An assignment on Gus Van Sant's Last Days

There is no development of character. Their inner conflicts, the various phases of their struggle as they wrestle with the Angle of the Lord, are never outwardly revealed. What we see is rather a concentration of suffering, the recurrent spasms of childbirth or of a snake sloughing off its skin.

André Bazin[1]

…leaving for no particular reason. Why we are leaving?

Luke, in Last Days

In a conference paper titled ‘formalism and critical evaluation’, Noël Carroll proposed us a way of critical evaluation other than the formalism approach. In opposition to the formalist’s claim that ‘works of art do not appear to make cognitive or moral claims’ and ‘truth cannot function as criterion of artistic excellence’, Carroll posited that in the realm of cinema, thought-provoking can be worthy if the content, moral or cognitive, is incorporated into an active (the opposite of ‘inept’, in his terms) form. Since different art requires different standard, while no moral value is connected to instrumental music, in the case of dramatic arts, content has to be taken into consideration in order to make ‘formal coherence both possible and intelligible’[2].

Such is the case, we believe, with Gus Van Sant’s Last Days. Many have complained about the apparently purposeless wandering of the protagonist and refuse to comprehend the inner emotional turmoil he went through in his last days. This, however, is of course what the film is all about. In order to express this inner happening into a cinematic form, the director uses varies cinematographic means including narrative structure, soundscape, long take and its according mise-en-scène, and especially a symbolic reference to Jesus Christ, whose suffering we are more ready to identify with. Indeed, religious inferences are abundant throughout the film, although they are rather more subtle compare to the direct depiction of ascension (or resurrection) near the end of the film. In the following we are trying to go through these inferences one by one and see how they amount to a point of culmination where there is no longer possible to ignore the analogy[3].

The film opens with a series of long shots where the protagonist, Blake, is seen wandering alone in the wildness. The symbolic meaning of this sequence is made clear if we reproduce its order in words: swamp & forest, river, fire, train and the fork of road ahead. Swamp and forest can be regarded as the indication of a critical moment in life, as Dante’s “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura”. As for river and fire, in many ways it reminds us of the river of Jordan and the forty days immediately after in the desert. His slow movement of undressing shows his seriousness and the waterfall conveys a strong sense of majesty and purity. The camera movement also helps to establish that he is getting visually bigger and higher moving into the foreground and standing on a rock. After the baptism, we are then shown the shot where Blake is sitting aside a campfire. We see that he takes off his shoes with a ritualistic serenity and contemplates (sometimes looking above him), resisting the temptation of Satan.

Unable to face the ordeal, he goes back to the house and dig up the cigar box. We are never shown the content of it. But it is probably heroin. Because immediately afterwards his behavior seems funny enough: a transvestite poking a shotgun around sleeping couples[4]. All this indicates that he is temporarily relieved of the pain.

There is another shot before the kitchen scene that confirms that we are witnessing a fight. While Blake is digging in the background, we see Scott and Asia sound sleep in the foreground and on the window sill, a TV set showing a Kumite sequence. Kumite signifies the fight. Our protagonist fights with his destiny and has his moment of weakness. We understand that the image in the TV is to illustrate the action of Blake because in this scene, the sound of digging is actually put to foreground while the sound of Kumite is more distant, thus reversing the visual order.

The immediate aftereffect of drugs is a new wave of depression. The conversation with the Yellow Page salesman shows that toward the end, Blake is no longer able to sustain. In the room with TV set, while on the screen a saccharine version of ‘On Bended Knee’ is playing, Blake is literally on bended knee due to an insufferable inner turmoil, supposedly invoked by this song. We hear on the sound track that whirling noise (very like a prolonged train whistling) is gaining momentum and finally suffocating the music. For some moment the music is completely gone which indicates a subjective experience of impaired hearing. When it is coming back, there are discernible church choral voices. After Blake finds his position leaning against the door, the music volume is almost normal, only to be ‘knocked down’, albeit briefly, by the sudden opening of door. Soon Asia is kneeling beside him and the music is again lowered down. This time we hear electronic ambient sound effects with touches of siren. Even Asia’s voice is altered electronically. After Asia left him, the music is back with full force and the shot is reversed. In a lengthy static close up, we are presented the rest of this song. Only when the song finishes do we see Blake again, apparently waking up from dozing off. It seems that this song has a hypnotizing effect on him and by now we can probably guess why.

