Shortly before the end of Gus Van Sant's Last Days, the musician whose last days of the title we have been following, is found dead in the summer house by someone on the grounds. We watch as the body lies prostrate but at the same time a naked version of it gets up and leaves the clothed Blake (Michael Pitt). It is a provocative conclusion to a film that might be resistant to the religious but is willing to entertain the metaphysical. When Blake appears to leave his body, it may be metaphysically consistent with the brilliant scene halfway through the film when Blake goes into the rehearsal area and starts to play the various instruments. In this single-take, very slow, reverse zoom shot from outside the bay window, the camera moves further and further away from Blake as he plays one guitar, then another, starts to sing and performs on the drums. But as he moves from instrument to instrument, Van Sant allows the music that has been diegetic to become non-diegetic, so that the instrument he is playing continues as he moves on to the next, and by the end of the scene, with the shot now showing us a large section of the house, we also get a large section of a composed song.
All non-diegetic music is in a strict sense transcendent: it goes beyond the limits of the story being told and while we may hear it, usually the characters cannot. There have been plenty of examples where filmmakers have played on this diegetic/nondiegetic relationship, with a character in Taxi Driver putting on the record deck the very music we have been hearing non-diegetically in the film. In Blazing Saddles, an orchestra plays in the desert, while in Top Gun someone is singing a Jerry Lewis song in the bar and then we hear it non-diegetically when the film's two leading characters are riding on a motorbike. Critics sometimes call it the diegetic switch, but Van Sant offers it as neither clever nor funny and has found a very impressive way to do two important things at once. Firstly, he shows us how musicians might move towards comprising a piece in their head by showing us it actualised on the screen without showing all the musicians working together. It conveys the process. In Sympathy for the Devil, Jean-Luc Godard devotes much of his film to the creation of the song of the title but he does so with the various members of the Rolling Stones in the recording studio putting the piece together. More flamboyantly, in Amadeus, Milos Forman shows Mozart lying ill in bed while Salieri sits at a desk, quill in hand, taking down the maestro's creation. As Mozart starts to compose, he tries to explain to Salieri how the trumpets in D go with the harmony and we hear non-diegetically the very music Mozart is trying to explain. Godard's purpose is to demystify musical creation, showing the effort that goes into composing. Forman in some ways does the opposite: showing the effortless genius of Mozart as he composes a score. In Last Days, Van Sant is interested in the chaos of the hazy, stumbling and confused Blake managing to convey something of what is going on in his head while throughout the rest of the film he says hardly a word to anyone. Van Sant isn't quite saying that his music is no more than a reflection of his chaotic state but the director captures very well music that offers a far greater articulation than words could manage - at least for the fumbling and lost Blake.
It would be a great enough scene were it just about how to film music in the process of its creation (as Godard and Forman in their different ways offer), but Van Sant also seems to be asking what constitutes transcendent states; what is that make a body more than a body? In the film we see Blake making half-hearted efforts at feeding himself, taking chunks out of a chocolate bar while pouring milk on some Rice Krispies. Later he makes some pasta, and the packet ends up in the pan too. How high he happens to be and what drugs he happens to be on isn't clear, though comparisons with Kurt Cobain, who died with traces of heroin in his body, aren't accidental, nor incidental. A credit at the end notes that "although this film is inspired in part by the last days of Kurt Cobain, the film is a work of fiction and the characters and events portrayed in the film are fictional." But Van Sant perhaps wanted to make less a film about drugs, or about Cobain, than about a state beyond the mechanical nature of existence. "I can't keep going. I don't want to be part of the machine" the suicide note we see on the television news report says. If the film's conclusion offers an out-of-body experience as the naked spirit of Blake leaves his body and climbs upwards on a type of ladder, the earlier scene with the musical creation proposes an out-of-body experience of another sort too.
