A Look at Gus Van Sant's
Gus Van Sant's film "Last Days" is a story of a brilliant musician struggling with life during his last days. The story is obviously drawn from Kurt Cobain's last days and his struggles.
Since the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, thousands of fans have argued and speculated about certain elements of the musician’s life. Journalists, music snobs and fans of alternative music all feel that they have to weight in on the Cobain debate to even call themselves knowledgeable about music history. For years, film students and general lovers of cinema abstained courteously from this debate, because, they probably felt that if they were not fans of Nirvana or music in general, their opinion had no place in an arena where Cobain enthusiasts were willing to bleed for their beliefs. This all immediately changed when director Gus Van Sant made a movie about Kurt Cobain’s death that was both factual and artistic.
In 2005, director Gus Van Sant created a movie about the last living days of a tortured musician named Blake before he commits suicide. The film is simply called “Last Days”. Van Sant, known for his obscure references, nebulous plots and long, drawn out cinematography clearly intended for Blake to be Kurt Cobain since the conception of his idea. Michael Pitt, the actor that portrays Blake, has an uncanny likeness to Cobain and acts in an identical fashion. Everything about the film parallels Cobain’s life, from the Pacific Northwest setting to the circle of enabling wannabees that leech off the rockstar’s money and talent. Van Sant’s unique directing style tends to spins the lines of atmosphere, reality and feeling into a web of organized confusion, thus creating an expertly crafted, layered film. Gus Van Sant chose to interweave reality and fiction all while creating a new mythos around Cobain’s death by exploring the notions of the classic story telling techniques, sujet and fabula.
In the beginning scenes of the movie Blake mumbles through the forest. He camps overnight, lights a fire and sings songs until morning breaks. He then returns to his current place of living where his freeloading friends are asleep. While they’re sleeping, Blake unearths a box of goodies in the front yard, brings them inside and makes Cocoa Crispies. Asia Argento’s character, hiply named “Asia”, rises from sleep, walks around the house without pants then opens a door where she finds an unconscious Blake slumped against the doorway wearing a dress. They rest of the “day” in the film plays out in the typical fashion of how Cobain probably spent one of his last days: full of mumbling, drugs, shuffling and interactions with people that are so devoid of sincerity that their conversations border on painful trivial delirium. The aforementioned series of events is an example of the fabula of the film. Fabula means the actual order of events that transpired either in real life or in the vision of the fictional story. In the case of “Last Days”, the fabula is a little of both fact and fiction. The fabula of the rest of the film follows a similar droll until Blake commits suicide. The audience would probably get tired of watching grungy teenage junkie artist clichés meander around all day then sleep with each other at night. Van Sant saturates this film with peculiar coincidences that occur during and only during the twisted time frame that he so intricately wove into the fabula to keep it from faltering into tedium. This technique can be explored easier when the sujit of the film is understood.
The sujit of the film manifest when the director; in this case, Van Sant, arranges the actual events of the film to bring light to the underlying meaning that he intentionally injected into the plot. The sujet of the film can be understood while viewing a few key
Towards the beginning of the film, around the second scene, Asia Argento awakes, walks downstairs, and opens a door to be knocked in the shins by an unconscious Blake. Shortly after this scene, Blake wanders around in a following scene wearing a black dress on; he then sits down in one of the house’s main rooms. His stomach bothers him and he falls against the doorway. Asia then opens the door and Blake falls on her. Now, doubting that this sequence of events happened twice, the audience is inclined to believe that some sort of significance is placed on this event because it occurred twice. When the audience views the rest of the film, they will see that sequences like the one above happen frequently, so trusting their judgment, they now know that the repetition of events from other characters’ perspectives helps the underlying meaning or theme of the story manifest into a noticeable entity thus placing importance on every scene that builds up to the big picture. That is how the sujit of this particular film works.
It shows that Blake lives in his own world, completely separate from the rest of his crew and the rest of civilization. There are many moments in the movie where Blake’s friends talk to the disaffected rockstar for many grueling minutes and all he grants them is a weak grunt. His life has become such a drugged and depressed tedium that he leaves conversations when his friends are in midsentence and only plays music when no one can listen. He even blatantly ignores a maternal figure in his life, Kim Gordon, when she pleads that he leaves the hellish house with her immediately in a car she has waiting outside. The characters in this film could only be devices set in place to propel the sujit because they have no identity of their own and not a single character is likeable enough to illicit any sort of emotional response from an audience if they were to change from the beginning of the film to the end. They are animated stand-ins for important figures in Kurt Cobain’s life. Van Sant must have showed Cobain’s nameless meat puppet friends only to erect a maze of cold distant behavior for the Blake character to navigate until his eventual death. Not even the protagonist Blake holds any sort of importance because if the audience didn’t know that every minuscule element of the film was based on the last days of Kurt Cobain’s life, then would have probably not seen the movie in the first the place and if they were sitting down to see the picture, unaware of the hype, they would soon be uninterested shortly into the film. This is not a criticism of poor filmmaking or characters, it is a slap on the back and a “great job” to Van Sant for creating a film that galvanizes fabula and sujit together in a mighty combination by using the events that occurred in reality and the fictional depictions of events to amaze the audience because they’re seeing the film with some prior knowledge about the story and the overall life of Cobain. Van Sant does not insult his viewers by hammering them over the head with his decisions to portray the last days in Cobain’s life as he did on screen. Instead, he compliments them by not being explicit with his choices so those in the audience that pick up on his devices feel intelligent and well versed, thus raising their overall opinion of the director.
Gus Van Sant’s unique depiction of sujit and fabula allows “Last Days” to shine as both a creative depiction of Kurt Cobain’s last living days and as a piece of masterfully crafted artwork that includes its audience in such a clever way that it connects with the audience with each additional viewing.
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