Beyond the Multiplex

Gus Van Sant takes on Kurt Cobain. Plus: A rowdy Berlin adventure for the anti-globalization crowd and a devastating Chechen war documentary.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 21, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

In the early days of this column, I broached a half-baked theory that arty indie films pretty much fell into one of two categories, those being Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch. Most readers treated this hypothesis with all the gravity and respect it had earned (i.e., none), but a few of you admitted that I had blundered, perhaps accidentally, upon a categorical distinction.

Gus Van Sant may represent the precise middle point between those two poles; he's got the calculated strangeness and sometimes the formal obscurantism of Lynch, mixed with the drifty, middle-distance chilliness of Jarmusch. Maybe that's why I've never liked him. No, that's not totally fair. I've never quite gotten Van Sant's movies, even the allegedly important ones like "Drugstore Cowboy" or "My Own Private Idaho," because they seem so profoundly passionless (something I've never felt about Jarmusch or Lynch).

Van Sant wants to portray characters who are emotionally isolated, ambivalent to their surroundings, unsure whether they want to live or die. Great. But Shakespeare didn't convey Hamlet's existential angst by writing a murky, mumbly mood piece that never goes anywhere. In the guise of portraying disaffection, Van Sant made movies with no affect whatever -- and a small but devoted art-damaged '90s audience ate them up.

As tough as it is to revise a cherished opinion, I have to give Van Sant a shout for the willfully difficult work he has done since decamping from Hollywood (after the schmaltz-fests of "Good Will Hunting" and "Finding Forrester"). I didn't much enjoy either "Gerry," his two-hander with Casey Affleck and Matt Damon lost in the desert, or "Elephant," his quasi-documentary, quasi-Columbine drama, but in both cases the craft, economy and formal complexity were impressive.

"Last Days," Van Sant's much-anticipated new film that's more or less about the death of Kurt Cobain, is the crowning achievement of Van Sant's return to the art house. Again, I can't really say I liked it; it's a supremely unfriendly picture that doesn't so much shed light on Cobain's epoch-making suicide as enclose it in a cone of darkness. But in its almost sadistic level of realism, and its refusal to pander to any imaginable audience, it's a work of high integrity.

I could complain that Gus Van Sant is a borderline celebrity in the film world, while Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo, a superior artist in every respect, is barely known outside arty European circles. (She certainly wasn't known to me until very recently.) But that's pretty dumb: Fame doesn't guarantee talent, and vice versa! Wah wah wah! The real point is that if you get a chance to see Honkasalo's new film "The 3 Rooms of Melancholia" -- and you can get past that lugubrious title -- please don't pass it up. Yes, it's a documentary, and yes, it's about the Chechen war, but those facts are fundamentally inadequate. It's a beautiful, moving, mysterious film, and genres can't hold it.

In this busy summer season -- while the studios are cranking out their worst medium-budget crap in July and August, some of the most ambitious stuff appears on the margins -- we've also got an exciting low-budget political thriller for the anti-globalization crowd, an engaging documentary about a pioneer environmentalist and a horror movie so disgusting and amoral that even I had qualms about it. See them all immediately.

"Last Days": The death of rock 'n' roll, with a bowl of Cocoa Puffs on the side
There's a lot I didn't understand about Gus Van Sant's "Last Days." Well, OK, that's a facetious comment. There's not that much to understand: Playing a knife-blade-skinny Pacific Northwest rock star named Blake with a strong resemblance to you-know-who, Michael Pitt barely speaks an intelligible sentence in the whole movie (except to a Yellow Pages salesman). He wanders around his decrepit, filthy mansion mumbling to himself, dressed variously in a woman's slip, or as Elmer Fudd hunting Bugs Bunny, or as Admiral Peary on his way to the pole. He can't quite stand up, but can't quite lie down. He goes swimming. He digs up a box in the yard, but we don't really know what's in it. (Or maybe we do.) He eats chocolate cereal. He eats packaged macaroni and cheese. He kills himself.

