Gus Van Sant’s Last Days follows a rock star (introduced only as Blake) through his last two days alive as he struggles to cope with the reality of fame and his resulting alienation from the rest of the world. This particular scene, which occurs at the exact midpoint of the film, depicts two separate sequences. The first sequence shows Blake escaping his house in order to avoid talking to a friend, and the second sequence is a long, drawn out shot of Blake recording various looped instruments.
The formal features of this scene amalgamate to make it a powerful microcosm of the film by both displaying and representing the main theme of Blake’s inner struggle to escape his thoughts and reconnect with reality. Through the effective use of mis-en-scene, cinematography, sound, and editing, this scene demonstrates a unique significance that makes it stand out from the rest of the film. In this scene, mis-en-scene functions to propel the viewer into focusing on the development of Blake as an alienated character.
When the scene begins as he changes clothes in his room, high-key lighting illuminates his figure, and a shallow depth of field separates Blake from the wall behind him. When further combined with his position inside a doorframe, it becomes clear that the only intended subject of focus in the shot is Blake, and nothing else. When Blake moves outside, however, the bright green surrounding dominates his drab-coloured character, which results in our attention beginning to shift from Blake to his environment.
As we become more aware of his environment, Blake’s size relative to the rest of the shot diminishes, and he is finally pushed to the edge of the frame as he stares at a lake for an extended period of time. Where the director could have decided to cut to a close-up shot of Blake’s face for dramatic effect, he instead decides to make Blake appear small and boring. It is also important to note that at this point, Blake has his back turned towards the camera, which further prevents his thoughts and emotions from being communicated to the viewer.
This plays upon a main them of isolation, as it becomes more and more difficult to understand Blake’s motives. When the five-minute long take begins, Blake is an even smaller character restricted to the framing of his music-room window. This unnatural and mysterious shot blends both High and Low-Key lighting as it combines both scenes from the inside and outside of the house. This creates an effect that emphasizes the scene’s role as the crux of the film, in that it begins the transition into the darker depths of Blake’s inner chaos.
In addition to mis-en-scence, the element of cinematography adds terrific importance to the development of this scene’s meaning. The most important aspect of this scene’s use of cinematography occurs during the longest take at the end of the scene. In an eerie, yet powerful fashion, the camera slowly dollies away from the window of the house as it captures Blake’s impulsive creation of a song.
The deep depth of field combined with a long shot and low angle create a very dense image for the viewer to look at, and as the camera moves backwards, there is an emphasis on the framing of Blake within the small window of a very big house, in an even bigger forest. As the camera nears the end of dolly track, Blake almost entirely disappears within the frame as the stone mansion seemingly consumes him. Instead of perhaps using a medium shot from a high angle inside of the room, the director chooses this shot to make a clear distinction of the separation between Blake and the outside world.
This demands the viewer to notice the environment around Blake, to the point where if it were not for his music, we might forget that he is still there. As with the mis-en-scene, this effect correlates to the theme of Blake’s entrapment within his own mind, as well as Blake’s attempt, and failure, to connect to the rest of the world. These themes, however, would not be as clearly communicated were it not for the element of sound. Sound plays a key role as it dominates the progression of the scene. The early shots of this scene juxtapose the latter by having little to no sound at all.
The scene is almost silent until we hear Donovan calling out Blake’s name, and afterwards the only sounds we hear are those of the outdoors as Blake wanders towards a lake. As the dolly shot begins, however, Blake begins to record himself playing guitar loops, which culminate into an crescendo of patterned noise. The pattern of this looped song follows a rough beginning, middle, and end, which mimic the narrative pattern of Blake’s life as depicted in the film. The song begins with a mysterious, yet interesting rhythm that slowly becomes more and more confusing and hard to ollow. Towards the middle, Blake attempts to give it a sense of order by adding a fast-paced drumbeat, but he abandons this, and the song ends as abruptly as he dies. When the sound cuts off, the shot also cuts to a new scene, sealing the shot itself as a packaged microcosm of Blake’s life. Though sound has a clear effect on the formation of the scene’s significance, it would not be possible without the element of editing. At first, the presence of editing in this scene comes across as minimalistic, as very few cuts are made, and shots are maintained for minutes at a time.
With this in mind, however, the importance of editing proves to be crucial in regards to the order of shots in this scene. Consider the transition from the shot of Blake at the lake to the reverse dolly from the window. Both shots linger for an extended period of time, and the positioning of Blake at the edge of the frame is relatively consistent. Staring at the same, static shot of Blake sitting near the lake becomes uncomfortable for the viewer, and when followed by a slow, monotonous dolly, the viewer begins to experience the same frustration and confusion that Blake exhibits most profoundly when he plays his song.
Overall, the editing ties all the elements of the film together, and should not be ignored when assessing the significance of the scene. Clearly, the formal features of this scene make it a significant moment in the timeline of the film. Mis-en-scene highlights the role played by the environment through the use of stark choices in lighting, contrasting color, and character positioning. Cinematography emphasizes Blake’s separation from the world around him by physically diminishing his size over the course of a long dolly shot.
Sound drives the scene, and also mimics the narrative pattern of Blake’s life through the song he plays in the last shot. Editing ties all of these formal choices together, and resultantly forces us to think more drastically about the inhibitions of the protagonist. This is a story about Blake’s journey towards death, and this scene marks the apex of that journey. Here is his failed attempt to escape, as the scene ends with Blake trapped inside his house alone, cementing his final, fatal descent.