20,000 Days On Earth

intelligent, complex, honest and, above all else, entertaining‘ – WatchingCattle on the recently released Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days On Earth

They say you should never meet your heros, they’ll only disappoint you. Of course that could be true – I have few heroes and have never met any of them in person. The world is chock full of stories like “I met my hero and he spat in my drink then threw shit at me and tried to shove a banana down my pants”. Of course if your hero is Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s beloved ape slave, or Gazza, then you always run that risk.

Either way the idea of hero-worship is a fairly idiotic concept to begin with and thusly not something that is advisable, yet it’s unavoidable. Somewhere early on in your life there was someone who achieved everything that you yourself could ever have conceived of and therefore you find yourself holding them in the highest esteem. They’ve done what you want or wanted to do.Their reality in a sense widens the scope of your dreams. When Frank Black sang “I want to be a singer like Lou Reed” he unwittingly summed up the relationship between dreamer and hero perfectly. We all, all of us, all artists, musicians, writers, athletes…we all become enamoured with our respective cultures by way of some figure who we stumble across by sheer chance. This figure is the summation of everything great about said culture. They stand at the entry point to this culture (or sub-culture, counter-culture or however you want to refer to it) like they were holding the door for us and ushering us inside. Whether that’s Pele or Picasso or Iggy Pop, it’s against their achievements that an early incarnation of your aspirations are set. I want to be a singer means nothing but I want to be a singer like Lou Reed carries with it all the weight and all the context that defines artistic aspiration itself.

You should never meet your heros because your dreams should not be made flesh. Lou Reed didn’t exist. At least not the way he exists in the head of Frank Black. The great disappointment with hero-worship is that a man or woman cannot embody all of the youthful hope and belief that you thrust upon them. It’s inevitable. To meet them is to look behind the curtain and reveal a person who can’t possibly live up to the persona. In modern culture we have a billion cameras pointed at a million celebrities all trying to capture a glimpse of humanity. When the curtain slips a person is revealed, – cellulite, fat, pimpled and frail. Because this is the consequence of heroism. It’s the idealisation; the stuff of adolescent dreams of self-importance and longing. And should you meet them they can never be all that they said they were and all that you believed them to be. So like an eternally unrequited love affair and in spite of thousands of column inches of humble quotes about it all being “for the fans” in the end, no matter how much you love them they will never love you back.

Unless your hero is Nick Cave. You love Nick Cave because he will never love you back.

The difference is that Cave is the ultimate anti-hero. His life’s work is a catalogue of error and self deprecation, debasement and human frailty. Actor, screenwriter, novelist and the last living rock star worth giving a shit about. And what have you done with your life so far? Junkie, womaniser, husband and father, with more honorary doctorates and awards than the population of Wales combined. You name it, he’s probably done it, written about it and you get the feeling he’s complained about it too. The difference between Cave and the rest of the half-arsed, unimportant footnotes that make up the current constellation of ‘stars’ is that Cave is famous for being Nick Cave and his work is famous because it sums up and furthers Nick Cave as both persona and man, and ultimately enigma. You don’t need paparazzi photos of Nick Cave to prove he’s one of us – fragile and human, both angelic and demonic in equal parts – because he’s already told us. This is his real gift. His imagination and his ability are gifts for sure. Honed by years of practice and selfish dedication but his honesty is what ties together all of his work. The dark thought you push to the back of your mind, the sadness, the doubts – this is what Cave will live in and as he puts it, “cannibalise”. And should you meet him, anything is possible and arguably not surprising. If he were to smile at you and make conversation this would not surprise you. Nor if he spat in your face. This is Nick Cave’s persona and it does not love you back. So how do you make a film about such a figure?

This is a ‘gala’ presentation of 20,000 Days On Earth that I’m watching in my local cinema – a cinema I’m a member of of course, because without my support where will esoteric and obscure work be housed in the future? Fucking Putlocker? This gala presentation has a live satellite link up to the ‘real gala’ presentation which is taking place in the Barbican and features live performances by a stripped down version of the Bad Seeds featuring Warren Ellis and Barry Adamson. There’s also a post film, Q&A session with Cave, Ellis and directors Ian Forsyth and Jane Pollard. Inexplicably the Q&A is hosted by Edith Bowman who is simply not the right choice to squeeze answers from Cave who is, at the best of the times, a prickly interviewee. Here Cave and Co. sit in front of a packed Barbican theatre and this is not exactly the best environment for the participants to feel at ease. Twice during the session Cave tries to sit at his piano rather than return to the couch and answer more inane questions and, at times, it all feels a little too much like an embarrassing episode of This Is Your Life. It falls to Forsyth and Pollard to say anything of any real weight but, when they do, it thankfully opens a line of inquiry which finally bears fruit. After about forty-five minutes of torture Forsyth answers a question from Twitter (not Bowman) about their future within the arts following the experience of making the film and he says:

The idea of narrative…you can’t play with developing an idea, you can’t set things up and then come back to them later and then all the kind of devices that are available to storytellers

Pollard continues: “Good culture is slipping more towards narrative – that need for wilful abstraction that’s inhabited contemporary art for a long time, it maybe feels like those reins are slipping as we see art move into the digital space…what you can do with narrative is amazing.