At first you think, oh, this is the sort of movie that has a pretty abstract beginning before it introduces its characters, establishes its narrative context, gets us launched on some kind of plot. Nope. "Last Days" has stuff in it, all right: almost an entire video by Boyz II Men, an appearance by Mormon twin-brother missionaries, a red-herring subplot involving a private eye played by magician Ricky Jay, the same events observed repeatedly from different points of view, an intricately constructed soundscape that's almost as important as what you see on the screen. It's a meticulous nest of interlocking elements, not at all haphazard. But in its unrelieved bleakness and singularity of vision, it supplies very little in the way of conventional movieness.

Blake has an incestuous posse of hangers-on in his house, including an asshole band mate (Scott Green) who keeps listening to the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs," a geeky acolyte (Lukas Haas) and a couple of unspecified chicks (Asia Argento and Nicole Vicius). But we learn almost nothing about them, except that they're almost aggressively unconcerned about Blake. It's a household of sad, selfish and cruel children, incapable of caring for themselves or others.

What's startling about "Last Days" is both the pinpoint accuracy of its depiction -- not necessarily of Cobain, but of the indie-rock lifestyle he epitomized -- and the force of its indictment. Although Van Sant is now in his 50s, he certainly emerged from a quasi-underground bohemia in Portland not too different from the later Cobain milieu. If you ever spent time in freezing, mouse-infested apartments and houses crowded with dusty amplifiers, encrusted spaghetti pots and jumbled stacks of naked LPs -- and, boy oh boy, I did -- "Last Days" may induce a cold sweat of nostalgia. All Blake does with his fame and wealth, in Van Sant's version, is inscribe that dreary, unshampooed lifestyle on a larger canvas.

Kim Gordon of the legendary indie-rock band Sonic Youth shows up here as a record executive trying to rescue Blake. Is this ironic casting? Not really. Like her husband and band mate Thurston Moore (Van Sant's musical consultant for this film), Gordon is living proof that not everyone from the alt-rock scene went through the dramatic self-absorption, and suicidal excess, represented by Cobain.

"Do you talk to your daughter?" Gordon's character asks Blake. "Do you say you're sorry for being a rock 'n' roll cliché?" This might be the only scene in "Last Days" where people actually speak to each other and communicate, and of course it's fruitless. The old Van Sant would have focused on the damaged beauty of Blake's body and soul; the new Van Sant is at least trying to steel himself against all that. "Last Days" describes not just the death of a talented, damaged person but the dead end of a self-indulgent alternative culture that had worn itself out and run out of ideas. You can actually listen to "Venus in Furs" too many times.

"Last Days" opens July 22 in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, with a wider release to follow.

"The Edukators": Big dreams, free love and the spirit of Seattle, alive in old Europe
Enthralling, energetic and willfully naive, German director Hans Weingartner's "The Edukators" might be the first feature film made by and for the post-Seattle generation of anti-globalization leftists. It's a movie that dares to ask big questions and dream big dreams without resorting to smirk or snark. Just as important, it's also an engaging entertainment that packages its thought-provoking ideas in a combination of political thriller, comic adventure and romantic triangle.

Berlin buddies Jan (Daniel Brühl of "Goodbye Lenin") and Peter (Stipe Erceg) are shaggy 20-something radical-squatter types, a bit too sure of their ideas but basically likable. Their contribution to the future of the human race is to break into rich people's houses and rearrange the furniture in absurd combinations, leaving only cryptic notes behind: "You have too much money" or "Your days of plenty are numbered." (The latter phrase, more or less, is the film's German title.)

Peter's girlfriend, Jule (Julia Jentsch), a severe, downcast girl who gradually starts to look beautiful the more you see of her, doesn't share their political fervor. But she slaves as a waitress to pay off the 90,000 euros she owes to an executive whose Mercedes she rear-ended on the autobahn when her insurance was expired. At first Jule doesn't like Jan, who's the real ideologue of the Edukator duo. But when Peter heads off to Barcelona, Spain, for the weekend, one thing leads to another, and Jule persuades Jan to break into the suburban villa belonging to Hardenberg (Burghart Klaussner), the evil Mercedes owner. Illicit snogging in the indoor pool ensues, but Jule wants to trash the house -- and things go wrong pretty fast and pretty dramatically.

