Last Days - Gus Van Sant - USA 2004: Michael Pitt
Viewed Tyneside Film Theatre 20 Sept 05; Ticket - £6-00
Do what thou wilt
In his last two films GVS has turned to myth as structural device. In both Elephant and Last Days there is no doubt as to what will happen. It is mythically certain. The point is our relation to and understanding of what we have experienced.
In these two films GVS is not only employing a mythic structure but also taking up the central mythic theme of death and reworking it in the context of America as a necropolis, the new world of the dead. In GVS’ vision of America it is not only people who die whether they be superstar deities or ordinary folk. Something essential is dying: the idea of America. The America whose people are free to pursue happiness through the satiation of desire. America the last Titan, as an autophage, consuming her own constitution in which happiness is an object rather than a state of being.
Elephant and Last Days, are both observational in form. GVS’ camera takes a definitive role in relation to the action on screen, present yet detached, playing the part of quasi historical observer like a Pliny the Younger witnessing the eruption of Mt Versuvius. What we see is not explosion but implosion of a culture that has become a death centred. Both films are characterised by camera tracks that have the stylised movement of an Egyptian funerary procession. GVS uses these long tracks to follow the paths of the doomed young Americans. In their pacing and deliberation the camera movement is like a remodeling of the tomb paintings and friezes in the Valley of the Kings, where the Egyptian golden ones, bearing their treasure, process towards their deaths. Last Days and Elephant are ‘descending’ films in style and intent. They are constructed as long going downs into the earth. Going downs that are orderly and controlled without melodrama or fake emotion, going downs as a cultural observation.
GVS has centred his last two films around specific structures located in specific milieu. We know ancient Egypt though its surviving monumental structures. America too is observed through the portals of its architecture. In as much as the structures of ancient Egypt, the Pyramids, Karnak, the tombs of the Pharaohs directly communicate their obsession with the dead so GVS mediates the idea of the death of America through its contemporary vernacular architecture.
In ‘Elephant’ the victims have a sacrificial quality as if they were sleep walkers in some Nietschean parable where a mad man crashes into the school and cries out: “America is dead! America is dead!” No one hears. They are all walking towards oblivion. The students don’t understand that the society whose culture they are assimilating died years ago. No one notices. No questions are asked. They continue as if nothing has happened. Nothing can save them from being claimed by the forces unleashed. In some respects they are like the faithful trusting slaves and retainers whose throats were slit before being entombed with their ancient kings and queens.
GVS’ setting for ‘Elephant’ is the school, a building that has a sepulchral quality. Set in a vast headstone suburb the school is white and bony, a structure that encloses its inhabitants and sends them on long mazy journeys. Like a catacomb it is a sealed enclosed world, a perfect medium for the unremarked entry of avenging angels. The house in Last Days where the singer songwriter Blake(a character dedicated by GVS to the memory of Kurt Cobain) resides, is in itself a sepulchral peeling decaying edifice, harbouring an outhouse in the familiar shape of a Victorian mausoleum.
Last Days is centred on this big house in the woods. As the desert is the setting for the Pyramids so the woods are the setting for the big house. The natural world and the man made world exist as counter attractions for the human soul which becomes a virtual extension of the meaning embedded in these outer forms. The woods are part of the natural world and in entering them personal history becomes insignificant, only the body is important. In the woods there is the abrogation of individual destiny. To go into the house is to accept individual destiny, a destiny that is bound to culture and history.
The house in up state New York, which is the setting for Last Days, resembles one of those stone piles that are found everywhere in Scotland. Comprising many rooms the houses are labyrinthine, riddled with stairwells and passages. Mostly they were built by wealthy industrial magnates to serve a lifestyle and culture now gone. As with the monuments of Egypt, you can feel in these houses a permanently frozen way of life: the presence of the dead. Appropriately these buildings are usually very cold a phenomenon often mentioned by contemporary visitors to these houses in their hay day. In Last Days although the house is cold there are no fires in any of the grates. The only fire in Last Days is the bonfire Blake lights in the woods when it gets dark.
During the film I kept getting images of Alistair Crowley who owned one these Scottish piles called Baleskine situated by the edge of Loch Ness. Crowley is part of the drifting subterranean current of American / Californian thought forms. Crowley bought Baleskine in order to exploit its remote situation to further his ‘magik’, magik that revolved about the idea of the Great Invocations and calling up of the spirit world in particular the Egyptian spirit of Horus. His house like those Egyptian tombs with their multiple chambers became part of the world of the dead.
Crowley an interesting but bloated egotist was consumed by desires above all to be the greatest ‘ master mage’ of his generation. But Crowley by his own account nearly had his brains and sanity blasted away as a result of an invocation ritual that went out of his control. He was totally overwhelmed by what he had summoned and his inability to halt the process. He wandered about for days in shock at what he had called up into his presence.
There is something similar in the dazed existence of Blake. Blake has called up something which overwhelms him: the terrible forces latent in the idea of America. Its as if GVS is suggesting that the desires that fed Blake’s ego and drove him to his destiny as a rock stargod once satiated, assumed form of a terrifying and manifest presence that tore his mind apart. Unlike Crowley, Blake does not have the strength to take on these forces and physically survive. Most people don’t resist these types of demonic forces. They permit the dark powers possession of their souls whilst indulging the delusion born of their pride that there will be no price to pay. But the price to be paid for desire fulfilled is the human soul. And, ‘Do what thou wilt’, was the motto of Crowley.
Last Days is an examination of the flip side of Faustian myth. What happens to the soul unable to make the pact which is the everyday business of successful Americans? Its premise is that a society dedicated to the pursuit of individual desire at any cost creates a culture of death and destruction to protect itself. The obverse is that those who refuse or are unable to make this pact with the forces of success are either declared insane or driven to self annihilation. This is the state of affairs in America.
28 Sept 2005