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Quarantine Double Feature: At Home Alone

Michael Pitt as Blake in Gus Van Sant's "Last Days." (Courtesy JustWatch)
Michael Pitt as Blake in Gus Van Sant's "Last Days." (Courtesy JustWatch)

Quarantine Double Feature is a series in which we pick two films available for streaming and discussion while we wait out this crisis at home. This week: At Home Alone.

Movies and moviegoing are inherently social affairs, and over these past 10 weeks at home, I’ve gravitated towards stories of camaraderie and fellow feeling. I’ve had no hankering to rewatch “Cast Away” for the same reasons you won’t catch me taking another look at “Contagion” right now, and in relative solitude, I’ve taken great comfort in vicariously enjoying companionship onscreen. Yet this grim week I found myself drawn to two stark cinematic portraits of isolation. Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days” and Robert Altman’s “Secret Honor” are fictionalized riffs on famous figures, speculating about their darkest hours at home, alone.

After an ill-fitting, post-“Good Will Hunting” victory lap in the Hollywood mainstream that yielded his baffling “Psycho” remake and the even more confounding feel-good “Finding Forrester,” director Gus Van Sant returned to his underground roots with a loose triptych of experimental films inspired by the slow cinema of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Based on actual events but hardly what could be called dramatizations, 2002’s “Gerry” starred Matt Damon and Casey Affleck as two hikers who get lost in the woods and are never found, while his 2003 Palme d’Or winner “Elephant” re-envisioned the Columbine massacre as an endless nightmare loop of hallways and corridors.

Absent any meaningful dialogue — the actors in “Gerry” speak a gibberish language in which the film’s title replaces most verbs — nor anything resembling conventional plotting, these stories are told entirely through the characters’ relationships to their physical surroundings. Pushing at the boundaries of dead air, durational excess and mesmeric repetition, the movies become abstract experiences in light and sound that work like viewer Rorschach tests. To say these experiments were not embraced by mass moviegoers is something of an understatement. The final film in what Van Sant calls his Death Trilogy, 2005’s “Last Days” played at local arthouses for exactly one week, during which a friend and I went to see it three times.

Michael Pitt as Blake in Gus Van Sant's "Last Days." (Courtesy JustWatch)
Michael Pitt as Blake in Gus Van Sant's "Last Days." (Courtesy JustWatch)

To my mind the masterpiece of the bunch, “Last Days” imagines the final 48 hours in the life of a junkie rock star obviously modeled on Kurt Cobain, hidden away in a crumbling manor deep in the Oregon woods. Here called Blake (presumably for legal reasons), he’s played by Michael Pitt under a matted mess of stringy, dyed blonde hair, nodding off and stuporously muttering his way around the estate. His eyes concealed from the camera, nearly everything Blake says is inaudible, while Van Sant and his brilliant cinematographer Harris Savides do their best to cram him into tiny corners of the boxy, 4:3 frame. There are a few houseguests and hangers-on hooking up in the other rooms but their presence barely registers to Blake. Even around other people, he’s alone.

In angry defiance of every grand, romantic movie cliché about doomed young geniuses meeting tragic early ends, “Last Days” is a squalid lament of crushing banality. Looking worse for wear than the paint peeling off these old walls, Blake drifts off mid-conversation with a courtly Yellow Pages ad salesman, and in one of my favorite scenes stares blankly at a television screen as the music video for Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” plays in its entirety. In what passes for the movie’s climactic action sequence, we observe in real time while a zonked Blake makes macaroni and cheese.

This mulishly stubborn lack of incident is not just purposeful but also the film’s entire point. To watch “Last Days” is to witness a soul in anguish, willfully receding from the world around him. The droning incantations of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” return to the soundtrack more than once, with an emphasis on the lyrics, “I am tired / I am weary / I could sleep for a thousand years.” This is a biopic without any biographical information, about a musician whose songs we never hear. It’s about a pain that cannot be shared nor comprehended but merely observed from a distance. In form and design “Last Days” is, as its subject so famously sang, “a denial / a denial / a denial.”

Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's "Secret Honor." (Courtesy JustWatch)
Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's "Secret Honor." (Courtesy JustWatch)

During his decade of exile from Hollywood following the ignominious reception of “Popeye,” director Robert Altman embarked on a fascinating, underappreciated chapter of his career staging low-budget theatrical adaptations. Works for television like Showtime’s 1982 “Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” or his slyly subversive “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” for CBS in 1988 found the iconoclastic director trying to forge a new hybrid form somewhere between a film and a play. Unlike the loosey-goosey, heavily improvised theatrical features that made him a movie legend, these productions were carefully blocked for the camera and stringently faithful to the written word, yet remained refracted through the wandering, prismatic POVs we’d come to expect from Altman.

The most acclaimed of these experiments was 1984’s “Secret Honor,” a 16mm film of a one-man-show starring Philip Baker Hall as the disgraced Richard Nixon, alone in his study with a pistol and a bottle of Chivas Regal. Set at an unspecified time after his resignation, the film follows a long, dark night of the soul with an increasingly drunk and unhinged Tricky Dick dictating a memoir and soggy self-deceptions to a tape recorder while painted portraits of former presidents glare disapprovingly downward from the walls. It’s a towering performance by Hall — the kind of work that was seen by enough casting directors to turn a struggling character actor into a familiar mainstay of film and television for the next few decades, whether as Javert-like library cop on “Seinfeld” or the flawed father figure of Paul Thomas Anderson’s early pictures.

Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's "Secret Honor." (Courtesy JustWatch)
Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's "Secret Honor." (Courtesy JustWatch)

Ever the hustler, Altman fell in love with the Los Angeles stage production and figured out a way to get such an uncommercial picture made by turning it into a project for a cinema class he was teaching at the University of Michigan, shooting the movie on campus with his students filling out crew positions. (This is presumably the only film about an American president ever photographed entirely in a woman’s dormitory building.) The threadbare production provides just enough room for Hall’s powerhouse performance and Altman’s visual pyrotechnics, which splinter the image throughout a bank of security video monitors as the character’s psyche becomes increasingly fragmented.

The monologue barrels through an intensive crash course in Nixon history, with a barrage of racist slurs and profane tirades that echo everything we’ve heard on the tapes, plus the added bonus of a cockamamie conspiracy theory that’s more likely the product of a Scotch-soaked mind trying to convince himself that this wasn’t all really his fault. Hall brings a Shakespearean grandeur to the character, an underdog overwhelmed by his petty resentments with an intense physicality that’s at times exhausting to watch. (Altman liked to say that the actor lost at least three pounds every time he performed the play.)

I’m always happy to see “Secret Honor” but I’m never unhappy to see it end. However cleverly Altman layers the visuals, 90 minutes is still a long time to spend locked in a room with a ranting, delusional POTUS. But then again for a lot of us, that’s what the past four years have felt like.


“Last Days” is streaming on HBO and available to rent on most video on demand outlets. “Secret Honor” is streaming on The Criterion Channel and available to rent on most video on demand outlets.

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Sean Burns Twitter Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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