If the body is a burden, a weight that needs to be escaped, then we might also think of the terrible moment after Blake's death when the paramedics try and put him on a stretcher. They miss and he lands heavily on the floor. It has similarities with a scene much earlier in the film when Asia (Asia Argento) pushes open a door and Blake behind it falls on the threshold. She tries to lift him up and move him but though hardly a heavy man, someone who at 5' 11 and 174lbs (to give Pitt's general height and weight) is a lot heavier than the standard, large sacks of coal that the weak would struggle to lift. A body is a mass, Van Sant, makes clear, and if Blake wants to escape it, there is still the problem of living in it. When the band manager played by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon says, "have you talked to your daughter?" and Blake mumbles something about speaking to her on the telephone, and she adds, "do you say I'm sorry. That I'm a rock n roll cliche," this is the further reaches and the final stages of that cliche as we watch his demise. The director doesn't offer it as the climax to a life lived fully the ambition, success, the drink, drugs, big cars and houses but instead, where the materiality is reduced to the body this celebrity has to carry around with him. Van Sant doesn't show the materialism but instead the corporeality of a star whose stardom becomes incidental. It is offered in snatched phone conversations, the presence of a private investigator, the large but cold and crumbling house he is living in, and in the deference someone (played by Harmony Korine) shows him at a modest rock concert Blake briefly attends.
Other recent films with no interest in promoting the commercialisation of music have nevertheless offered the broadest of vistas, emphasised how famous their stars have become (Vox Lux, Annette, even the more mainstream A Star is Born), echoing the hysterical end of rock stardom found in Stardom, Tommy and The Rose. But Last Days follows Nic Roeg's Performance in focusing on the hermitic. However, while Roeg's film is a great work of decadence, with a gangster intermingling with a rock star and the fluidity of identities mixing with sexual possibilities, Van Sant's work here always seems on the side of the chaste, as though it is watching the sexual relations between the other characters in the house from a remove equal to Blake's post-libidinous condition. We may wonder who the characters are, what their sexual inclinations happen to be and who happens to be in or out of a relationship as we comprehend the entanglements from the outside. Asia is sleeping with Scott (Scott Green), and Luke (Lukas Haas) seems to be with Nicole (Nicole Vicius), and later we see Scott and Luke getting together. But nothing dramatic comes out of these liaisons even though Van Sant doesn't hold directly on Blake's point of view there are several scenes where Blake is absent, and the film could have given us more information since it wouldn't negate the form Last Days has adopted.
It is more than the form reflects a mood rather than generates a focalised story. There are brilliant films that remain very close to their characters (Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Seul contre tous) by making sure they are in almost every scene, and there are others that create complicity with someone by using numerous point of view shots as well (Rear Window, Vertigo, Le samourai), and others still that predicate the entire film on point of view (The Lady in the Lake, Le femme defendue and Hardcore Henry). It was as if Van Sant however needed to find a method that would allow for the opposite of identification and discovered it chiefly in the films of Bela Tarr. When asked, "Did you have an "inner Bla Tarr"?, he replied, "yes, because I didn't know that it was okay to do something until I saw someone else doing it." (Filmmaker Magazine) Invoking Bela Tarr, Chantal Akerman and Andrei Tarkovsky, Van Sant found in the early 2000s (in Gerry, Elephant and Last Days) a chance to work differently, allowing the films' style less to be focused on character and narrative than on mood and perspective. The most brilliant example of this in Last Days is where Blake puts together the song, but the entire film is predicated on remaining outside a character's motivational subjectivity. In the opening few minutes, our thus far unnamed character is shown in long shot passing through the woods, standing by the side of the river, going for a brief swim, and then urinating into the water from a rock. Day passes into night and we see him lighting a fire. He has nothing on him except the T-shirt, jeans, underwear and trainers, so, if lost, potentially in great trouble, and we might initially assume that like the two characters in Gerry a casual stroll has become a terrifying adventure. But no, shortly afterwards, he returns to a home that might not be so far away, and since there is no sense in which he is breaking into it, we might guess it to be his own. But what is he doing there as he goes into the summer house and then into the garden with a shovel?
