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Last Days (2005)

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2005 Dir. Gus Van Sant

The last film of Gus Van Sant's so-called "Death Trilogy", along with the equally austere and inscrutable Gerry and Elephant. Like Elephant, this movie is a kind of film à clef, chronicling the final days/hours in the life of a fictionalized Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's gifted frontman.

Context: Blake, the thinly veiled Cobain surrogate in Last Days, spends most of the running time of the film avoiding everyone, including the people living in his own house. So when Mormon missionaries arrive at the door, Blake slips out, but his housemates invite the young men in for a bizarrely long and eerily accurate chat.

Last Days

Exegesis: This is simultaneously one of the most accurate depictions of LDS missionaries on film, and the most bizarre. Perhaps it is bizarre precisely because it is so accurate. That's not to say that these Elders are especially good - their delivery could use some serious work, but they even quote from Joseph Smith's history, just like many real missionaries do! In other words, the doctrine seems to be more or less sound. They even point out the scripture references they have written in the front cover of the Book of Mormon that they leave behind, encouraging the people to read it, and inviting them to church on Sunday. That's Missionary 101.

It's a little weird that the two missionaries are both named Elder Friberg. (The twin actors who play them are actually named Andy and Adam Friberg.) The Internet Movie Database points out a few minor inconsistencies in its "Goofs" section, viz.: "One of the LDS missionaries that visits the house is wearing a light blue shirt. LDS missionaries are only permitted to wear non-decorative white shirts with dark pants/suits, and a conservative tie. The missionaries also carried no pamphlets, visual aids, appointment books, or their own complete sets of scriptures, which is highly unlikely for door-to-door proselytizing." But really, those are fairly trivial complaints considering the gross liberties that most films take when depicting Mormon missionaries.

It's hard to pinpoint the reason why this rather lengthy scene was included in the film. Van Sant is regarded as somewhat of an auteur, but as I pointed out in the intro to this piece, I find some of his, shall we say, "less commercial" work a little difficult to parse. Much is made of the Elders' ability to talk to God. At the end of the film when (spoiler alert!) Cobain kills himself, his naked soul emerges from his corpse and begins to climb a ghostly ladder, so Van Sant may have been trying to lay the groundwork for some kind of spiritual or redemptive message. Or it could be that Van Sant was visited by missionaries once and thought the idea of young men who dedicate themselves to spreading the message of the restored gospel was an interesting counterpoint to the life of the protagonist. The Elders are played by twins, identical in every way except shirt color, which could be an illustration of their conformity and a suggestion that their "sameness" extends back to all those who follow an organized religion rather than one's own mysterious spiritual path, like Blake. The Elders also talk about Christ's purity and sacrifice, perhaps as a means whereby Blake's sacrifice (by suicide) can be seen as a redemptive act.

Is it significant that contemporaneously to this scene (and intercut with it during the film), we learn that Blake/Cobain is upstairs, strung out, listening to terrible 90s R&B, wearing a strappy black cocktail dress and army boots? I don't know. Van Sant's inclusion of these missionaries in the film could be totally random, which is a cop out explanation I know, but the IMDB also maintains that the Yellow Pages salesman in the film was actually a Yellow Pages salesman who simply wandered onto the set.

To be perfectly honest, I haven't seen the film in its entirety, so there could be themes I'm missing that would shed some light on why this particular scene was included. I love Nirvana, but frankly, I'm not sure I have the patience to actually watch this movie all the way through. After watching both Gerry and Elephant, I think I get the idea, Van Sant. Fool me twice...

In the absence of insight into this passage in the film, I will humbly offer a few points on the Elders' technique. Asking to come into the house in order to "tell you a little about our Church, give you information on our religion," is not going to open many doors. And to begin the discussion by pointing out that "alcohol is bad for our bodies" while the host pours himself a glass of wine is poor form, (and a few discussions early). Explaining the atonement and prayer simultaneously by (briefly) referencing Old Testament laws of sacrifice is perhaps not the best tack either. They also don't seem very engaged or enthusiastic about the message. Then again, I remember having companions like this, and for all I know, this is exactly how I sounded when I delivered the discussions in French.
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