Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2005) is indie movie-making at its very worst. Like his Elephant (2003), Last Days comes to us packaged as a thoughtful cinematic companion to a fascinating recent cultural event like (for Elephant) Colombine or (for Last Days) Cobain's suicide. For both the marketing style is cultural packaging, which is very effective. We see the package we think ‘my my, that could be interesting. I've always been fascinated by the idea of Cobain blowing his head off.’ Your fascination compels you. That’s how Van Sant gets you. He grabs you by your curiosity then denies you any satisfaction. These films have, more than they have anything else, the effect of extreme disappointment. Our curiosity about these events, which is a strong motivator of our viewership of these films, is flatly denied by Van Sant. The films are not explorations of these events. They are instead idle exercises in filming. We rightly feel cheated. Someone writing into me summed it up well. “Elephant was supposed to be about Columbine, then you watch it and you’re like, yeah it’s in a school, but there aren’t any characters. There isn’t any drama. This sucks.” Similarly you watch Last Days and you’re half-way through it and the only thing that has had anything to do with Cobain so far is the clothes, which are nailed. Give the wardrobe department an A. The rest of him seems to go purposefully unexamined and all the potential drama of the character is ignored. Why?
The making of Elephant: advertising research shows people cannot get enough of that unbelievable scene in that high school in Columbine. Bank on it. Michael Moore did. You should too. The 18-45 year olds will rush out to see anything that even mentions it.
You think Van Sant’s money people don't read the quarterlies? Sure. They got wind of this and gave Gus a call.
“Hey, Gus, this movie you’re making, this Elephant thing, it’s about Columbine, right?”
“No. It’s not about Columbine. It’s just this High School slice-of-life thing with this androgynous boy who walks around and doesn’t say much.”
“Uh, hey Gus!”
“You sure about that?”
“Um, Yeah. Pretty sure.”
“You sure some guys in black coats don’t come in at the end and spray a lot of blood around inside?”
“Some guys in black coats?”
“Yeah, with automatic weapons.”
“Oh my God.”
“Listen, Gus. It’s like this. Either you get some black coats in there so we can..."
"What about camouflage?"
"Instead of black coats, camouflage."
"To make it different."
"But the black coats are good. We like the black coats."
"Whatever, okay? Just get some guns in there, some freaks ambushing the school so we can Columbine market this thing or we’re pulling the plug on the androgyne.”
“I can’t do it."
"I don’t have the characters, there’s no setup for it, no…I can’t just bring ‘em in at the end.”
“It’s not right artistically.”
“Forget that. Don’t you worry about Ebert. He’s on the take. We arranged for two 'brilliant's per review for you and three for the Coppola babe.”
“Why does she get three?
“Cause she’s an even worse director than you.”
And on it might have gone. We don’t know. And now Last Days. Van Sant has decided to publicly defile himself again. Who knows what back door dealings shaped this project. If taken seriously as an artist we can assess Van Sant as an ever more desperate turn back the artistic clock-er. He wants to bring back theory art, the kind of vague, simplistic presentations so thoroughly exposed and demolished by Tom Wolfe in his brilliant book The Painted Word. I touched on it in my swipe at Rothko. It works like this. First there is a theory. The art is the image which illustrates the theory. The important thing is the theory. The actual artwork is just one possible means of illustrating or expressing the theory, and would often be very difficult to appreciate without knowledge of the theory behind it. Tom Wolfe shows how a visual art can become really more of a literary art, hence his title,"the painted word." Van Sant is probably a great admirer of Rothko, and like him has an interest in transforming a visual art into a literary art. He has a theory. Van Sant's theory is that a tone of obnoxious boringness from first frame to last is beneficial to the viewer, that we are better off watching nothing. Without this theory, my friends, we would certainly not be reading lavish praise for "Mr. Van Sant" in the New York Times for example, where Last Days is actually described as "indisputably great":
Putting a gun to your head seems a poignantly symbolic act of violence for a star as uncomfortable with celebrity as Cobain claimed to be. This gruesome detail isn't in "Last Days," the 11th feature directed by Mr. Van Sant and one of this year's indisputably great films (Manohla Dargis).
Notice the awkward blurb placement. That klutzy subjunctive clause. We're told two things: 1) it's his 11th movie; 2) it's "one of this years indisputably great films" in the same clause. There is a connection between such cold factuality (the 11th) and such glowing praise (indisputably great). After 11 films you earn some blurb purchase power.
There are a lot of very stupid theories artists use to explain their creative decision-making, and now here’s another one voiced by Last Days cinematographer Harris Savides in the behind-the-scenes special presented on the DVD. The viewer should want the camera to linger on a bush for two minutes after the character walks off screen. Because, viewers, now you’re involved. You get to see what the camera sees when nothing is going on. You get to apply your own perceptions to gather information about what’s happening off screen. Is that a branch snapping somewhere over to the left? Is Blake still walking? Did he trip? Is that a bark? Is there a dog over to the right somewhere, barking? See, if you just put the camera on the dog and it barks, you know what the dog looks like, where it is, what it looks like while barking, what kind of tail flicking. But! If I instead film some trees while rolling sound and a dog barks off camera, the viewer has that dog to wonder about. The viewer has more to do than simply visually observe what’s on the screen. Technically speaking the idea is don’t move the camera. Don’t do a lot of camera setups. One or two per scene. But do more with each setup. Once you have the set up, film whatever’s in front of the camera even if the actors aren’t there. Why? Answer: it involves the viewer more. Does any thinking go on at all? These film people strike me as such mental lightweights. They set up an environment of such mental softness these stupidities live on past what should be a barely instantaneous shelf-life. Maybe we should look at the silly theories as part of the charm of theory art. Maybe, but long ago someone should have questioned Savides on his ‘theory’ and some real thought could have ensued. Let’s break it down.