Whatever curiosity Van Sant generates in these early few minutes, it has little to do with motivational subjectivity, the sort that allows a film to generate a story and often then finds a film vocabulary that will allow it to be told efficiently and clearly. Van Sant has made several such films himself, and notes that on Good Will Hunting he was covering shots that his cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffey wanted him to leave as long, single takes. "I hadn't really had that in mind. Pietro Scalia edited the film without any notes, and when he looked at it Jean-Yves almost fainted. It was so cut up. When we edited it more, we slowed it down, but we never used one angle exclusively, but I realized that we could have." (Filmmaker Magazine) It is interesting that Van Sant says he could have done so with Good Will Hunting as a filmmaker directing a thriller could not, or would find it more difficult to justify. The more a film focuses on action, the more it demands the motivationally subjective, the greater the likelihood of multiple character angles.
We can take for example Mission Impossible and A Perfect Murder; one an action thriller; the other a psychological thriller. In the former film, secret agent Nathan (Tom Cruise) rushes to a phone box and tells his boss that his team has been murdered and a file stolen. Director Brian De Palma offers about eight shots in a minute, and usually motivates the shots through the action as he offers a tighter low angle on Nathan when he expresses his frustration and a high angle from outside the phone box when the boss asks if he is being followed. There is exaggeration in De Palma's shot choices but there is little waste: it makes sense that it would cut to an exterior shot of the phone box to give us a better sense of the likelihood of Nathan being followed, and that tight long angle close up registers well enough Nathan's anxiety. The purpose is to register very strongly Nathan's motivational psychology and if Tom Cruise spends so much of his career running from one place to another (he of course runs to the phone box), it is usually with either a clear sense of why he is doing so, or at least aware of dangers he is escaping from. Much of Cruise's box-office success no doubt rests on his capacity to generate action motivation in everything he does, but it means neither character nor the audience is given much room to think. At best one calculates.
In A Perfect Murder that is exactly what Michael Douglas does and the form reflects the whirring mind of someone who expects his wife's painter/lover David (Viggo Mortensen) to murder her so that Steven (Douglas) can inherit her vast fortune. Steven needs the money he is a Wall Street financier whose investments have gone bad and David has little choice: Steven says he knows of David's previous convictions and his habit of dating rich women and going off with their money. The offer takes place in David's rundown loft space as Steven feels "knee-deep in bohemian cache", and the film doesn't skimp in creating a perfect encapsulation of motivational subjectivity. Here we have the plot laid out: for 500,000, David will kill Steve's wife, and disappear. As Steven lays out his plan, the film offers a shot counter shot approach matched by lighting that leaves anything outside the characters in a pool of darkness. They already look like guilty men under the police spotlight and director Andrew Davis throws in some clanking music to make us well aware of the risks involved and the crisis of conscience David must entertain. It is all very efficiently done but we are completely inside the diegesis, with no space for the sort of pensive observation Van Sant insists upon.
In both Mission Impossible and A Perfect Murder, we see how the viewer is harnessed into an experience that no matter how diegetically serious gives almost no sense of a broader threat; one that asks us only to watch the film and not to assume the film is watching us. Most films do watch us, taking into account what Leo Bersani and Ulysses Dutoit propose when writing on Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line in Forms of Being. "The voyeuristic enjoyment of being 'let in on' a world the camera has generously made available to our protected vision is naively unreflective; we are in reality confronted, looked at, by a point of view, a world already interpreted. Bersani and Dutoit offer an intricate exploration of Malick's film but what might be useful for us is to see how a work like Last Days manages to extricate itself from a look that films such as Mission Impossible and A Perfect Murder insist upon. The first of these is to assume that the angle of perception must be limited; the second, that the angles chosen cannot determine the events depicted. There is a good chance that a viewer watching De Palma and Davis's films with the sound off will know that Nathan is in danger and that Steven and David are in a tense exchange. In each case, the angle will change all the better to register the point the film pursues. When Nathan gets even more angry and frustrated, the camera goes in closer on his face; when Steven asks David if he has ever been to a particular place that reveals how he was involved with a rich older woman, the film gives us a frontal shot of David's visage. The angles are multiple and constantly modified to register mild shifts in the story.
