The "text" of Last Days is barely relevant: Ricky Jay shows up as a detective who natters about quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore and tells the story of a (perhaps) suicidal 19th-century magician. Kim Gordon, who has doubtless seen her share of rock casualties, attempts to drag the too-far-gone Blake back into the moment. To no visible effect, she hectors him: "Do you say, 'I'm sorry that I'm a rock 'n' roll cliché?' " In the most inspired (and amusing) scene, a Yellow Pages salesman—played by a real one, Thadeus A. Thomas—delivers a long pitch while Blake stares at him inquisitively, as one might a visiting Venusian. In the end, Blake doesn't so much kill himself. He simply departs, mounting a ladder (literally, in the film's most egregious misstep) on the way to what one hopes is better place.
Last week, I published an interview with Van Sant in the New York Times that you now have to pay to read. Sorry. Let me summarize. The idea was to follow Van Sant (or, in Times parlance, Mr. Van Sant) from his early masterpiece Mala Noche through his studio films Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, and to trace the ways in which he tries, with this trilogy, to discard the filmmaking "apparatus" (along with his "hang-ups") and follow his particular idiosyncratic muse.
Mr. Van Sant—I mean, Van Sant believes that ordinary movies feed you information so fast that they don't allow you to bring anything to the party. In this trilogy, he says, "You start to develop your own reasoning behind what you're seeing. Like a small amount—like a tincture being put into a big bowl. The tincture is not a strong medicine, it's supposed to elicit a reaction within you." Although I don't subscribe to the theory of homeopathy in medicine (those tinctures seem too dilute to do much of anything), Last Days is an extraordinarily potent brew.
As far as I know, only humans and lemmings have suicidal cultures. For a different perspective, see the French documentary about Antarctic penguins that has waddled into the top 10—maybe it's the heat—and threatens to outdistance such supersonic would-be blockbusters as Michael Bay's The Island and Stealth. This is a testament both to March of the Penguins (Warner Independent Pictures), which is remarkable, and its subjects, which aren't tuxedoed Mary Poppins waiters dancing with trays of food but strange and tough little birds—tougher than we could imagine when it comes to giving birth and keeping their babies alive under conditions that would devastate a Yeti.
Eager parents and their 5-year-olds might not be aware what they're in for, though. For all the shots of adorable toddling babies and penguins marching one by one (hurrah, hurrah), there are heartbreaking moments of hardship and death. You'd think Antarctica would be a great place for a penguin (there are no land-based predators) until the English narrator, Morgan Freeman, points out that it gets to 80 degrees below zero with 100-mile-an-hour winds. Freeman's familiar, soothing tones warm up the movie—but he's a small space heater in the miles and miles of glacial nothingness.
The movie easily transcends the "Isn't-that-amazing?" animal genre. It's the story of an instinct so primal that it feels like a creation saga—something that takes you back to the beginnings of all life. It's explicitly about the beginnings of some life. The eponymous march—single-file—is 70 miles inland to where the ice is solid enough for laying eggs. That in itself is a feat since these birds can't fly, and their only source of food is the water they're leaving behind. When they reach their destination, they enter into what looks like a giant mixer—milling around, checking one another out. Oh, to be able to translate their pick-up lines! When a male and female bond, the curve of their necks and their bowed heads form the shape of a heart. But that G rating ensures a lyrical fade-out. For penguin-on-penguin action, presumably, you have to wait for the unrated DVD.
I'm being flip because what happens next is in the best-case scenario harrowing and in the worst unspeakably cruel. Eggs are laid. Some crack in the transfer from male to female: The parents stare, helplessly, at the instantly iced-over life form within, and then part without even a peck. As the sun disappears from the winter sky, it's the females—at this point literally starving—that make the 140-mile round-trip to the feeding waters and back, while the males sit on the eggs and try to keep themselves and their future chicks from freezing to death. Not all of them succeed; you'll be astonished that any of them do.
I don't have a clue how this French crew, headed by director Luc Jaquet, could have shot in what the ads legitimately dub "the harshest place" on earth. And shot so artfully, with whites, blacks, and colors so crystalline that they help to suggest the frigidity of the air. (The birds have a big orange splot that I'd never noticed before.) The filmmakers document every part of this journey, from the leap out of the water to the birth of the chicks to the mothers' return to the sea for food. There's even under-icy-water footage, with a not-so-cute cameo by a leopard seal.
In the most upsetting scene, a bird of prey goes after a group of young 'uns and the elders make no motion to intervene. Not even the parents. Previously, we've seen a grieving mother attempt to steal a baby from another mother—at which point the whole village jumps in to drive her away. I'm no naturalist, but that's obviously adaptive: You can't have a viable society in which mothers steal babies from other mothers. But letting a predator take something: That's a strategy for survival. Watching March of the Penguins, we contemplate the mystery of these timeless instincts and consider the ones that got us here—and, unless we keep melting the polar ice caps, will keep us here.
Critics gas on so much as part of their regular jobs that they're rarely queried about their personal lives—their favorite colors, favorite animals, and so on. The site RockCritics.com doesn't ask me about any of that (purple and penguins, if you're interested), but is working to fill the void. You can now read everything you've ever wanted to know about me—and much, much more—in this spanking-new interview. .... 3:41 a.m. P.T.
Correction: On the advice of lawyers for the Washington Post Company, publishers of Slate, I would like to make the following correction and apology. The sentence above, "As far as I know, only humans and lemmings have suicidal cultures," is deeply misleading. As Rob Dillinger points out, "What appears to be suicide is simply the inability of the lemming, in its individual search for better living conditions (a place with fewer lemmings) to distinguish between tundra ponds (which it can swim) and large lakes or oceans, and small drop-offs from large cliffs." I sincerely regret any pain that my statement might have caused to the families of dead lemmings—assuming they didn't also go over the cliff.