Surface Tension

Gus Van Sant's latest film is a mood with no story.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 26, 2005

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Cobain habit: Last Days ' solitary protagonist Blake copes with the unbearable lightness of being.

Last Days
Includes: Featurettes, music video, deleted scene.
You'll Like It If You Like: Kurt Cobain, Andy Warhol movies, art cinema.

When did the superficial become profound? Maybe it's the century-long backlash against Freud and all that psychic complication he created. Or it's one more thing to blame on our Us Weekly culture of celebrity worship.

Either way, shallow is the new deep, and Gus Van Sant has made himself the poet laureate of this culture of surfaces. He scans them as relentlessly as old (Freudian) filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman plumbed psychological depths. He's gradually made his movies more and more minimal, as if he's paring them down toward their own extinction.

Combining the deadpan passivity of Andy Warhol, the terse language of Samuel Beckett and the languid landscapes of Michelangelo Antonioni, Van Sant has moved from straight commercial ventures like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester to his recent trilogy about American death: the ruthlessly minimalist Elephant, about a Columbine-like school shooting; the dry-as-dust Gerry, about two men lost in the desert; and now Last Days, about the dying hours of a Kurt Cobain-like rock star.

In Last Days ' unforgettable opening shot--beautifully crystal-clear on this DVD--a lone figure stumbles and mumbles through the woods. Van Sant shoots him very far away, as if he's part of the natural landscape of rocks and branches.

Soon the character strips off his clothes, jumps in the water, pees and then hangs out at night by a campfire--all the while removed from us, his hair in his face, his back often turned. Van Sant coolly keeps his distance, and the figure lurching through the woods muttering to himself seems more like a wild animal than a person.

It turns out this bestial figure is, well, not exactly Kurt Cobain, but Blake, Van Sant's Cobain stand-in, and the movie is Van Sant's reimagining of the "last days" of a Cobain-like rock star, marooned in a decrepit Northwest mansion, harassed and ignored by his bandmates and housemates, so stranded inside his own private Idaho that he may as well already be dead.

And that seems to be the point. Blake's already retreating inside himself, becoming part of the earth, shutting himself down in every way but the official one. His death is just a formality.

But what does that tell us about the life and/or death of someone like Cobain? Van Sant's aesthetic of surfaces can seem perversely profound, or it can seem like the easy way out. If you just watch behavior and set up pretty shots, you don't have to dramatize anything, work out motivations and consequences, or think through characters.

The first parts of Last Days are poetic, almost spiritual. They extend the pantheistic vision of Van Sant's infamously plotless Gerry, which featured two blank, anonymous men (both named "Gerry," as if to reinforce their interchangeability) dying in nature. Ashes to ashes, Van Sant seems determined to remind us: We're animals, we're all on the road to being part of the earth, and we may as well drop our pretensions to psychology and individuality.

The problem is this doesn't leave us much of a movie to watch. After Last Days ' first powerful scenes, there's not much going on. Blake's an inarticulate cipher, and we learn little about him or why he's ready to kill himself. So what's the point?

Is Van Sant aiming to make movies that are like paintings in motion, with people who are just shapes and colors in the space? That seems to be where he was going with Gerry 's blank wanderers, or with the yellow T-shirt in Elephant, which Van Sant focused on so intently that he didn't bother to tell us why the teenagers wanted to gun down their classmates in the first place.

All three movies fixate on the physical, sensual process of death. Luxuriating in colors and shapes while stripping personality bare, they're more about mood and atmosphere than insight and story. Above all, they evoke a sense of place that's mystical and eternal, overriding and outlasting humans' trivial or violent endeavors.

It's as if Last Days ' doomed Blake physically feels the weight of his triviality, as if the force of his own insignificance weighs down his hunched body, as if he already senses that it doesn't really matter--in the larger cosmic scheme of things--whether he's alive or dead.

Interesting in theory, Last Days is frustrating to watch, since, like its hero, it's so insistently closed and unenlightening. A rigorous experiment, it forces you to grapple with the whole question of what a movie is, and what you want out of one. Is it enough to stare at just a surface for 97 minutes?

Mysterious Skin

Gregg Araki--who made queer cinema classics like The Living End and The Doom Generation--is a son of Warhol like Van Sant, but his movies have an emotional urgency often absent in Van Sant's hollow hipster exercises. He's like an American Almod�var, his work thriving on color, energy and melodrama, even when it's not as strong on plot or character. Having made some of his most experimental movies, he's now heading in the opposite direction, producing a relatively mainstream story of childhood sex abuse that's one of his weakest (yet most praised) efforts, in which two kids are preyed on by the same Marlboro Man-esque baseball coach. One becomes a heartless gay hustler (played with ruthless lack of sentimentality by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, once the kid on TV sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun). The other suppresses his trauma so totally that he thinks he was abducted by aliens. Like Van Sant, Araki's not big on psychological explanations. The kids were abused, now they're screwed up, and that's about it dramatically. Beautifully shot and earnestly acted, the film doesn't have much momentum or offer much insight beyond a Lifetime movie. It's arty but inert, and one of the most puzzlingly overrated films of the year. Gordon-Levitt strains hard to be Leonardo DiCaprio. Araki strains hard to be, well, Gus Van Sant. And all we feel is the strain. C

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