In contrast, Van Sant wondered what would happen if the angle remained restricted: if it isn't quite telling the story through constantly shifting camera positions. He says his cinematographer, Harris Savides, noticed that in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, the camera only ever offers two angles in the kitchen; two angles in the living room. "Whenever we had a new space we had to choose a new angle, but we would always use that angle when we were in that room. Usually a room would have two or three angles. One angle would go east, one would go south, and one north, if you needed it. Usually we would only use two of those angles." (Filmmaker Magazine) Drama cannot be heightened in such an instance, it must always be contained, with the formal properties insisting if not on quite dictating the story nevertheless modifying the emotional register in which it can be told.
Van Sant is not as rigorous as Akerman but he offers an aesthetic close enough to the 'spiritual style' Susan Sontag proposes in her 1964 essay 'Spiritual Style in Robert Bresson', where she says: "the pull toward emotional involvement is counterbalanced by elements in the work that promote distance, disinterestedness, impartiality." If the form modifies feeling, that doesn't mean it eradicates it; only that the viewer is more inclined to take responsibility for its existence if the feeling is evident. We may or may not be moved by Blake's predicament in Last Days, but we will probably at least be troubled by it, and as much by the film's passivity towards its central character as the other characters' apparent indifference towards Blake's oblivious state. It is one thing to watch a film where the characters look on when someone seems like they are in distress, but what if the film is looking on at characters looking on? One of two options is readily available: an indifference that becomes threefold (the characters, the film and the viewer are all disengaged) or a new form of engagement takes place on the viewer's part. This might resemble a helpless concern while at the same time containing within it a preoccupation with form, and it is this paradox numerous works, of the type Sontag admires, practice. Van Sant was talking to Sontag at a Bela Tarr retrospective and said he had made his own Bela Tarr film with Gerry, and Sontag said that this is less plagiarism than inspiration: such films permit other filmmakers to offer a different type of aesthetic, one Savides noticed could be very formally precise indeed when taking a close look at Jeanne Dielman.
Yet the ostensible paradox is how, if filmmakers force upon us an awareness of form, they can at the same time assume there will be the presence of feeling. If we are constantly watching what the camera is doing, how can we focus on what we and the characters are going through? But this would be a false dichotomy; aren't we constantly in a state of cognitive and affective ambivalence while watching a film (and maybe more than in any other art form)? Aren't we aware that in a horror movie our terror and our humorous relief are in close conjunction, and that part of our laughter resides in how well the director has played us, how easily they have got us to jump from our seats? The viewer may not quite say the director tracked in on an apparently innocuous object, and then offered a loud off-screen sound after a moment of silence, but neither will someone watching a Bela Tarr or a Chantal Akerman film think that the shot has been held for a precise amount of time and at a particular angle. True, many viewers watching an Akerman or a Tarr are more likely to be aware of form than the typical horror film viewer (who may be much more astute on genre) but that isn't quite our point. The question is one of viewer involvement however it is formulated, and in the most intense horror film, or in the most apparently disengaged arthouse work, this paradox is apparent.
There is a scene in Last Days that makes this very clear, close to a cinematic version of the Gestalt effect, while, too, a character tells a story that is both very involving and thoroughly unbelievable. Here, Blake's friend Donovan drives to the house with a private investigator and the journey is viewed frontally, from outside the car, as the two men talk inside it. Van Sant doesn't just allow but insists the trees' reflections play off the window screen, creating a hallucinatory effect if we follow only the reflection and not the participants in the car. To alleviate the effect, we can focus on trying to make out Donovan and the investigator, and also focus on the story the detective tells about Billy Robinson, a vaudeville performer who resurfaced as a Chinese magician, Chung Ling Soo, after the success of Chinese performer Ching Ling Foo. Robinson shaved his head except for a tale at the back to look Chinese. There was much rivalry between the two magicians but Chung Ling Soo became the better known and his most famous trick was to hold a fired bullet in his teeth, eventually dying when a real bullet was fired accidentally instead of remaining within the chamber. While we listen to the story, we might assume that the investigator is making it up, a tall tale to while away the time during a drive, but the story is true more true than the magician trick he discusses, where Robinson would produce a bullet in his teeth that hadn't been fired from the gun but just looked like it had.
