an unlikely pair

Over the weekend I watched two extraordinary films, which were different in every way.

First up: Crash, which is directed by Paul Haggis, as well as co-written with Robert Moresco. I must be the last person in the world to see this film, but I was deeply impressed with the film’s honesty and its refusal to depict people as conventional stereotypes.

The multi-protagonist narrative is one of the trickiest to pull off successfully, and Haggis and Moresco nail it. The acting is universally superb, and the direction is accomplished and evocative. You’d never know this was the first time in the chair for a feature-length film for Haggis (he directed TV previously)–what a brave start.

It’s a joy to watch such an accomplished film that tries to depict the reality of people’s lives without hiding behind easy clichés. Let’s have more of this, please.

On a completely different wavelength is the latest film by Gus Van Sant: Last Days. The name Van Sant is enough to send most people running in the opposite direction towards a more accessible movie choice.

The important step in watching a Van Sant film is to accept you are involved in a different narrative tradition. One that ignores traditional cinematic structures and techniques in order to evoke an experience. It’s not that Van Sant is unfamiliar with three-act formulas, or linear storytelling, but he knows how to play with these models to create a discordant atmosphere to suit his subject matter.

In this case the film is loosely inspired by the last days of Nirvana front man, Kurt Cobain. It follows Blake (played by Michael Pitt) around his huge and crumbling house in the woods, as he mumbles and potters around on his own, or occasionally interact with the hangers-on who occupy his house. There is one surreal scene in which Blake discusses an advert with a Yellow Pages salesman which is like something out of Samuel Becket‘s imagination.

It’s not an easy film to watch in the beginning. As always the viewer grasps for a narrative thread, but Van Sant does not provide one. The sound design of this film is outstanding. Blake wanders through an aural landscape that is not in synch with what one would normally expect. The effect pronounces the disjointed timescape, and establishes Blake’s disturbed state of mind.

There are magnificent scenes: such as the slow, unflinching zoom back from a window through which we see Blake play different instruments–when he moves on to the next one the previous instrument loops and continues to play until there is a symphony of sound; the five minute sequence when Blake plays his guitar and sings in a darkened, but beautifully-lit room–the camera does not budge an inch; and the gorgeous scene in which was witness the moment of Blake’s death–his ghostly double emerges from his own body to climb upwards; that image alone makes the film worth watching.

I can understand if people hate this film. It’s not for everyone, and your reaction will depend a great deal on the mood you are in when you watch it. I would urge people to give it a chance, and immerse yourself in the experience. Personally, I thought it was weirdly beautiful, even when I resisted it. As the film progresses it builds towards its inevitable climax like a song. By that time I had succumbed to its spell.

It’s not the kind of film I would watch every day, but I appreciate that talented directors continue to work in atypical cinematic traditions.