Thursday, May 04, 2006

Film Notes: Last Days

  • I can't see how it's possible to discuss the most interesting aspects of this movie without giving away the ending. So, if you hate "spoilers", I apologize...

    But, ever since I watched this movie, I've been thinking about the ending, in which the main character's soul leaves his body and ascends to Heaven. Because, everything else in the film seems to hover in the tense space between aesthetic beauty and unsentimentalized subject matter. But, the end finally sides with the sublime, and it's utterly startling. Especially considering that this comes at the end of a trilogy that seems dedicated to exploring the quotidian and dull nature of death. It's as if Gus Van Sant made us suffer through Jerry and Elephant in order to reach the soul's ascention to Heaven. Both of those films had moments of beauty, but were ultimately about the meaninglessness of death. Here death seems to have some meaning, and perhaps the traditional meaning asigned to death.
  • So, is Van Sant being ironic here? The Mormon preachers who come to visit the main character Blake, a doppleganger for Kurt Cobain, seem to be held up to ridicule. And yet, the inability of the secondary characters to take the soul's existence seriously seems to deny them any sort of spiritual transcendence. Does Van Sant want to say that the soul is something real that can be snuffed out through our disbelief? Is Blake supposed to be an ecstatic believer, in spite of the fact that the character is played with almost no lines or visible reactions? This would seem to be in line with the obvious reference to visionary poet William Blake. Is Van Sant suggesting that Cobain was a version of William Blake, or even a recurrance of William Blake? I think he is.
  • And, is it possible that Blake is in purgatory throughout the film? The film moves slowly and plays off of the idea of being trapped and isolated by drug abuse. In one expertly conceived shot, we see Blake playing music alone in a room in his house. As Van Sant pulls back from the window with a very slow tracking shot, we notice how much the house resembles a castle architecturally, giving form to the metaphor about a man's home being his castle. As the camera pulls back further, the character is isolated in a small opening within a wall of stone and the house comes to look more like a prison. It is one of Van Sant's most masterful shots.
  • The theme of isolation permeates the entire film, and extends to the relationship between audience and character. We are isolated from Blake, and never feel we understand anything about him. He is a non-character. We feel that Van Sant is trying to protect his character from his audience, denying our desire to penetrate human nature through film. Every other character in the film takes advantage of Blake, sponging off of his wealth and genius. We begin to realize that the character's inarticulate introversion is as much a defense mechanism as a result of the drugs that we understand he uses, but never see him using. Van Sant puts us on the other side of the divide between the character and the world that seeks to steal from him, and makes us aware of our own desire to rob Blake of the most private moment in his life. We want to know why he kills himself, and Van Sant makes it clear that we have no right to know.
  • So, then why does Van Sant structure the film as a passion play in which the saint's soul's ascension ends the story? Otherwise, the film is utterly depressing and desolate. Of course, the passion plays are the same. Part of their appeal is in how the religious figure rises above the painful isolation of life on earth. Is this rustic estate supposed to be the garden of Gethsemane? Are the junkies camping out in the mansion supposed to be Judas? By the end, we feel that Blake kills himself to escape them. So, is this death as redemption? And who is redeeemed here?

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