Certainly, the viewer isn't engaged in this scene as one might in a horror film that produces in us shock and laughter, but the affective principle is similar: we are ambivalently present within the scene giddy if we pay too much attention to the trees reflecting off the windshield; wondering if the investigator is telling the truth as he tells what sounds like the tallest of tales. In all films our responses can be divided between different things and different levels of engagement; we then are left to wonder how this is achieved and what the filmmaker seeks in that achievement. Sontag concludes her essay on Bresson by saying "the power of Bresson's...films lie in the fact that his purity and fastidiousness are not just an assertion about the resources of the cinema, as much as modern painting is mainly a comment in paint about painting. They are at the same time an idea about life, about what Cocteau called "inner style', about the most serious way of being human." ('Spiritual Style in the Film of Robert Bresson') It is all very well for Van Sant to use a style that is indebted to Tarr and that goes further back to Tarkovsky and Miklos Jancso (both invoked in the Filmmaker Magazine interview) but gaining permission over a style is an aesthetic decision that must surely contain within it a greater impulse. If that greater impulse isn't there, it does indeed become imitation, which might be the sincerest form of flattery but can also result in the insincerest form of art. How does Van Sant make Elephant, Gerry and especially, since that is our focus, Last Days, a film that is more than flattery?
In a sub-essay, 'A Little Boy in Ecstasy', Milan Kundera discusses amongst other things ecstasy and rock music. He says of the latter, "at jazz concerts people applaud. To applaud means: I have listened to you carefully and now I am declaring my appreciation. The music called "rock" changes the situation." Kundera reckons that people do not applaud at rock concerts (a dubious claim that needn't completely invalidate his point), which would indicate critical distance. Instead one surrenders "to the music; to scream along with the musicians, to merge with them; we come here to seek identification, not pleasure; effusion, not delight. We go into Ecstasy." Earlier he says, "ecstasy means being outside oneself," as indicated by the etymology of the Greek word, the act of leaving one's position (stasis). To be "outside oneself" does not mean outside the present moment, like a dreamer escaping in the past or the future. Just the opposite: ecstasy is absolute identity with the present moment, total forgetting of past and present." (Testaments Betrayed).
We have noted that Van Sant foregoes the frenzied aspect of many a rock star film like The Rose or Vox Lux. The film shows instead a person retreating into the wilderness as we initially might think we are watching a film closer to Into the Wild, where a young man tries to find himself in the wilderness, and increasingly isolated in it. If Blake has become as Gordon proposes a rock cliche (there is the suggestion he has come from rehab), then Van Sant has removed many of the conventions that the best rock and pop star films, like Vox-Lux and Annette, will question but still include. They are interested in the ecstasy, in that effusion rather than delight. But Van Sant has long been interested in youth culture, music and the excessive, saying "I'm attracted to ...people who are wild. But the self-destructive side comes out of the wild side. The wildness is very different from me. That's why I think I like it." (Guardian) In Last Days he offers the wild side retrospectively: Blake is clearly a rock star but rather than the big concerts there are small hints and small concerts. When he puts together a piece of music, this is a sound one would expect to hear played in a stadium; when he turns up at a local gig, one might assume this is the scene that he came out of and that his own music went far beyond. Yet there is also a scene where he sings solo, just a man and a guitar, resembling perhaps Elliott Smith, who scored half a dozen songs for Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, and took his life a couple of years before Last Days. Van Sant seems to ask, what does the musician seek when retreating from the ecstasy, from the crowds, the fame, the money and the success? If before it is all ecstasy; is there an alternative which isn't simply the agony?