I won't give away the plot thereafter, except to say that all three of our not-quite-committed revolutionaries wind up in a mountain cabin, with Hardenberg along as a half-inadvertent kidnap victim. Jan, Peter and Jule have to decide if they're just postmodern vandals or a latter-day incarnation of the Baader-Meinhof gang. Not only that, they have to figure out who's sleeping with whom, where to score some decent pot in the middle of nowhere, and how to deal with the fact that zillionaire corporate manager Hardenberg is more complicated than they suspected. (Hint: He wants to get stoned as much as they do.)

"The Edukators" was made on a low budget and shot on digital video with only natural light. I'm sure it would have looked more polished on celluloid, but its rough-edged aesthetic matches its mood and its themes. All four of the major actors are terrific, and it's a brash and challenging work. This is a movie that will either make you happy or make you angry, but it's never cheap or cowardly. If it asks broad-brush questions about why the world is the way it is, it also refuses to be hemmed in by them.

I spoke to Weingartner on the phone from Berlin, where he lived as a squatter for several years in his 20s. (He's now 35 and living, he admits, a more bourgeois existence.) He never did anything as adventurous as Jan and Peter, he says, but "there's a personal background behind the film. I was always politically interested; I always wanted to ask questions: Is it still possible to change the world, or should we give up?"

Young Europeans like Jan and Peter, he suggests, want "to ask questions that may sound naive, but they haven't been asked in many years. Why do some people get rich and then richer, while other people get poorer? Before 1989, you were called a Communist if you dared to ask these questions. Now communism is over, and we can start to rethink the economic system we live in. Right now it's just pure neoliberal capitalism, and it's not going to work out."

In America, I suggested to him, we perceive Western Europe as generally harmonious societies that mostly lack the extremes of rich and poor we see at home. In that sense, "The Edukators" depicts a more divided Europe that has arisen since '89.

"In Germany, we have 10 percent unemployment now," Weingartner says. "Last year Deutsche Bank made the biggest profit in its history, and on the same day they announced they would fire 6,500 people. That's what's happening in Europe. These harmonized societies with democratic rules and social systems -- they're about to break up."

But "The Edukators" isn't meant, he says, to be "a film about the negative effects of globalization. It's asking the question: Why is it important to rebel when you're young? I believe it's your job when you're young -- you resist the power of your parents, and then the power of society. It's healthy and it leads to change. Those in power want everything to stay the way it is; young people come along and want to change everything. The result is evolution.

"This is a natural dynamic that has worked for hundreds of years. But I think it has come to a stop. Nowadays revolution is sold to us as a product. Buy a record by Pink or Avril Lavigne, and you're a rebel. It's a lie. I hope that people don't buy a ticket to this movie and think they are revolutionaries."

In Germany "The Edukators" has already become a hit, and more than that, Weingartner says, "it has triggered a fundamental discussion about capitalism. Groups of activists have started to copycat the Edukators. In Hamburg, 40 activists stormed into the most expensive restaurant wearing carnival masks, with T-shirts saying 'Your days of plenty are numbered.' They took all the expensive food off the buffet and handed out leaflets explaining that the employees work for minimum wage. It made the front page all over Germany. It was nonviolent and it also had a sense of humor. I was very happy."

The dark cloud that hangs over this mostly cheerful film is the threat of violence, both by the police and by the young activists themselves. They don't mean to kidnap Hardenberg, but once they do, the question of what to do with him becomes ever more troublesome. Peter, the most hotheaded of the three, raises the idea of killing him. "In the '70s, we had left-wing activists who became, step by step, terrorists," Weingartner says. "I, as well as the characters in my movie, have learned from history. I think it's morally wrong to use violence for political means, and it also doesn't function. It only makes the system stronger, gives the system an excuse to increase police power, increase surveillance, increase repression."

