All This Useless Beauty
Absence of presence: Arty Last Days misses out on Cobain's populist passion
This Is Spinal Tap is the greatest of all rock movies because Spinal Tap are dorks. Dorks are easy, whereas actual rock stars are nearly impossible. One reason it's dumb to dismiss Ray as mere biopic is that Jamie Foxx does the impossible--radiates something approaching the charisma of the artist he's portraying. So far, with all respect to Gary Busey's Buddy Holly and all the best to Pink's forthcoming Janis Joplin (Bette Midler's in your corner, girl), that's the only time an actor has ever brought a pop icon fully to life on-screen. The authenticity myth even chameleons like Bowie must work from ensures that rock stars' fundamental genius is their ability to project themselves. In film, presences as huge as Wayne and Eastwood nevertheless play parts. That's just as difficult. But it's different.
Luckily for Michael Pitt, whose band experience is a leg up he shares with an estimated 14 percent of all Americans aged 15 to 25, Last Days doesn't require him to replicate Kurt Cobain's onstage intensity. What's less lucky--what is in fact perverse, as if one expects anything else from Gus Van Sant--is that Pitt also isn't required to replicate Cobain's offstage intensity or charisma or charm or whatever he had. Instead, Pitt's Cobain character, Blake, spends his last days wandering in putative introspection around a decaying mansion in the woods. All that remains of the magnetism that induces bandmates and business associates to treat Blake like gold till the moment he's found dead is his personal beauty, which Van Sant, typically, exaggerates. Where the Pitt of Murder by Numbers is one weird-looking if potentially handsome dude, in Last Days he's Mr. Gorgeous, preening unassumingly behind a blond wig that fails to compensate for the unduplicatability of Cobain's fathomless blue eyes. Maybe Van Sant has such a thing for hypersensitive pretty boys that he believes the tragedy of his withdrawn, undrawn protagonist speaks for itself. Maybe he's banking on the audience's pre-existing knowledge of Cobain, explicitly acknowledged to have "inspired" this vague meditation on beleaguered genius. Or maybe he'd just as soon denigrate what he's ostensibly contemplating or celebrating.
To give Art its due, the film is visually sumptuous--especially the nature shots, Van Sant's forte--and while the dramatic function of audio that muffles dialogue and front-mixes arbitrary environmental sounds is barefaced obscurantism, it's OK as musique concrète. Moreover, Cobain was a sucker for this kind of project and probably would have dug it. But not counting a few lyrics, in his own art he took a more conventional path, and that conventionality was an essential component of the charisma Van Sant refuses to engage. Cobain was an arty, hypersensitive pretty boy, absolutely. But he wouldn't have been Elliott Smith if he hadn't rocked dynamite hooks like a motherfucker. The self he seemed to inhabit was animated by a populist passion Van Sant has no gift or taste for.
In Elephant, Van Sant reached out to feel the integrity of the shallow, troubled teen lives ended by teen murderers he's moral enough to depict as the evil creeps they were. Last Days' bandmates and business associates are creeps every one, and in substance so is Blake himself. Supposedly they're persons without qualities so each viewer can read into them what he or she chooses. But their blankness could just as well be a filmmaker's revenge on heroes of an art he has no access to. More than the yellow-pages salesman, the two Mormons, or even Ricky Jay, all playing themselves if Jay's investigative sideline makes him a detective, the film's one great rush of life comes from Kim Gordon's record executive. Not that you could ID her role without a scorecard. But her rock star presence is a tremendous relief.
One of the film's signal failures is the lugubrious song Pitt-as-Blake demos on acoustic guitar. It's Pitt's own, and although I should know better than to trust a demo, it left me expecting nothing from the gig Pitt's band, Pagoda, played June 22 at Piano's. But actually they rocked, and Pitt's yowl proved remarkably Cobain-worthy at times. This was more distanced music than Nirvana's--more satiric than lyrical, more enacted than expressed--and I very much doubt Pitt could have replicated Cobain's onstage intensity. He had a shot, though. I have no intention of giving Last Days another chance. But Pagoda I'll try to see again.
Village Voice, July 5, 2005