In a sense while they are talking about their background and future in visual art, they could easily be talking about documentary as a whole. Over the last decade documentary has finally thrown off the shackles of journalistic intent and fully embraced the ideals of storytelling, of pure cinema, of the ‘ecstatic truth’ as Werner Herzog calls it. In 1988 Errol Morris directed his masterpiece The Thin Blue Line. The film went on to become a classic of modern cinema and yet at the time when the American Academy saw the film they viewed its use of scripted moments and re-enactments to be anathema to the ideals of the documentary. Equally Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs To Fly was largely overlooked for the work of genius that it is and it took until the last decade for documentary filmmakers to really embrace cinematic narrative conventions and push the medium forward. Over the last few years I’ve used any chance I could get to recommend The Impostor and Man On Wire. Last year’s best film, if not the past decades best film, was Justin Oppenhiemer’s The Act Of Killing and all of these films are testament to the now far more joyful marriage of cinema and documentary. 20,000 Day On Earth can now comfortably be filed along with these films in terms of its form, its quality and its ability to really engage with a difficult and enigmatic subject.

Pollard and Forsyth explained during the Q&A that they were brought on board by Cave to document the making of the last Bad Seeds album Push The Sky Away. However rather than just making a “boring making of thing that would end up on youtube” they decided to push the idea further and set about creating a series of set pieces – scenes in which Cave would engage with people from his past – and their conversations make up the bulk of the film’s 90 minutes. These decisions, which all concerned describe as seemingly crazy, pay off superbly. The film plays out as a sort of glimpse into a fictitious day in the life of a driven artist rather than a journalistic look at his life. There are no title cards introducing his companions, no voice over explaining what’s happening. Instead Cave narrates the action with short prose which examine his beliefs, his life, his history, his family and his work.

The film proceeds as a drama, a character study, a piece of fiction and this, of course, is fitting because in a sense Nick Cave is a fiction. During short scenes in his car in which Cave is visited by friends and colleagues such as Blix Bargeld, Kylie and Ray Winstone he explains the difference between his persona and his real self. He joins Warren Ellis to have dinner and drives out to his own archive to answer questions about several pieces stored there including photographs and documents such as a copy of his last will and testament.

These are contrived scenes, set up to allow Cave the chance to explain himself to his inquisitors and to us as an audience – it really shouldn’t work but, due to the directors’ approach and Cave’s ability to open up, if only very briefly, it does work and superbly so. What you end up with is a sort of confessional and a re-tracing of steps. Cave’s intellect and wit are the fulcrum of the movie which allows the direction and cinematography to curve around you and engulf you in a truly fascinating and affecting portrait. Of course it would be easy for all of this to simply enable Cave to further his persona – to escape from his own harsh and dark realities. To this end the film’s best moments happen during the film’s most contrived scenes in which Cave is interviewed by a psychoanalyst.

Here the Cave persona undergoes its real interrogation and the results are quite thrilling – revealing a man driven by many of the same experiences that we all are. His relationship with his father, with drugs, with god – it’s all here and it’s all laid bare and so too are his fears. It’s an incredible leap of faith that Cave has made here and his honesty and forthrightness during these scenes cannot be underestimated. I mean how many rock stars can you imagine discussing their father with a shrink on film. Probably only the most emo of shitehawks doing so for attention and yet here Cave comes across as a man in midlife, well adjusted and as fragile as any of us.

Of course in a film of this sort not everything is going to work. And so some of the in-studio footage of the recording of Push The Sky Away break the audience’s immersion in Cave’s life and though the songs are good anyone who has ever seen Cave and The Bad Seeds live will attest to the fact that these exact and austere performances do not compare to the showmanship, bravado and whirlwind of chaos and excitement that they are capable of creating. In fact, when you glimpse footage of The Bad Seeds in a live setting here, Cave’s own descriptions of songwriting make far more sense but the live footage is inexplicably brief.

In any film of this ilk the audience’s relationship to the subject is key. If you’re a fan of Cave and Ellis (as I clearly and unapologetically am) you’ll probably love this. It’s intelligent, complex, honest and, above all else, entertaining. There is real warmth and wit here. There’s more than enough to recommend it to non-believers but I can’t really be unbiased enough to take it on its merits. Basically what I’m saying is – Junkyard is the best record ever made and I loved this a lot.

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