By Sean Axmaker
August 3, 2005 - 1:02 AM PDT
SA: The first time I saw the scene where Blake passes out, sitting against the door, and Asia Argento opens it and he falls, and then you see it again from another perspective, it took me a second to register that it was the same scene. Why this non-linear approach to this experience?
GVS: It's similar to the way that we did Elephant, and there were different time spaces that people were having that would sometimes cross and you would see, "Oh, this guy was developing the picture at the same time as the other kid was getting dropped off at the office and they converged." I got the idea from a Béla Tarr movie called Sátántángo, which happens in much larger pieces. An hour and a half of film will go by and then it will cross, and another hour an a half will go by, and at two and a half hours, there will be this crossing and you go, "Oh my God, this is the same period of time," but it's much more profound because it's such a big film. I'd done, like, a mini-version in Elephant and in the original script for Last Days we were following each character separately. It got changed in the editing. I guess Blake's character was more powerful so we wanted to be with him more. But originally Asia had her own journey and the detective [played by Ricky Jay] had his own piece of time, a 20-minute thing.
SA: When we see that scene with Blake and Asia played a second time, it actually plays differently. Is it like a memory as opposed to some objective presentation of reality?
GVS: Yeah, it's not like we're using two different cameras. But the whole point of doing it that way is just a way to tell a story. Instead of an objective for a character, instead of a quest or a goal for the lead character, it's just another type of thing to occupy the audience as they are seeing this other thing. It's a story technique, really, filmically. It's also the way I think our lives are. We go through a day and when we check in with our friends, you hear, "Oh, I was actually there at the same time," and they might have seen the same thing. So you retrace your day and piece it together from different points of view around the dinner table. So it's sort of the way we understand reality, I think. Goals are also another way we understand reality. It's a convention, a cinematic convention. Instead of, say, in Lord of the Rings, the quest for the ring is the goal of the characters, which I guess is like a MacGuffin in a Hitchcock movie.
SA: As you pointed out, there were also conflicting reports about those last days. Is this a comment upon those conflicting perspectives?
GVS: They were just different points of view. I don't think that they were ever conflicting. There were always just little pieces of what just happened. Somebody saw him [Cobain] in the park. We left that out but used the park. We didn't show someone actually stopping and seeing him but we showed him go to a park, seemingly next door to his house. There were these touch and go instances of things that I'd heard, that he had been in a club. I'm not sure where that story came from. I had written down as a list of things that Kurt Cobain liked to do or maybe had done in the last couple days. Making macaroni and cheese is not something that somebody said he did then, but it was something somebody said he did at other times in his life.
SA: There is a disturbing sense of isolation and alienation throughout the picture. In parts, it is a powerful portrait of extreme depression, to the point where Blake literally flees from everyone around him, but it's disturbing the way everyone avoids him. It feels like he's been abandoned emotionally by everyone around him at the time he most needs some contact.
GVS: That was what I was assuming he would be doing, partly because of, perhaps, drugs, but also because he was "the master of the house," so the other people were steering clear of him. Or maybe it's just the way they were used to acting in the house. They were also people that he would maybe jam with; they weren't necessarily people he didn't talk to. It's just that he was actually in hiding because he had apparently left rehab prematurely. He was supposed to spend 28 days in, but he left after two days, so he was hiding out in his own house and avoiding people who might be looking for him. He had done something wrong, he had left prematurely, and there were people calling and saying, "Why did you leave?" and he didn't want to listen to that. I mean, this is me imagining it. So they were helping him hide out and keeping out of his way.
And I think he was maybe used to doing that, he was maybe used to being alone so he could think and write and do the stuff that you normally would do during the day. I think it's a typical kind of scenario for an artist or a writer or a painter, that they have to go off into their world to create. And not necessarily being apart from the people in the house because of, say, just drugs. As far as I know, what really happened might have been something far different.
SA: It seemed to me that there was more going on than simply avoiding him because of that. When Asia opens the door and he falls onto the floor, practically out cold, she doesn't help, she walks away from him.
GVS: Because she thinks he's dead. That's what I'm inferring. She's thinking, "Oh, it's happened," and then she just goes upstairs and says, "Scott, somebody's at the door." She doesn't want to be the one that finds him. She's freaked out and she leaves before the others figure out what's going on.
SA: Who is the woman who visits Blake and asks him if he's spoken to his daughter [played by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth]?
GVS: She's like a manager or sort of a fix-it person that the record company has. Or she might be somebody that's connected to him or she might just be a friend. But she's somebody he really likes and she goes up and says, "Hey, get it together." Probably nothing like that happened during those two days but I threw it in there.
SA: I wondered if she was a real person at all. She never interacted with anyone else. She just appears and then disappears, basically bucking him up but not doing anything physically to help him. She gives him some emotional support but she doesn't try to get him out of there.
