Ah, blessed stillness. Michael Bay in The Island can't hold a shot for more than five seconds, but Gus Van Sant opens Last Days with a take-stretching long shot of scrawny Michael Pitt, muttering and stumbling in the woods. Different strokes, and all that, but Van Sant's wholeness of image is no less woozy than Bay's ape-shit MTV-ing, though its disorientation is subtler, and intentional. What's striking about Van Sant's work (or, at least, his conceptual-art, post-Finding Forrester work) is what is missing from the shot, the painter's eye composing ravishingly within the claustrophobic spaces of the screen while scrambling to shoulder the characters' spiritual anguish. In a way, what's left out is a clear-cut explanation -- the shoot 'em up videogames and boys-in-the-shower bits in Elephant were like parodies of possible clarification when facing the horrors of Columbine. Last Days depicts (or, rather, evokes) another in a generation's defining pop-shocks, the death of Gen-X grunge rock staple Kurt Cobain. The sense of soulful, morbid passion emanating from the Nirvana frontman felt so pure (remember that I Hate Myself and I Want to Die was In Utero's original title) that his demise in 1994 at the age of 26 seemed not only inevitable, but the consummation of the death-as-liberation impulse that permeated his art.
Cobain's final days provide Van Sant with as determinist a framework as the traveling shots navigating the students to their high-school doom, yet the young rocker is an Invisible Man, the jumping-off point for the filmmaker's meditation on the death of beauty, and the beauty of death. As the fallen naïf, here rechristened "Blake," Pitt lets the iconic sandy hair and blond stubble do most of the acting, though providing masterful movements of corporeal discomfort, a soul no longer at ease in the world, or in his body. A "rock 'n' roll cliché," as someone says? Van Sant demands respectful distance: mid-shots are favored for the shaggy non-character, but close-ups are no less slippery when it comes to pinning him down. Lyrical opaqueness is infused in every act -- Pitt swimming in the nearby waterfall, then pissing into it; waffling into his mausoleum to fix a bowl of cereal or cook macaroni and cheese; donning black negligee, a shotgun and floppy Elmer Fudd cap. Band members and assorted buddies (including Asia Argento, Lukas Haas, and Scott Green) are camped out in the same house, but Blake is always isolated, never more alone than when sharing space with somebody, nodding off during an interview with a Yellow Pages representative. No more than four or five things he says make sense, though the rumbling inside his head, courtesy of Van Sant's magnificent multi-layered sound design, is august: cuckoo-clock chimes, zipping trains, faintly religious moaning.
With Gerry and Elephant, Van Sant has honed the aestheticizing-contemplating qualities of his camera, and in Last Days everything remains in mock-Cobain's druggy wavelength even when he's not in the screen -- a windshield, under which Ricky Jay dispenses magician anecdotes, becomes a glassy canvas for the shifting reflections of the trees up above. The narcotizing effects (fractured edits and temporal loops, "Venus in Furs" played sacramentally during one of the band's brooding-groping interludes) signal death-in-living limbo, the weight of the world bearing down even amid the openness of Nature. Life and art are braided to Blake, both equally tormented -- guitar plugged in, he conjures up a wall of dissonance to the languidly receding camera; later, in fixed setup, he groans out the appropriately Nirvanaesque "Dirge to Birth." A Boyz II Men video pops up on TV, and the young rocker keels over: how can he (or, for that matter, the tortured genius who created "Smells Like Teen Spirit") survive in a world where such pop-torture triumphs? Yet Blake is no sacrificial lamb; in Van Sant's profoundly dedramatrized distillation, his disintegrating perspective may be the one most in synch with the spiritual pain all around him, the "sickness" of "seeing clearly," as one of Bresson's nihilist-saintly youngsters once said. Indeed, the film could be seen as Van Sant's The Devil, Probably, a glide towards death culminating on a note of ludicrous grace that blasts purity into the musty summer air.
Van Sant kicked off his own art-house nirvana with Mala Noche, wadded through Good Will Hunting darkness only to come out the other end, revitalized, with Gerry-Elephant-Last Days. For fellow indie stalwart Richard Linklater, however, the esoteric-commercial-esoteric trajectory has been far less linear, with no visible strain -- there's no contradiction in going from the fluid tracking shots of Before Sunset to the kiddie-training montages of his latest, Bad News Bears. A remake of the 1976 comedy, of course, with all the dutiful updating: pissed-off fat kids in wheelchairs, a black ballplayer who worships Mark McGwire, non-alcoholic beer and a singalong to Clapton's "Cocaine" at Hooters. And Billy Bob Thornton as Walter Matthau. Actually, it's Billy Bob in dissolute Bad Santa gear, a former pro turned trailer-trash washout killing vermin when not dating strippers or spiking beer with whiskey. He also gets to stretch the PG-13 profanity limit, as befits a screenplay by the Bad Santa smartasses. "You guys look like the last shit I took," he snarls to the bumbling peewee baseball team he has to coach into semi-competence, though the kids more than hold their own in the cursing department -- Linklater knows enough not to futz with the original's special appeal, unwinsome kids with sewer-mouths.
The pint-sized scrappers push and razz and throw gloves at each other with gusto (Timmy Deters is the standout), but creative vulgarity does not a game win, so after finally snatching advertisement for their uniforms (from a "gentleman's club," natch), Thornton brings in his estranged demon-pitcher daughter (Sammi Kane Kraft). "I think I've just hit puberty," one of the kids says while Kraft slams one throw after another, but everybody who remembers Tatum O'Neal in the original knows she is already destined for the sulky, lanky-haired juvenile-delinquent star pitcher (Jeffrey Davies here). As the Bears smack their way toward a little-league showdown with their rivals (coached by Greg Kinnear), it's clear that the movie is more like a remake of Linklater's earlier slob-among-tots mainstream hit, The School of Rock (though, where Jack Black could only squeeze a Stevie Nick song out of principal Joan Cusack, here Thornton gets to bang milfy Marcia Gay Harden). By now, after such sweesawing of independent and studio projects, Linklater's style could have been as anonymous as Michael Ritchie's, yet his fondness for life and bustle come through, all the way to the last crane-out from the sweet toast of defeat to the U.S. flag fluttering in the wind... backwards?
Reviewed August 4, 2005.