Last Days ★★★★

Both this and Gerry are pretty crucial movies as far as Developing My Aesthetic go. The Straight Story was my intro to slow cinema, Yi Yi blew the gates open and Gerry conclusively demonstrated to me that I was totally up for Hard Art. I was worried before it came to town that it might be Too Much Movie for me; J. Hoberman’s closing diss was especially intimidating: “In a recent issue of Artforum, John Waters declared his allegiance in the most basic terms, admonishing his readers, ‘Don’t sleep with anybody who doesn’t love this film.’ Gerry is an undeniable curiosity, but to follow this advice, perverse even by Waters standards, may mean taking a de facto vow of celibacy.” But I went and saw it, and not only did I like it, I got it pretty much immediately: it’s a film that teaches you how to watch it as it goes along, in which the narrative is not a Narrative per se but the changing spatial arrangements and movements of two bodies in relation to each other, the landscape and the camera. If that sounds fun, then the shock and awe aesthetic will definitely power you through all 103 minutes.

If I had to choose, I’d give a slight edge to Last Days, which I saw at an Austin press screening post-freshman year of college. I loved it and came out positively buzzing, at the Dobie Mall (the now-closed four-screen arthouse housed in a mini-mall with almost no corporate stores, housed just below a private student housing tower). I went to get pho, and one of the four people in the screening turned to me. “What did you think?” they asked. “I loved it,” I told them, and they made a disgusted face. This is when I realized that some of the things I liked were definitely not only Not For Everybody, but alienating even to my presumable peers.

Last Days came out in close proximity to Dig!, which is the movie I’d pair it with. If you haven’t seen Dig!, it’s basically the funniest documentary ever made, a chronicle paralleling the obscenely easy uphill trajectory of the Dandy Warhols vs. Anton Newcombe’s self-inflicted downward spiral with the Brian Jonestown Massacre; in retrospect, it’s absolutely an appropriate epitaph for the tail end of indie rock’s ongoing cultural relevance (which I’d pin as winding down around 2005, but let’s not get into this, shall we?). Last Days is ostensibly set in the ‘90s, down to the Boyz II Men video shown in near-full, but the vibe is absolutely the same, and it’s very familiar to me (growing up in Austin around a bunch of kids who all wanted to be in bands is a very specific pocket that translates to a lot of college towns). Writing in 2005, Andrew O’Hehir observed: “although Van Sant is now in his 50s, he certainly emerged from a quasi-underground bohemia in Portland not too different from the later Cobain milieu. If you ever spent time in freezing, mouse-infested apartments and houses crowded with dusty amplifiers, encrusted spaghetti pots and jumbled stacks of naked LPs -- and, boy oh boy, I did -- Last Days may induce a cold sweat of nostalgia.” It did then, and it does now; I miss that time in my life, for better and worse.

One thing that puzzled me back when I saw it was a scene where Lukas Haas tells a long rambling story about hooking up with a girl in Japan, ghosting on her, feeling bad about it, writing a song on the topic and wanting to make it “really personal”; he’s clearly dunking on Rivers Cuomo and Pinkerton, which comes out of nowhere. I asked Van Sant about this during a Q&A; he laughed and said, “you’d have to ask Lukas,” explaining that there was no script. There was a three-page chart, listing all the scenes and where every character was at each point in time; all the dialogue was contributed by the actors. That still doesn’t exactly explain why Haas had a grudge against Cuomo (maybe he just thought he was a doofus, maybe it was personal, who knows?), but it does explain this movie’s method, which incorporates a lot of startlingly heterogeneous material: the non-actor Mormon missionaries, Harmony Korine as that one inevitable asshole at the hardcore show trying to sell people crappy drugs, that aforementioned Boyz II Men video. This is an interesting way to work: when Ricky Jay tells a story bout a magician who caught a bullet in his teeth, I don’t think that’s a metaphor for the dangers of artistic creation or whatever. It’s just a story about what’s on Ricky Jay’s mind, and that’s great.

When Michael Pitt is walking down the hill and falls down, the second time the camera holds and performs one of those Griffith wind-in-the-grass observational still shots. It’s a complete reset of priorities from narrative to visual and contemplative, and I don’t think I knew movies could do that. There are much worse formative films I could have seen at 19.

One thing I definitely didn’t know about at that age (and which I do now, unfortunately) is what someone nodding out on heroin or in withdrawal looks like. Pitt is scarily good and convincing in this. It is regrettable that this inspired him to have his own Nirvana rip-off band, Pagoda, who I saw as an opener; they were terrible.