GVS: I think that's the way it would be. There were accounts of interventions that had gone on that might be more like what really happened, like a group of people sitting down, a much different type of thing. This was just one person coming up and saying, "I can help. We can leave."
SA: Your last three films have gone in a completely different direction than pretty much everything in mainstream cinema. They've moved away from traditional storytelling and narrative structures and become more about capturing textures and emotional states. What inspired you to move into this direction?
GVS: I think I was ticked off when I saw Sátántángo. Susan Sontag was a very big supporter of Béla Tarr's and she was at a Museum of Modern Art presentation of all of his movies. He introduced Sátántángo and she was there in the front row and she watched this six hour movie for, like, the thirteenth time. Afterwards we all went out had some drinks and talked and as we were leaving I told Susan that I'd made a Béla Tarr movie, I'd made Gerry. You could call it inspiration or you could call it copying, but she thought it was like you were given permission by somebody to do something you had wanted to do, and I guess that's kind of what it is. I mean, I've lived with Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman since 1975, which this has more in common with than a Béla Tarr movie, but I never really did anything like it. Always thought about it, never actually tried to do anything like that, but always really admired that movie and never knew why, never examined it enough because it was so rarely shown.
Even from the very beginning, we were always shooting things in big, long takes. In order to cover scenes that were, say, five minutes long, we would do five-minute takes and I would move it from one angle and then another angle and a third angle, all these different angles, and then I would cut them together. And we were always moving around, as a way to combine set-ups. And in the dailies you watch those, you watch the single takes, and it never dawns on you to actually use one of those takes by itself, for whatever reason. I guess it's because it's not a cinema that we're used to seeing. In Eastern Europe it's a cinema that they are used to seeing, but in our cinema, even if you're watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's not necessarily a cinema we're used to thinking up or executing.
So I always intercut it, even though we were shooting in those long takes. Gerry was specifically these big long takes; it was different, but then in Last Days, they literally are just are one side of things. We would normally shoot three different sides and cut them together. Like with Blake talking to Kim Gordon, we would shoot his side, and then Kim's, and you would cut together your favorite parts of both performances, which in itself is starting to combine different time frames. One side would actually be shot an hour later or whatever. So you were combining a 2:30 shoot with a 4:30 shoot and back to 2:30 and back to 4:30 and then a 3:30 shot, and it kind of looks like that. You sense it, even if you don't quite intellectualize it; you actually feel these mixed-up times. It's just the cinema that we actually are used to, but as soon as you don't do that, there's a whole different type of cinema going on, which related to something I felt when I was watching Béla's movies, related to a cinema that might have existed as a parallel cinema that grew up along side, say, D.W. Griffith's cinema. It's sort of an evolution of what already is happening but never allowed to happen, never having permission to let it happen. So we're just doing it. They're also cheap movies so we're not betting the bank on them.
SA: Keeping these on very low budgets, at least by industry standards, seems to have given you a tremendous amount of freedom to take on very uncommercial projects, to take a chance on them. This is the third one on a row. Because these are so small, what kind of success do you need from them to continue on in this vein?
GVS: They've been successful on their own, so we're still able to produce them. We haven't crashed and burned. They've made enough money to sustain them.
SA: You've lived in Portland for the past 20 years or so, far from the hub of Hollywood. Why do you stay in Portland?
GVS: Mostly to stay away from stuff that happens in LA. If I'm in LA, I start to read and see and hear the same things that everybody else does, so you start to have a limited point of view. It starts to be LA-centric. If you're here, you have a different point of view of life. That's probably the main reason, but it's also a nice place. My family is from Kentucky and I grew up kind of on the road, but we ended up in Portland when I was in high school. I can live basically anywhere so I just went back to where I came from.
back to past articles >>>
"That moment is where all of it just stopped abruptly."
"We haven't crashed and burned."
back to past articles
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and StaticMultimedia.com. His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.
February 6, 2007. Mark Savage & the D.I.Y. Aesthetic by Jeffrey M. Anderson
February 3, 2007. Seeing the Humor in Sexual Identity by Michael Guillen
January 29, 2007. Smokin' Aces with Joe Carnahan and Jeremy Piven by Sean Axmaker
January 26, 2007. Include Me Out: Interview with Farley Granger by Jonathan Marlow
January 25, 2007. Grindhouse: Chapter Four - The 1960's by Eddie Muller
January 19, 2007. Charles Mudede: Zoo Story by Andy Spletzer
January 19, 2007. Mark Becker: Merging the Personal and the Political by Sara Schieron
January 19, 2007. Micha X. Peled: The Lives of the Sweatshop Youth by Hannah Eaves
January 16, 2007. Djinn: A Taxi Driver Dreams of Perth by Jeffrey M. Anderson
January 12, 2007. Clint Eastwood: Flags and Letters From the "Good War" by Jeff Shannon
view past articles