Jeremy's Ramblings, Babblings, and Other Pretentious Bullshit.
Friday, August 19, 2005
Last night, Brey and I sat in a dark room, populated by no more than ten people, and we all watched a young man walk around in a stupor for two hours before killing himself. All in all, a good time was had.

We went to see the movie "Last Days", the latest film from Gus Van Sant, whose career has been an interesting journey. After making his name on smaller films like "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho", he slid into mainstream directing with "Good Will Hunting", "To Die For", "Finding Forrester" and the unfortunate remake of "Psycho". Then, it seems like the 21st century came, and he decided to make the most anti-Hollywood American movies on the market.

His films have retreated to remote locations around California and the Northwest. They are populated by characters who speak in slurred tones and plod around their surroundings without drive or ambition. They literally wait for death to arrive.

"Last Days" is in many ways like Van Sant's last film "Elephant" in that it closely resembles an important topic of our generation (the suicide of Kurt Cobain and Columbine, respectively) without being a direct reflection of the event.

Within fifteen minutes of the start of the film, we see blonde-haired Blake, played by Michael Pitt, roaming around his large Seattle house, wearing a slip and holding a rifle. We know exactly how this movie is going to end. But like "Elephant" and "Gerry" (Van Sant's little-seen film where Matt Damon and Casey Affleck wander Death Valley looking for their car), it is not the destination that is important, but the journey to get there.

Over the course of the film, Blake retreats to the woods, locks himself in his greenhouse, composes a song or two, makes cereal, throws up, goes swimming, pretends to listen to friends, attends a concert, kills himself and puts an ad in the yellow pages (not in that order). Meanwhile, Mormons stop by and discuss their practices, a private investigator shows up, the phone keeps ringing and all sorts of sexual activity is taking place. However, Blake is disconnected from everything going on around him, almost as if he is already a ghost, floating above all that he sees.

The camera, meanwhile, follows his subject with the same distance. He is often seen in profile or from a distance, hiding behind his hair. Occasionally the shot lingers too long on a bush or a Boyz II Men music video. Even during a great monologue skillfully delivered by the awesome Ricky Jay, the shot is more focused on the reflections of trees on the car's windshield than it is on Jay himself. Up until the crucial close-up at the end of the film, it seems as if the camera doesn't really know Blake's there.

Van Sant, whose movies used to have sharp plotting and focus, now has become a director of moments. He is no longer concerned with the "why" behind his subjects. He now focuses on the "who" and "what". I imagine him spending studio meetings staring at a spider, speculating on its journey.

"Last Days" is very slow-paced, but most importantly, it is never boring. It is a fascinating look at a man who was so far removed from what his life used to be that his final moments were not a loud scream of despair (as is usually portrayed in rock biographies), but a lonely drift into nothingness.

However, it does beg the question: Is Van Sant working himself into a formula? He, along with cinematographer Harris Savides, have created three films in the last three years that feel the same and share similar themes. Having been familiar with these techniques since seeing "Gerry" its opening weekend in L.A., I was able to quickly assess the meandering tone of "Last Days" as "more of the same". But what about someone unfamiliar with the new Van Sant? How did they feel about the snail's pace? And now that Van Sant has shown that he can make this kind of movie several times over, when is going to go through yet another change? Or will he?

Perhaps this is the final chapter in a trilogy of films, all using the same techniques to explore different sides of loneliness. Seeing as his next project is an adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife", that's a very real possibility.

Speaking of premature death in storytellers (wow, I was really reaching on that transition), I want to give notice to someone who is unknown by most, but whose work has been loved worldwide. His name was Joe Ranft, and he was the head of the story department at Pixar Studios. He died in a car accident last Tuesday.

From "Toy Story" on, he helped shape the movies that changed the face of animation. His work on the stories were a crucial element to Pixar's success. The typical American family would not have given a shit about computer animation if they had not felt such a connection to its spokesmen, Buzz Lightyear and Woody. He supervised the story development of both "Toy Story" films, "A Bug's Life", "Monsters, Inc.", "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles" (he also provided the voices of Heimlich the Caterpillar in "A Bug's Life" and Wheezy the Penguin in "Toy Story 2").

The stories in these films proved to everyone (including partners/rivals Disney) what a family story could and should truly be. Pixar's films had an equal amount of juvenile jokes, witty one-liners, inside references to other films and by the end, a really poignant message that was always skillfully unearthed as the plot progressed.

Each Pixar screenplay is a masterwork, something to be studied by future writers. I was a big admirer, and I'm sure he will be missed.

R.I.P. Joe Ranft 1960 - 2005

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