10/40/70 - Last Days
In the book 10/40/70, author Nicholas Rombes recognizes the necessity of constraint as a means of liberating film criticism in the digital era. In this section of my reviews, I will be deploying the same techniques utilized by Rombes; analyzing the contents of the frames a film (released since the year 2000) contains at the 10 minute, 40 minute, and 70 minute marks.
These reviews will be posted every Wednesday.
Craigen Z Oster
Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005)
The process of actually capturing these stills angered me. I initially watched the film on DVD, which gave me a prompt forcing a choice between watching it in the 4:3 or 16:9 (widescreen) format. The soul behind the disc seemed to be pointing me towards the proper choice; it had to be 4:3. This was the "original theatrical release" format, as noted on the menu. The thought of what could be contained in the left and right edges of the frame slowly left my mind as Van Sant's methodical, unflinching camera worked me into a trance over its 97 minute exploration of the final days of drugged out young rock star.
I was left feeling sick to my stomach, not necessarily due to the events that transpire in this film (loosely based on rock icon Kurt Cobain), but more so due the way this film seems to answer whether so-called tragic deaths contain any meaning whatsoever.
When I revisited the film for this analysis, I had to rent and stream it on Prime Video in order to pause and capture the screenshots. What I found was what I'd forgotten, that what usually exists only hypothetically outside the edges of a film frame actually DID exist here, where the film was presented in the un-cropped, Van Sant DIS-approved format of 16:9. This left me with a decision to make: do I re-crop the images I was now capturing and act as if I hadn't see what was actually there all along? This once empty space was now made real. These missing pieces were always a part of the image itself.
I overcame this feeling by resigning myself to the fact that this is a director's medium, and for some odd reason, it felt like a betrayal of the vision of a filmmaker I admire so much to present his work in a way other than what he intended. Why do I care so much about this considering that he is someone I will never meet and these words, this presentation of his film, is something he will almost certainly never see?
I don't know if I can answer that question honestly. Undoubtedly, the bits on either side of the frames that I did see before cropping them myself likely found their way into my analysis below. To get at what discovering those sides of the images really means, I'd likely need to probe further, but all I can do for now is analyze the images that I have reconstructed to approximate the proper, Van Sant-Certified aspect ratio.
Blake (Michael Pitt), the Cobain-surrogate) stumbles along the side of a massive, cavernous stone estate. 10 minutes in, this is only the 9th shot of the film. By this point, anyone watching should now be aware that this isn't a regular biopic, or even a regular film for that matter. Physically, Blake is completely alone in the film up until this point. He has been wandering in a stream, sitting by a fire, and trekking through a forest. And yet, he is not alone, as the non-diegetic sounds of church bells ringing and voices in prayer can be heard in stark dissonance with leaves in the wind and Blake's incoherent mumblings and footsteps. Where is he? Are these sounds coming from the building beside him?
Just before this frame, a door is heard shutting. Is he entering a new space, shutting the door behind him, with yet another door to still pass through? Or has he actually left where he had been, closing off the possibility of a return?
Blake looks like a dirty Christ or Moses; long, stringy hair, dirty clothes that hang off of his frail, under-fed frame, and a staff. Yet this staff is actually a shovel. Blake must already know where he is headed; hence the evocations of church and prayer and the instrument of death in his hand. He has not left yet, but regardless, there is no turning back. He is in the space now between life and the ultimate annihilation of the self.
Out of context, one can barely make out what is even in this frame. The reflection of trees in a windshield muddles the vague shape and a bald man. This man, a detective played by Ricky Jay, is driving up the road to the stone mansion in which Blake lives with some of his friends and bandmates.
The detective's purpose for seeking out Blake isn't clear, and is made all the more confusing by the story he is in the middle of telling to the man currently driving him to the house. The story recounts the case of a magician who was famous for catching a bullet with his teeth, until one day he couldn't. According to the coroner, the detective recounts, he suffered "death by misadventure."
Why this framing? I suspect it is to distract from and undercut the potential allegorical aspects of the story being told by the detective. Its tempting to read this story as a 1:1 correlation to Blake's own life, but Van Sant focuses the viewer on the reflection of trees. They surround and envelop the man in the image, just as they did Blake in the previous frame at 10 minutes. Despite the feats of man and woman, ultimately, the natural world will experience a return to dominance, breaking down their structures (both physical and abstract) and erasing all notions of what man and woman have created through art and industry.
This image conjured the memory of the speech given by Will Oldham's character in David Lowery's film A Ghost Story. In this monologue, Oldham delivers what may be considered the ultimate message of the film: that no matter what, the entire world as we know it will be swallowed up in the grand vastness of space and the things that we have created, or attempted to leave behind as a legacy, will go right along with it. Even if after the world has ended and only a small society of humans remains and one of them does happen to remember Beethoven's Ode to Joy, eventually, the sun will implode and the Earth turned to nothing more than particles floating through space and time.
Is this what Van Sant is suggesting here? This magician has left somewhat of a legacy, but his entire existence has been reduced to the punchline of "death by misadventure" for the detective. How much longer before his existence degrades even further in to total nothingness? The same can be said for the detective himself, whose existence is already being obscured by the grandiosity of all things not him. Nothing persists, even the trees seen here are merely reflections of themselves, fleeting artifacts of what they were seconds prior that escape as the car continues on down the road.
Yet another obscured face. Van Sant's approach to slow cinema in this film often does away with the automatic empathizing function of the close-up, instead shooting in long-take wide shots, yet he pushes this even further by obscuring Blake's face consistently when he is the only person to look at in the frame. The viewer cannot see his emotion through facial expression, and instead is forced to look about and take in his surroundings and be an active participant in feeling this character's existence along with him.
In this frame, Blake again appears Christ-like, unkempt and humbly consuming a simple meal of box mac n cheese in simple bowl and wooden spoon. This is his last supper, experienced alone rather than in the company of his closest companions. His message will not be carried forth and there will be no second coming.
What gives me pause in this image though is the stain around corner of the cupboard in the right edge of the frame. How long has this kitchen gone without cleaning? How long have Blake and those also living in the house gone without cleaning themselves? These questions are obvious, but lead me to thinking that despite all that is conveyed in the previous images of the impermanence of life and all that humans can create, somehow, something gets left behind. Here, physical grease and grime from the hands of Blake, even after his ultimate death at the end of the film, will be sitting on the corner of that cupboard. Even once it is washed, and the sponge or cloth used is rinsed out in the sink, that residue will persist, even though it is in the most minute of particles.
Having recently read through Rombes' 10/40/70 once more, I've had the significance of the transition from the physical medium of analog film to the current digital medium weighing heavy on my mind. The digital creations, movies, songs, and the like will ultimately becomes truly nothing. All of that digital information can be eradicated. Yet films that exist on actual celluloid, even if they burn up or break down over time, will still persist in the smoke and dust they leave behind. There is never just one thing to take away from a film, and especially so in a Gus Van Sant film, but if there is one thing that is at the forefront, eating away at me, it is that maybe the physical is all that matters. The attempts at providing meaning to something after the fact, all ideas merely discussed and never written down, all the creative works that only exist in digital formats, all of that will seem to ultimately be eradicated. But the information contained within the physical, even if it is ultimately indecipherable, that can and will persist.