- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

Can high style constitute its own realism?

That was one of the questions that came up recently in a fascinating argument between the writers James Wood and Dan Green in the bookworm blogosphere. It could apply equally to the past few movies from writer-director Gus Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides.

The pair collaborated first on the uplifting mainstream drama “Finding Forrester” and more recently on the experimental mind-testers “Gerry” and “Elephant.” The former starred Matt Damon and Casey Affleck as two friends lost in the desert, while “Elephant” employed an ensemble of nonactors to stage a Columbine-like school massacre. But both took the same tack: a kind of mannered discursiveness that denies the viewer the benefits of omniscience or resolution.

Hazy time settings, seemingly never-ending tracking, as well as stationary camera shots, scenes repeated from multiple points of view — Mr. Van Sant’s artistic justification for his method is that he’s presenting us the world as it’s actually experienced through the distortions of human consciousness, rather than through the bourgeois tyrant fiction.

“Gus Van Sant’s Last Days,” opening today in the District, follows in the vein of “Gerry” and “Elephant.” It’s based marginally on the demise of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, who killed himself with a shotgun in 1994. The movie spares those details. It spares many details, such as what year it is, where we are (Seattle? Upstate New York?) and whom we’re watching.

The movie opens with someone resembling Mr. Cobain (“The Dreamers’” Michael Pitt) traipsing through the woods. He reaches a riverside, strips off his clothes and has a swim — no watery Virginia Woolf-style suicide, as seems possible, just a swim.

In Mr. Van Sant’s stately style of releasing droplets of information, one notices on Fake Cobain’s wrist a hospital identification band. Later, someone mentions rehab. One mystery solved. More to follow.

After his morning constitutional, Fake Cobain (eventually, we learn his name is Blake) returns home, a crumbly country estate with housemates whose sleeping habits bear no relation to normal business hours. (They are played by Luke Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green and Nicole Vicius, all of whom are referred to by their real first names — wink, wink.) In two of the movie’s most excruciatingly comical scenes, Blake and friends’ grungy paradise is invaded by a Yellow Pages adman and a pair of over-earnest Mormon proselytizers.

Blake, it finally emerges, is a successful rock star in serious need of supervision. But by those closest to him — it’s not clear whether they’re band mates or parasites or both — he’s treated with an almost malign neglect.

Mr. Van Sant is excellent at constructing the offbeat milieu, and Mr. Pitt adds to the movie’s authenticity by performing a few of his original songs on-screen. But Mr. Van Sant so painstakingly avoids narrative coherence that the movie never gains more than a visual traction.

With so little happening in each frame, the viewer is invited to speculate whether the filmmakers intended something meaningful to be taken from long exposures to the Boyz II Men music video “On Bended Knee” and the Velvet Underground song “Venus in Furs,” which (coincidentally?) includes the lyric “down on your bended knee.”

When a movie lingers for minutes on a man struggling with a box of macaroni and cheese, how else are you supposed to pass the time?

**a

TITLE: “Gus Van Sant’s Last Days”

RATING: R (Profanity, sexual content)

CREDITS: Written, directed and edited by Gus Van Sant. Produced by Mr. Van Sant and Dany Wolf. Cinematography by Harris Savides.

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.lastdaysmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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