Abstractly speaking we have the starting point that today’s MTV editing is too much. It gives the viewer everything, more than he wants or needs. Henceforth to combat that excess we shall go to the other extreme, editing and filming so as to offer the viewer far less than he wants or needs. This way a movie becomes a forum for attempts at point-proving, which it should or should not be. To state it declaratively: A movie is a way of disagreeing with some assumed error in editing philosophy. But if you do that, if you use the shooting to make a point, don’t you risk missing the point of filmmaking? Well yes, by going to the other extreme you do hinder the entertainment value of your film, but our view is that making the point, or should I say attempting to make the point that making a point is more important than entertaining the audience with your film is worth the risk. That’s why you would decide to go to the other extreme rather than getting it just right and making a great movie.
The theory is that the viewer appreciates the minimal still camera shot from far away because it “gives the viewer more to do.” And there you have it, the obviously faulty assumption that the viewer wants more to do. How more out of touch could you be with how and why movies are watched? Manual labor does not factor in. Movie watching is all about not doing. That is where the whole magic lies, in the pure not doing of it. To think viewers would appreciate such unsatisfying long shots as are offered throughout Last Days and favor them over story-advancing medium shots is an insult. Any insistence on limiting the movements of the camera in order to enable the viewer ‘to see what isn’t there’, or in order to give us the opportunity to piece together through other sensory perceptions (hearing) actions peripheral to the camera frame seems pretty irrational to me.
And in fact the effect of stopping on the bushes and letting Blake walk off camera actually gives the viewer less to do. We have no connection to this fauna. We are human beings trying to make sense of a disjointed, rambling movie. Extra seconds of the group of bushes behind the house don’t help us because frankly, Gus, the bushes don’t matter. Extra seconds of the bush is an enforcement of boredom on the viewer. Does feeling our boredom extremely palpably constitute the extra activity we’re allowed as viewers of these awkwardly extended scenes of nothing? “Hey, it is more to do.” I want to clarify training the camera for awkward extra seconds on scenes of nothing can work in a movie. My example is Todd Solondz in Storytelling, the 2nd half. He stays uncomfortably long on a far off shot of a house after the maid storms across the yard toward the house ready to blow it up sky high. We wait for a cut, then we wait for an explosion, then 5 seconds later than we want it to, there is an uneventful cut to the next scene. I found it a subtle comic effect. I chuckled at it. Van Sant seems to have no need for chuckle-inducing cleverness. He’s more into the hard theory now. What before was simply boring and wrong is now an effect which reaches out to an even further understanding of the film viewer’s true needs. That’s what a theory can do if it sounds good.
It’s a theory, we quickly learn, with convenience as its foremost characteristic. This became clear to me as I watched in the behind-the-scenes special the morbidly obese cinematographer Harris Savides’ labored walk which left him out of breath after crossing half of a room. It was obvious to me the situation. Here we have a cinematographer who is limiting his camera moves based on his limited capacity of movement. The man simply is not capable of active, thorough cinematography. And this guy Savides is trying to hide it all behind some ridiculous theory that the viewer benefits from his laziness. It’s an outrage! Join with me, readers, in opposing this scam within a scam.
The overall scam is the film itself. To continue…
The behind the scenes special also offered some enlightening actor interviews. All the actors agreed on one aspect of the making of the film they found enjoyable: the great freedom. One of the more well-spoken actors seemed elated to be able to make a declarative statement about the movie: “There’s no script.” None of the actors had ever been part of a project that offered so much for them to do. In each case an actor was able to bring something that happened to them in real life into a scene in the movie. What liberation, what invigoration they all felt working with the unbelievably open Gus Van Sant. One actor remarked “It’s not a film really, it’s more of an…art piece.” My analysis had to come to this and here it is. The dispute isn’t over viewer participation or editing philosophy, it’s more general. It’s movies themselves. Van Sant could say no, a movie is not an entertainment form within which profound artistic statements can be made. A movie has no set form, it’s whatever you want it to be. It can be totally boring and empty and full of stupidity and it’s still worthwhile because of the point it makes, because it’s still an expression, it’s still a vision. You might be bored by it, turned off by it, but I’m not. I’m inspired by it, I’m enlightened by it. Art is about being open, man. You’re closed. Art can’t move forward if you’re closed. And hippie so on.