The two Mormons bring up the subject of Jesus Christ both verbally and visually. A moment earlier the brothers are describing a revelation with ‘…here is my son Jesus Christ, hear him.’ Then a very effective cut presents us with Blake in the center of another room, opening a television. The connection is almost too obvious. But once it is established, everything the brothers say seem to make sense. Actually, one can imagine that the whole scene of proselytizing is designed to provide this cut and these so called ‘background information’.[5]

It pays to note that the aforementioned cut is also a temporal shift. The ‘On Bended Knee’ scene actually finishes some time before the Mormon brothers enter the house. Because after Asia has left Blake, she hears the doorbell and goes to fetch Scott. Scott then goes downstairs. But before he is able to answer the door, he has to answer the phone first. Furthermore, when the Mormons are talking, Blake is already somewhere outside since we see that he returns at the same time when the Mormons are leaving. However, there is still an ellipsis where neither are we shown Blake’s activity nor we know precisely how many time has elapsed. Thus we are unable even to guess what he sees that provokes him to write immediately when he is inside the tool shed.

While normally a disjunction in temporal order consists of either a flashback or a flashforward, the strategy used by Gus Van Sant fits in neither category. First of all, although the ‘On Bended Knee’ scene revealed a posteriori the detail of a prior event, it is not attributable to any character’s spasm of memory, thus lacks a narrative motivation. But if we try to regard it as a flashforward, we may also encounter an irresolvable difficulty that in the chronological order, the ‘flashed part’ is in the narrative present, not future. The strategy used here, which I choose to name as ‘snake tail’, has nothing to do with traditional ‘flashes’ that observing the laws of dramaturgy. These deferred details are there to reinforce a symbolic link or to convey a sense of structural arrangement.

When Blake is in the shed writing, we are again offered a very complex sound track which is not at all illustrated by the images. Like the previous ‘On Bended Knee’ scene, here the masterful deployment of an independent, complex, three-dimensional sound track has achieved a striking effect (No wonder Leslie Shatz won a prize in Cannes). In the foreground, we hear the sound of Blake’s ball pen and his mouthing. In the background, first we hear the tuning of a keyboard instrument (organ or harpsichord, I’m not sure), opening of doors, unknown electronic sound whirling pass (motorcyclist speeding on a highway). Then church bell tolls and people murmurs in a vast closed space. Then come more squeezed doors, bell tolls and incantation (all these remind of us with little doubt that we are experiencing a Mass) until the four people are getting into the scene. The sound of their approaching and entering the car now occupies the middle ground of the soundscape and pushes the bell etc. further towards the back.

In contrast with the prevailing promiscuous atmosphere in the house, Blake is ascetic. Sometimes he is extremely weak, other times exalted. But most of time he is alone and indifferent to his surroundings. A second earlier he is in the conversation, trying to pick the meaning of words; a second later he is speechless, absent. He is too immersed in his own suffering which none of his adherents are able to comprehend. Scott’s attitude is more or less an exemplar: to others it is ‘Blake is not here. None of us have seen him’ and to Luke, ‘you got to leave him alone.’

