Gus Van Sant: "A cinema that might have existed"

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By Sean Axmaker

"That moment is where all of it just stopped abruptly."

Last Days, a film "inspired by" the last days of Kurt Cobain, made its world premiere at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, but director Gus Van Sant appropriately gave the honors for North American premiere to Seattle, the city where Cobain first made his music and found his fame, and where he took his life in 1994. It's something of a homecoming for Van Sant as well, who has made his home in Portland, Oregon, some 200 hundred miles south of Seattle, for over 20 years.

Michael Pitt is undeniably Cobain-like as Blake, a reclusive, accidental grunge rock icon, under long shaggy locks and behind hazy eyes. He looks like he's coming off a decade-long high as he mumbles and stumbles through his decaying manor in woods, dodging phone calls and ducking housemates while mumbling incoherently and periodically passing out. The story is pure speculation, Van Sant's fantasy on what might have happened during those final days of self-isolation, but he loads the film with distinctive imagery - from Pitt's wardrobe to the architecture to the damp, murky forest that envelopes them all like some primeval landscape - that makes a definitive connection to the real events and complicates any kind of reading of the film.

Subject matter aside, the film forms a kind of trilogy with Gerry and his award-winning 2003 drama Elephant, experiments in narrative deconstruction and reconstruction. Van Sant once again takes an impressionistic, non-linear approach, the better to plunge us into the experience. The film slips and stutters back and forth through the story, often so subtly that it takes a while to register, creating a queasy disorientation. The film soon feels out of time and suspended in the atmosphere of decay and deterioration and emotional disconnection. It's a defiantly uncommercial, individualistic mode of expression that Van Sant has been exploring with great success. Last Days is the epitome of these explorations and a beautiful marriage of subject matter and style.

Just hours before the film unspooled as the Closing Night event of the 2005 Seattle International Film Festival (where it not only divided audiences with its impressionistic, non-linear style, and its defiant refusal to provide any answers, but gave fresh fuel to Seattle's notorious Cobain conspiracy nut Richard Lee, whose grand design has been amended to implicate Gus Van Sant in Cobain's death), Van Sant sat down for an interview with me to discuss the film and his inspirations.

Sean Axmaker: Why is Last Days "inspired by" rather than "based on" the death of Kurt Cobain?

Gus Van Sant: There was this idea to do a biopic, like The Doors, that would have the story and maybe the Kurt and Courtney relationship and the band and they would be arguing over their recording of "Never Mind" or arguing with Butch Vig [the album's producer]. That was my instant conception, which was probably about a year after he died.

And then I guess I just changed it and decided that it would be maybe something I could do on a low budget at my house. I had a house that was kind of like their house, a 1905 Arts and Crafts house in Portland. I thought I could shoot it in 16mm and I would cast someone that wasn't like him. I was going to cast this 14-year-old kid who was in an early Thomas Vinterberg film called The Boy Who Walked Backwards. Then I decided that it would be just these last couple days that were just sort of missing, where nobody knew what had happened to him, that it wouldn't literally be about him. It would be a poetic piece, I guess.

And then, as time went on, it changed back. I was obsessing over locale and Mike [Michael Pitt] decided that his hair should be long and blonde. So that changed it a lot, because when I first met Mike, he looked kind of like the 14-year-old Vinterberg actor. He was 17 and he didn't look like Kurt, which was one of the reasons that I cast him. But as time went by he grew older and everything became something else. So there is a striking resemblance, although there still isn't an account of what happened on those particular days. There are certain accounts from, say, the detective, from his point of view, but then everyone else is not there.

SA: So where did this account come from?

GVS: Just in my imagination.

SA: So it's fiction.

GVS: Yeah, so that's another reason why it wasn't really a straight biopic.

SA: Within the fiction, there are certainly a number of very striking parallels to the real life events. The house, for instance, and the setting. By the time you add in the hair and the eccentric wardrobe, it's hard to think of Blake as anyone else by Kurt Cobain. Why did you put all these very specific signifiers into the film?

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