And so we have to step back even further into the abstract, into the debate between rationalism and irrationalism, and there it gets more tedious, because then you face the prospect of Van Sant saying “I don’t want to make a good movie. I don’t like good movies,” to which there is no response. That answer is still very powerful, not as much as when Andy Warhol first invented it, but still a strong conversation-ender.
Director Gus Van Sant is said to be an innovator. What he has innovated with his partners is an aesthetics of convenience that does not hold up under even my elementary powers of deconstruction. Each member of the project is allowed to follow his will to convenience. Writer/Director Gus Van Sant evidently is not much into writing or directing so he just skips the script-writing work and pays actors extra to come up with the story. Then instead of directing he just sits off to the side and watches his crew do their jobs (see DVD extras). As we have seen, under the code of the aesthetics of convenience if you have a fat cinematographer who has trouble getting around, keep the camera work to an absolute minimum with the proviso that you make it a point to present good theoretical justification for it in the extra features. If your main actor can’t do any convincing improvised dialogue, have him mumble to himself incoherently. An artist has no responsibilities. An artist need be nothing more than a student messing aroung with a camera.
There’s no such thing as the responsibility to your subject, in this case Cobain. When dealing with a cultural figure of extreme prominence, an artist should not concern himself with research or study or thought. Curious about Cobain myself, I have read much of what has been written about him. I nowhere saw mention of him as a somnambulant mumbler at any point in his life. In interviews shortly before his death he showed himself to be articulate and thoughtful, with a tone of convincing positivity. The at times comic mumbling of Michael Pitt’s Blake clashes badly with and vaguely undermines the clear intention of the film to seriously dramatize the painful addiction battle and suicidal detachment from the world experienced by someone in Cobain’s rock star position. This clash isn’t, and does not in any way come off as, a cool intentional effect. It is simply the expected result of operating under an aesthetics of convenience. You leave everything in and say whatever.
I mourn how open indie film is to such fraudulence. It really can make you very sad. I get a feeling of doom. What do I mean by fraud? How can a work of art be an act of fraud? The answer is simple: When it is not a work of art but is presented as one. To be a work of art the work must have an idea behind it, at least one idea of some quality. When we watch Last Days we never get that. We are denied even one worthwhile idea. And look at all the potential ideas. The first is obviously COBAIN. Kurt Cobain. Who was this guy? What could have brought such a successful star to suicide so young? Can’t we find film makers who have sense enough to ask such pertinent questions? Can’t we expect a little obsessive curiosity?
None of the important moviemaker questions seem to have occurred to Van Sant. The whole idea of focusing on the last days is stupid and should have been shot down immediately in pre-production. The whole “inspired by” vagueness is so wrong for this story. The absence of any girlfriend or wife, any Courtney Love conjured up in my mind a telephone scene, Love screaming at Van Sant “if you so much as hint at me in that movie I’ll sue you so fast your head will spin and I’ll be holding your dick…”
Could we be watching the results of that call? Or is Van Sant seeking revenge against Cobain for some past offense? Casting Michael Pitt, and allowing the film to be used as a launching pad for Pitt’s music career (see DVD extras) can only be seen as a hard slap to Kurt Cobain’s posthumous face. Pitt is the worst kind of dabbling hack, and blurring the lines between his abilities and Cobain’s is a shameful error.
No, Christopher, no. It’s not an error if you comprehend the role of Van Sant’s “Befriend the Actor” strategy. What’s this? Van Sant the director becomes Van Sant the pushover ego-confirmer. This is a business strategy. It starts with the principle that Actors have The Real Power in Hollywood. If you have the actors on your side your fortune is secure. The way to remain on their side is to remain ever sensitive to their ego needs, and even beyond that, to their ownership needs. Make films which allow the actors to create their parts. Allow them to incorporate their beliefs, their sense of humor. Let them have fun, let them play, make it so it never feels like work, and they will love you. The film can bomb but they will still love you, and they will exert their power on your behalf to make sure you make more movies and make more money, win more awards, receive more critical acclaim. But remember, and this is crucial to the business strategy, never expect too much. Never demand too much of the actors. Do not push the actors or ever make them feel uncomfortable, or that they are not performing up to par. Always reinforce, always encourage, always praise. A good strategy is after one or two takes say, “That’s very good but I think you can do even better.” After the third take say “That was better” and after the fourth say “That’s the best.” Van Sant refashions himself as every actor’s God—an oracle of unquestioning whim, a yes-man in a “no” hat (given to him by them) with the unstated motto:
whatever pops into your cloudy head is gold.
Now obviously directors-actor relations have to be at least civil in order to get movies made, but I am making a serious allegation here. I am saying Gus Van Sant is the opposite of everything he is said to be. Last Days is the work of a business strategist. What we are seeing in his recent work, including the also horrible Gerry and Elephant is his attempt to establish relationships with young actors he is betting will be tomorrow’s power brokers in Hollywood. To ingratiate himself with the actors he has stooped to releasing the movie over to them, allowing them to write and direct it while crediting himself with the writing and directing and even insisting on title ownership—Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. Gus Van Sant’s ‘art’ is that of a mere business strategist for whom the quality of the product is the last concern. When you have a business strategy like his, and critics who will sign up to take you seriously (for a price), who needs a movie?