If we analogize Scott to Peter, who is always taking care of things, covering up Jesus and being the spokesman of the group, then Luke is more like John, with a tender and submissive disposition. And it is true that after Blake dies, they flee from the place out of fear, just like the disciples have done in Jerusalem. The director demonstrates their respective relationships to Blake using an interwoven narrative with two rewinds. When the gang of four get back and stay at the living room dancing to Venus in Furs, it is Scott who goes to Blake first asking for money, a material support. But we are only shown the end of their conversation in the view point of Luke. Then Luke goes to Blake in the music room asking for some help in the lyrics, a rather spiritual support. But again we are only shown the end of it when Scott comes in to interrupt them. It is only after several divergent scenes we are able to observe what really happens in these two scenes. In comparison with the ‘single snake tail’ narration introduced earlier, now we have a more advanced ‘multiple snake tail’ version which consists of three pieces of narrative coiled together.

The last night of his life, or rather dawn, Blake came back in a total darkness. Here the soundtrack is again suggesting water, with slight touch of wind-bell and guitar chord. When the wash job is finished, we hear a whistle accompanied briefly by a full orchestra, steps approaching, the opening of a door and the crowd that comes through it – the Mass is going to begin. Then he sited down. For the first time, we are able to take a good close up revealing his face. He is looking somewhere above him and his lips are moving, as if he is praying. In his eyes we see total drug-free sobriety. And again we hear church bell, choral voice and brief exchange of words. This sound track is presumably recorded in the same locale as the previous scene in shed.

The next morning, when the Grim Reaper appears with his scythe, Blake is found dead. We see in the superimposition a naked Blake getting up and turning around to climb an invisible stair (it looks like he is stepping on the very window pane). The soundtrack is simple enough: bird chirps. This ascension or imaginary resurrection is the culmination of all the inferences made throughout the film, unifying two sufferers, two human beings from different epochs of history, in the very moment of transcending.

Clément Janequin’s cheerful La Guerre plays at the end of the film. It seems to suggest that the resurrection is to be celebrated. From the chronological point of view, it is yet another ‘snake tail’ since we have seen in the previous scene when the ‘two guys and a girl’ decide to flee, these people are already on television.

For the sake of one possible interpretation, in our case, the symbolic link of Blake to Jesus Christ, various elements can be cited as supportive. But there are other notable passages where interesting uses of sound and camera movement are involved which do not directly support this view. Last Days is a work deliberately imbued with ambiguities. On one side it exploits, as we have been trying to demonstrate here, the established notion of suffering by an almost clichéd moral image: Jesus Christ; on the other hand, it seeks to neutralize, sometimes to destroy this notion, in another level. As soon as Blake bathes in the river, we see him pissing in it. Or if anybody tries seriously to pin down the reference of Jesus, Gus Van Sant might just ask, ‘do you believe a Jesus in women’s underwear?’ If moral content can be of any artistic value to the work, or even contribute an important potion of it, we need not hence to evaluate the film aesthetically according to its moral lesson. Whether or not Gus Van Sant’s portrait of Kurt Copain is accurate is not an issue, just like this reference to Jesus Christ is not an issue. The ability to evoke interpretation and effectively support them is good, but even better if it is designed to accommodate multiple interpretations. As Anne Sheppard put it, ‘The so called laws are conventions which an artist may exploit, but not a code by which artistic works must be judged... In general, a work which is rich in possibilities of interpretation will be a work which we find aesthetically valuable.’[6]

[1] André Bazin, What is Cinéma (volume I). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967: 134.

[2] Noël Carroll, ‘Formalism and Critical Evaluation.’ The Reasons of Art/L’art a ses raisons, ed. Peter J.McCormick. Ottawa : University of Ottawa Press, 1985 :327-335.

[3] Being a last reminder to the eyes of most insensitive beholders, this scene can be perceived by those who appreciate subtlety as too blatant.

[4] This is shown with a soundtrack that suggests water pouring or cleaning.

[5] But what the reaction of the others? ‘You guys talking to Jesus for real?’

[6] Anne Sheppard: Aesthetics, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art. London : Oxford University Press, 1987 : 76-93.


No comments:

Popular Posts

Blog Archive