenes, Blake welcomes a Yellow Pages salesman into his metaphorically decaying mansion out in the woods. During a brief exchange where both characters seem to be having two completely different conversations, Blake ultimately declares, "Success is relative" to the perplexed salesman.
Indeed, Van Sant has said in interviews he faced that same irony of how striving for success created even greater challenges, whether artistically or commercially. Van Sant clearly had the temperament to take charge of his life and career, even if it meant becoming a less viable option for studios looking for a more commercially savvy director.
For whatever reason -- blame it on the drugs, the pressure, his marriage, his own issues of depression -- but Cobain didn't have to strength to make that same declaration of independence. As Michael Pitt's performance, and Van Sant's technique, illustrate, the depressed rock star's life was drowning in inertia and paralysis. If meditating on these two facets don't make for a propulsive narrative -- more than a few viewers and critics shifted uncomfortably in their seats -- Van Sant more than made up for it by capturing an inner life with distinct filmmaking. In one subtly glorious segment, and a now-trademark move, Van Sant's camera tracks Blake skulking through what must have been a Pacific Northwest forest near his mansion -- carefully moving forward, wary of being literally and figuratively lost in the woods, plodding like a drugged and hunted animal.
A prisoner much of his own making, Blake has peopled his universe with wayward hangers-on who feed off him like rats in the house, including a couple of male friends who fumble through a sexual encounter upstairs while Blake strains for musical inspiration in his makeshift studio below. A sharper contrast of wayward passion you will hardly ever find.
Michael Pitt to this point has been a mixed bag; his intensity has ranged from fretting (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) to flat-out annoying (Murder by Numbers). But here he truly disappears into the role, all loping gait, sunken eyes and interior cries for help, making Jamie Foxx's performance in Ray look like a goof by comparison.
Much as he does in Elephant, Van Sant's sympathies and ultimate conclusion remain elliptical, something that many critics curiously find off-putting. What they don't seem to get is that, in his continued examination of that lost generation we used to call X -- was My Own Private Idaho really 15 years ago? -- Van Sant understands how elliptical our lives often become. Blake's suicide scene, played out much like that of Cobain, could be interpreted as anything from an ending to a beginning, from a tragedy to an ascendance. He simply wanted out.
I miss Nirvana, and Cobain, like crazy. I'm just grateful Gus Van Sant chose to stick around.
- Blinders on: Blake (Michael Pitt) cops a Kurt Cobain pose in Gus Van Sant's meditative 2005 film, Last Days, which screens Tuesday at the Prytania courtesy the New Orleans Film Festival.