Last Goodbyes

A friend of mine, Jeff Burke, is the drummer in this band out in Los Angeles, Teaneck. (They’re killer. Visit their site by following the “Teaneck Loves Me” link to the left on this site.) After the first time I saw him play, I asked him how he got into drumming, when, the whole shebang. He told me that he never considered playing music until he heard Nevermind by Nirvana. He told me that he got his parents to buy him a drum set and he would sit at it, listening to the album and drum along to it. (Dave Grohl is, obviously, one of his icons.)

This story is meant to illustrate one point: Nirvana is to the current crop of 20-something musicians what the Beatles were to the now-40-something musicians out there. Without Nirvana, the entire landscape of rock and roll as we know it would exist only in the imagination.

So when a movie comes around that indirectly directly takes on what the last days of the leader of that group might have been like leading up to his suicide, it’s absolutely astounding that it gets relegated to art house theaters, small crowds and limited theatrical engagements.

But that’s the fate of “Last Days,” Gus Van Zant’s idea of what the end of Kurt Cobain’s time on this earth might have been like — although, it’s not technically about Cobain. Technically.

“Last Days” follows Blake (Michael Pitt), a rock and roll star that bears an uncanny resemblance to the aforementioned Mr. Cobain, on a downward spiral. He’s cooped himself up in a dingy, dank old castle of a mansion somewhere in the Northwest. He takes long walks through the forested areas around his home, creates at-once dissonant and hauntingly amazing music in his in-home studio, and creeps around his home with a shotgun in the grandest Hunter Thompson tradition, pointing his gun at his housemates, three other musicians.

What everyone is doing there is rather unclear. From the bits and pieces we get — a hospital bracelet on Blake’s wrist, an angry phone call from a woman who is looking for Blake (a girlfriend or wife, perhaps?), a visit from another friend and a private investigator (played by the criminally underused Rickey Jay) sent by the angry woman, bandmates chastising Blake for not being on the up and up when it comes to their upcoming tour — leads us to believe Blake is trying to get himself together — or else hide from everyone and everything. If this is indeed a fictional account of Cobain’s last days, speculation has it that he felt overwhelmed by the fame and importance Nirvana came to represent by 1994, the year he killed himself, so the latter explanation for why Blake is at the house is fitting.

That’s neither here nor there. Van Zant isn’t concerned, really, about why Blake is in the situation he’s in. Instead, the focus is on how Blake handles it. And the answer is not well. Blake is constantly unhinged throughout the meager 90-minutes of “Last Days.” He passes out while watching a Boys II Men video, he puts the cereal box rather than the milk in the refrigerator after making his breakfast, he takes long, solitary walks around his property half-clothed, and he holes himself up alone at every opportunity. It doesn’t help that the people he has staying with him neither care or want to be there.

In many ways, Van Zant frames Blake’s plight as something akin to Shakespeare’s mad and aging kings — alone, solitary, in their kingdoms, surrounded by people who want to flee but don’t, for whatever reason, and when things finally break down, that’s when the king finally decides to end it. Such a comparison is especially apt in the scenes of Blake wandering his property at night, shrouded in fog and cold, as well as punctuated by scenes of him interacting with people. In one such scene, Blake wanders into town to go to a rock club. He’s shrouded in a sort of disguise — big sunglasses, hunter’s cap, large coat — and for the most part the charade works. When a person does recognize him, he only wants to talk to Blake about playing D&D with Jerry Garcia after a Grateful Dead show (apparently, according to the guy, Jerry’s a mean Dungeon Master). Here, though, no one else cares it’s Blake once the cat’s out of the bag. They just keep on moshing and grinding to whatever band is playing at the moment.

If Blake is the king of some sort of court, then his people have lost interest in their crazy lord on the hill.

Van Zant handles this subject matter well and without a hint of irony or a wink and a nod to say, “Hey, you know this is about Kurt, right? Right? Can’t wait to see him off himself, can you? Huh? Huh?” Larger, more financially successful biopics about musicians (“Great Balls of Fire” or “Ray” anyone?) don’t come anywhere near the depth and gravity Van Zant brings to his fictionalization of Kurt Cobain. Those other movies are so concerned with the tie-in soundtrack that the lives of these people are lost. “Last Days,” conversely, is almost totally devoid of music. There are a couple songs here and there, but they are 90% found in what is happening on screen. There is little filler soundtrack, and if you went to buy a soundtrack for the film you’d be out of luck — one wasn’t released.

And while “Ray” does have a killer soundtrack — genius, even — front and center is Jamie Foxx. Sure, he’s amazing. After all, who would have thought the guy who played Wanda on “In Loving Color” could pull off Ray Charles. But his Ray Charles is at best a dynamite impersonation aided by some prosthetics. Pitt, on the other hand, is freed from having to impersonate Cobain and instead interprets his seemingly larger-than-life persona. Pitt as Blake refocuses the Cobain legend into a fragile man who would only need a couple nudges to go off the edge. When Blake is found dead, the scene is played with a quiet intensity and reverence that is awe-inspiring. Van Zant never tells us how Blake does himself in; yes we see the shotgun, but there are also allusions to drug use so either one or both could be a factor. The climax of the scene, with the disembodied spirit of Blake climbing an invisible ladder up to who knows where, is one of the most beautiful moments seen in a theater in many years.

So much is crammed into the short running time that, at the end, you’re left astounded by the breathless beauty of it all. If an American filmmaker can legitimately be discussed in the same breath as Bergman, it’s Van Zant and his work on “Last Days.” The pallor of death and despair and humanism and fate lingers thick like the Northwestern fog. Every shot, even the much maligned “pretentious” ones of unflinching gaze that last many, many minutes, are steeped with an aura of fatality that few American filmmakers have ever managed to capture.

Not only is “Last Days” one of the best movies of 2005, it’s one of the most interesting of any year. But how many people have seen it, or will see it? Not many, certainly. In Pittsburgh, it was released last week, for one week only, at a small hole-in-the-wall theater in a suburban strip mall. How unfortunate that an honest to God example of great original American filmmaking would get the short shrift while such pap as “The Fog” remake and “Two for the Money” get multi-screen treatment at the many multiplexes in town.

Ironically, there was only one preview before “Last Days,” and that was for the Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk the Line.” Ironic because that Oscar bait will be given the same golden treatment as “Ray”: two, maybe three screens, for screenings of it all day and night all throughout the holiday season. And that’s not to say it’s bad — I haven’t seen it yet, so obviously I can’t render a judgment — but it looks and feels generic: a music icon went through some tough shit to get the fame and stardom we all know and enjoy.

Been there, done that.

“Last Days” examines the opposite end of the spectrum, how that fame and stardom we take for granted in our celebrities can bring them down — hard. Van Zant does things in “Last Days” that will amaze and grab you. It’s a tough film, to be sure; it’s short running time betrays the heavy humanity play at its core. But it’s damn fulfilling. And one of the best ways to spend an evening on cinema — even though it’s short, you’ll find yourself discussing and dissecting it for hours after.

(And starting Tuesday, October 25, you’ll be able to experience it over and over again — because on the 25th “Last Days” gets released on DVD. Talk about turn around.)