In describing the scene where Blake plays several instruments and each one becomes part of the non-diegetic score as he puts each instrument down and picks ups another, we have noted that it is a brilliant example of a non-diegetic switch, original enough in its way to show that Van Sant wouldn't be a mere imitator even if he had nothing to pursue but the form. Yet if we link this scene to the end of the film, to the one where we see Blake nakedly leaving his body, we might wonder if Blake might be leaving his body in this earlier moment too, indicating that souls do leave bodies, but more prosaically note that souls, if people choose to call them souls, are leaving bodies all the time, imprinting themselves on matter in a song, in a poem, in a novel. The song exists initially as the matter in the body and becomes the matter in a record, CD or file. There is nothing mysterious here and would be wary of using a world like soul if Van Sant chose to end his film differently. But there the scene happens to be, with Blake lying dead in the summerhouse and Van Sant and Savides framing it with the windows at the front and back carrying different symbolic import, with symbol again not unproblematic were it not for the deliberation that seems to go into the frame. In the foreground, the imperial windows of the summer house suggest a prison, and the same windows in the rear might invoke Jacob's ladder, all the more so as we see the naked Blake climb up them. Here we have the body as the incarceration of the soul and the heavenly steps allowing for corporeal escape.
We have to be careful that we don't reduce the film to a religious message; nor read the image symbolically. Earlier in the film, Van Sant shows two identical Mormons turning up and stumbling their way towards an explanation of their beliefs, while the shot of Blake leaving his body is seen from the perspective, if not point of view, of the person who finds him. We might say that the presence of the Mormons and the scene of Blake leaving his body from another's perspective are there to accept transcendence without insisting on theology. In the context of the latter, it looks like he is in a prison and he is climbing Jacob's ladder. Another framing wouldn't have suggested this, and it is a partial view as readily as a religiously transcendent one. If somebody seeks a religious message in the ending then it is as if Van Sant offered the Mormon brothers as a mildly humorous exaggeration of God's powers, and then asks at the end of the film to see a transcendence that ought to be contained by a possible irony; rather like the bells ending Von Trier's Breaking the Waves. However, while Von Trier is interested in a religiosity that can be traced back to Kierkegaard, Van Sant's position might be closer to Emerson's remark when he says "one mode of the divine teaching is the incarnation of the spirit in a form..." ('The Over-Soul') if we see the scene we opened on as a great example of spirit given form in a manner that is impossible (how can Blake play several instruments at once?) and cinematically possible by the innovative way it offers diegetic switches, we can see the spirit leaves the body, or perhaps finds release from the body. Few watching the scene will be unable to see in it despair; that Blake is trying to deal with his demons while also producing music. There is a discordancy that feels more than just musical creation; it is as though he is trying to get something out of his system.
Yet he is also a musician who can get it out of his system without merely producing a frustrated noise. In his essay, Kundera says that people usually talk of ecstasy as a great mystical moment. "But there is such a thing as everyday, ordinary vulgar ecstasy: the ecstasy of anger, the ecstasy of speed at the wheel, the ecstasy of earsplitting noise, the ecstasy in the soccer stadium." (Testaments Betrayed). Blake's in this scene might be the ecstasy of anger meeting the ecstasy of transcending that anger with a musical gift that can turn irritated noise into a sound harmonious enough to the ear while still containing the rage of a frustrated situation. In such a moment he is both inside and outside his body, an ecstasy both contained and expulsive. In the scene at the end of the film, Blake doesn't leave his body in the Kunderan ecstatic sense, nor does he offer a transcendence Emerson suggests in the spirit of forms, in making something. Blake properly leaves his body here, but if we are right to say that people leave their body all the time, when playing an instrument, offering a word, when singing a chord, it passes into time with no trace. Obviously, the body usually remains as the expulsion is merely something said or something achieved, but Van Sant's provocation is that these are gestures of feeling that might be contained by a greater one which is the soul leaving the body en masse: the entire being exiting rather than a few words or notes.
We needn't believe in God to offer such a claim; only to see that Van Sant muses over what it might be to show somebody spending the whole film as though he is hardly in the world, in his body and in his mind, as though he is always already somewhere else. One might see this as self-hatred, to offer the title of the Nirvana song 'I Hate Myself and Want to Die', but perhaps instead it can be a hatred of self, a desire to go beyond its contours by more than the art that often leaves someone both themselves and the selves they have created. Blake leaves the film having left some music behind but also a body behind as well. How we take that may reside on which moment we regard as more significant. The one where he seems to leave his body for literally higher things, or the body that when they try to put it on a stretcher, falls off with a hard, body-as-matter, bump. But in between those two states there is the music he plays as he moves from one instrument to the next...
© Tony McKibbin