Don’t be fooled. Not so much an “artistic rebirth” as Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr’s afterbirth, Gus Van Sant’s KC meets JC minstrel show Last Days coasts into theaters this weekend on a wave of exuberant praise buttressed by the near unimpeachable hipster cred of its ostensible subject matter. The “m” word’s getting tossed around fairly freely, but it amazes me how seriously GVS is taken in light of his slavish pillaging of the aesthetic strategies of a direct contemporary. After three attempts at trying to get into Bela’s head, can anyone honestly argue that Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days offer any sequences as awesomely powerful as the hospital ransacking in Werckmeister Harmonies, or the little girl’s suicide in Satantango? Yet GVS gets off with mere nods at his theft while his source texts remain nearly impossible to see.
To be fair, Last Days does offer one sequence that brushes as close to visionary as we could reasonably expect: watching Michael Pitt’s Blake lurch around a makeshift recording studio, looping himself on every instrument in the room to produce a thick, monster drone, while the camera zooms slowly, inexorably away marks a rare moment where the film manages to force its borrowed aesthetic into some kind of true relationship to its subject. Putting the camera in awkward places and holding for minutes at a stretch shouldn’t automatically convey the inscrutable profundity of suicide, but this slow zoom gets across the intense constricting pressure of the necessity to produce for a living, especially in the face of a desire to withdraw and just get some noise out for personal rather than mass consumption. But it’s hard to say that his success here erases the bad taste of watching Kurt/Blake played for laughs in a pair of kitchen mishaps (Look! Blake put the choco-crispies in the fridge and not the milk! What a cute drug-addled rock star!) and the conclusion which strives so transparently (literally and figuratively) for transcendence that it’s almost craven.
I once spoke with Kazakh filmmaker Darezhan Omirbaev about his use in The Killer of a clip from Aleksandr Sokurov’s Madame Bovary adaptation Save and Preserve. Sokurov’s sequence was played for laughs, and when I asked him for his thoughts on the Russian filmmaker he responded simply, “No one asked him to pick up where Tarkovsky left off.” (paraphrased slightly) The charge struck me as a little unfair as films like Stone and Whispering Pages certainly, in my mind, push the limits of reasonable comparisons to Tarkovsky’s work. And maybe, perhaps, I’m being a bit unjust in reducing GVS to a mere toady riding Bela’s coattails. But, a few times while I watched Last Days, I idly wondered, Would I really be enjoying anything about this had it been directed by someone other than Gus Van Sant? I had to be honest—No, no I absolutely wouldn’t.