Death becomes him

Gus Van Sant sounds off on mortality, Kurt Cobain and why there's no Courtney-like character

LAST DAYS written and directed by Gus Van Sant, with Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas and Asia Argento. 97 minutes. An Odeon release. Opens Friday (August 12). For venues and times, see Movies, page 90. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN

Cannes – Gus Van Sant tends to wait for you. He sits back in his chair, in a rumpled tan jacket and a T-shirt that looks like it lives in a hot dryer. His hair is wilfully unstyled, his eyes receptive and his lips a neutral line. He looks as placid as Andy Warhol, if Warhol had stayed in Pittsburgh.

Van Sant lacks spectacle. Instead, he uses his almost erotic passivity to draw spectacle to him. Lately, he’s been trading in fame, death and duration, transforming true American death cults into minimalist studies in intense observation. Gerry began the cycle that reached a peak with Elephant and concludes with the most mythic of all, Last Days.

“There’s three of them, so it’s a trilogy now,” he deadpans. “Unless there’s a fourth one.”

Van Sant is gnomic like that. He sits around a table at the Martinez Hotel flanked by producer Dany Wolf and cinematographer Harris Savides. Both men have worked on all three films, works that have brought rigorous art-world experiments to mainstream movie theatres. Elephant and Last Days were actually produced by HBO.

The trilogy might be temporary, but Van Sant has clearly found his signature style with the quiet audacity of these films. He says the Kurt Cobain idea came first, just two years after the singer’s 1994 suicide.

“I was going to shoot it myself,” he recalls. “I had a camera. It was going to be in 16mm, just in my house. But then I sold my house.”

He almost got the project up and running again in 2001. By then he had already decided that Michael Pitt would play Blake, the Cobain surrogate. He recalls pitching Universal Artists’ head Bingham Ray with the line “We don’t have a script, but we don’t want a script.”

That simplicity would be galling in a lesser filmmaker, but after missteps like Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and abortive experiments like his Psycho remake, Van Sant has hit on his own recipe for success: Build toward death. Use the emotion stored in a famous death. Decouple narrative from chronology. Mix well and chill.

“There’s a shot I saw today,” he says. (It turns out it was in Kim Ki-duk’s The Bow.) “Somebody was just getting into a boat, and the camera followed him and caught him.” He pauses, then says derisively, “It was a move.”

He looks to Savides on his left. “I thought, ‘We wouldn’t have done that. We would have just waited for him to come in. We would have asked what does the move mean?’ It’s a jazzy move, it’s a ha-cha-cha move.

“We don’t want to do that,” he concludes. “We want to make it without the jazzy elements that are just there to spice it up. We’re making it without spices.”

But why? Why strip something as pleasurable as camera movement down to the bare bones? What’s it in aid of?

“Truth,” he replies. “We’re thinking about more truthful representation that’s not about jazz or fog.”

For the same reason, Last Days excludes what might have been an obvious source of drama in a more conventional film: there’s no Courtney.

“She’s not in the movie because she wasn’t around during those last couple of days,” Van Sant says. “She would be a very colourful character to have in a movie,” he admits. “If we had wanted to use a Courtney-like character, we would have asked Courtney if that was okay before we avoided it because of lawsuits or something.”

Van Sant admits that death has “sort of been a focus” in the three films, and the death drive extends not just toward his subjects but toward the relentless effort to distill and reduce his style.

“Maybe it’s just a sense of mortality, at my advancing age of 52,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll snap out of it.”

LAST DAYS (Gus Van Sant)

Rating: NNNN

Last Days continues the minimalist observation Van Sant began in Gerry and Elephant. Here, the subject is the sad, spectacular suicide of a grunge-era rock star, or at least its prelude. Kurt Cobain is never mentioned, nor is Nirvana’s music heard, but the dirty-blond scruff and the sloppy cross-dressing are unmistakable. Composed of long, still takes rather than the eerie follow shots of Elephant and Gerry, Last Days comes off as an affectless portrait of an artist crumbling under pressure. Everyone around him wants something – from the Yellow Pages salesman to Sonic Youth vet Kim Gordon as a record company exec gently badgering the errant star. Coming after Elephant, this is vaguely underwhelming, but no less audacious.

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