One of the film's biggest surprises is the character of Hardenberg, wonderfully played by Klaussner as a former '60s rebel who has become exactly the kind of suit-wearing executive he once battled against. Genuinely terrified and angry at being kidnapped, he is gradually seduced by the Edukators' romantic idealism -- and slowly but surely becomes an important force in their bucolic household.

"One theme of the movie is that it was easy to be a revolutionary in '68," Weingartner says. "You had long hair and you smoked dope; your parents shouted at you. Sexual morality was very rigid. In Germany the old Nazis were still in power. Now the enemy is not there, or not so obvious. The system is hiding behind a friendly mask.

"Hardenberg is a human being, and human beings are very complicated. He has two hearts in his chest -- his revolutionary heart is still there; he has repressed it for 20 years. But even today, as a top manager, he is not evil. It's not the people who are evil. Bill Gates is not the reason why the system is unfair; he's not evil. That's a Hollywood attitude, or a George Bush attitude -- we have to kill the bad guys, and then we'll have peace on earth. Mostly I want people to laugh. I hope the movie is fun. If you laugh at Darth Vader, you're not afraid of him anymore."

"The Edukators" opens July 22 in New York, July 29 in Los Angeles and Aug. 5 in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco (and the Bay Area), Seattle and Washington, with many other cities to follow.

"The 3 Rooms of Melancholia": Insert cliché about children and war here -- then abandon
Pirjo Honkasalo's devastating war documentary "The 3 Rooms of Melancholia" is one of those films you have to allow yourself to surrender to, bit by bit, without worrying too much where it's taking you or why. Most of what goes under the name of documentary film these days, as I constantly complain, is just second-rate TV journalism. Finnish filmmaker Honkasalo is an entirely different animal, an artist with a piercing eye, tremendous patience and a rigorous formal technique.

This isn't what you'd call an undemanding film (check out that title!), and I don't think I absorbed it all in one viewing by any means. But "The 3 Rooms of Melancholia" is a prodigious, almost spiritual experience, a luminous, challenging art movie out of the Tarkovsky school that happens to be about a real war and its effects on real children. It was also a daring cinematic enterprise; while the Western media had trouble getting any independent footage from Chechnya, this Finnish art-film director took a film crew there and captured the breathtaking devastation. The audience for this kind of thing is necessarily pretty small, but if anything I've just said sounds intriguing, put this on your must-see list.

Honkasalo, who's best known for the feature "Fire-Eater" and the documentaries making up her "Trilogy of the Sacred and Satanic," is a festival fave who has never made the least impression on the marketplace. But at some future date when historians look back at the grim (and poorly understood) story of the Chechen rebellion and/or civil war, they'll find two telling works of art. One is Andrei Konchalovsky's ignored masterpiece "House of Fools," and this is the other.

Honkasalo starts a long way from Chechnya, on the fortress island of Kronstadt outside St. Petersburg. Site of an important anti-Bolshevik uprising in 1921, Kronstadt now hosts an elite military academy founded by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The boys here are mostly orphans or kids from profoundly damaged families, and as we absorb the details of their routinized lives, Honkasalo silently enforces the point that the long tentacles of the terrible Chechen conflict have touched almost every one of them. There's almost no narration and less judgment; as cheerless as it is, Kronstadt is better than the streets for most of these boys. What lies ahead for them, as Russia's officer corps of the future, is a troublesome question.

The remaining two "rooms" of the film take us to Grozny, the all but flattened capital of Chechnya, and then to nearby Ingushetia, where many Chechen refugees live. Honkasalo follows a Chechen woman named Hadizhat as she tries to rescue abandoned, abused and starving children in Grozny -- some don't even know where they came from, or who and where their parents are -- and takes them across the border to an unofficial Islamic orphanage.

Watching a group of three kids age 5 and under say goodbye, probably forever, to their desperately ill mother in a bombed-out building might not be your idea of a good time at the movies. In fact, it might be the most painful scene I've ever seen in a film. But Honkasalo isn't twisting our heartstrings to no purpose; she's challenging us to confront such an awful moment and face its consequences, and also to ask why it had to happen and whether -- whoever and wherever we are in the world -- we might have done anything to stop it. The answers to such questions are never comfortable, but the profundity and humanity of "3 Rooms of Melancholia" provide their own kind of hope.

"The 3 Rooms of Melancholia" opens July 27 at Film Forum in New York. Other engagements, and a DVD release, may follow.

Fast forward: What unites David Brower and Rob Zombie? Um, well -- a passion for rebellion, man!
I'll leave you with two films that have nothing in common except that you should see them if you're exactly the right kind of person. You'll know, I promise. I liked them both, pretty much. But then, the legendary environmentalist David Brower and the lunatic death-metal artiste Rob Zombie are two guys I'm willing to cut tremendous slack. I wonder if they ever met each other? I wonder if they'd have liked to hang out and dish on our corrupt politicians? I wonder -- OK, I'll shut up.

Brower, the longtime head of the Sierra Club and later the founder of both Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute, might have been the most important environmental activist of the 20th century. Although he learned to work the political system and forged alliances, for example, with Lyndon Johnson's administration, he was also the first major radical environmentalist who believed we had a duty to restrain development and save the wilderness, not for some instrumental or economic reason but purely for its own sake.

Kelly Duane's film "Monumental: David Brower's Fight for Wild America," digs up a lot of intriguing newsreel footage, as well as Brower's Sierra Club home movies from the 1930s onward. Interviewing many of the principals in Brower's big battles, it tells the story of how this onetime rock climber became the activist who saved the Grand Canyon from being dammed; created Redwood National Park, North Cascades National Park and Point Reyes National Seashore; and generally led the environmental movement to its biggest victories. It's a thrilling tale, all but unimaginable in today's political landscape.

Duane's battle to make Brower relevant to a more youthful audience is a noble one, but I'm not sure adding music by Yo La Tengo, Fruit Bats, the American Analog Set and other indie-hipster bands will do much to accomplish that goal. Still, this is an engaging, well-made docu that admirably captures the singular importance of its subject. Unfortunately, Brower died in 2000, before production began, so his voice is heard only on file footage and in excerpts from the Sierra Club's audio history. ("Monumental" opens July 22 at the Quad Cinema in New York and Sept. 9 at the Music Hall in Los Angeles. Other engagements should follow.)

How do I love Rob Zombie's would-be horror classic "The Devil's Rejects"? Let me count the ways. Well, actually, I don't know that I love it at all. I love the idea of it, I guess -- but I'm not sure I ever want to see it again. Zombie refuses to call this a sequel to his deranged semi-underground hit "House of 1000 Corpses," even though it, well, totally is.

The sadistic and murderous Firefly clan of that film, led by evil clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and his siblings Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob's wife), having survived the onslaught of one laconic sheriff, now face his laconic-sheriff brother, played with terrific aplomb by William Forsythe. But now the cheerleader-slaughtering Fireflys are the heroes! Zombie doesn't just want this to be a tribute to "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and "Last House on the Left" but an inflated Peckinpah-esque epic about a lovable band of nonconformists who just happen to be inbred homicidal maniacs.

Much of "Devil's Rejects" is absolutely hilarious, especially the brief appearance by a Gene Shalit-like film critic who explicates all the Groucho Marx references. Zombie's eye for the faux-'70s detail is perfect, as is his use of such "stars" as Mary Woronov, P.J. Soles and Diamond Dallas Page. But that scene in the hotel room, with the woman and the guy's peeled-off face? Trust me, you don't want me to explain it. Possibly the worst thing in any horror movie ever. Of course you're going to see this if you're a fan, and of course, like me, you'll admire Zombie for going all the way to nutso operatic bloodletting with this one. But maybe also a little voice inside will be asking you (and him): Dude, what's the point? ("The Devil's Rejects" opens July 22 nationwide.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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