Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard.
Screenplay: Nick Cave, Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard. (Documentary-ish)
Runtime: 97 minutes.
Cast: Nick Cave, Susie Bick, Warren Ellis, Darian Leader.
Trailer: "I ceased to be a human being." (warning: didn't cease being a remarkable bore.)
Plot: This pseudo-documentary follows Nick Cave on what is ostensibly his 20,000th day on Earth. During the course of the day he makes a visit to his archives (yes, he has his own set of Nick Cave archives for the purposes of this film), records a track for a new album, writes, meets to have lunch with Warren Ellis, and a variety of other activities. In between Cave drives and has possibly imaginary conversations with famous individuals he has known throughout his career.
Review: Pity the poor troglodytes who toil in the mines below the Nick Cave Archives of Ennoblement for the Furtherance of Mankind and Other Species Also Lesser Than Nick Cave. Turning up every day to labour through boxes and boxes of photos, most of them of old concerts where audience members piss onstage, or of Cave ensconced in his pretentious God-womb early room, with three weird locks of hair pinned to the wall. Just when they think it can’t get any worse, the Olympian himself turns up – leaping out of his hipster mobile and followed by a documentary crew, to corner staff members and deliver tales from the Weather Dairies, or to recount one particularly violent concert in Munich when Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were billed as the most dangerous act in the world. Oh yes, wow, the poor trogs chant; dead eyed, and desperate to finish box 3048 so they can go home and share a few brief minutes with their families before the deep of night sets in. But Cave never leaves; it is his 20,000th day on Earth and he is intent on relating his messianic significance to a waiting world, having grown into an old, tired, and toothless version of himself that only has legacy building left.
What has brought this thought to my mind, you ask? Well, it is the pseudo-documentary 20,000 Days on Earth directed by Cave friends and fans Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. It claims to document the aforementioned 20,000th day in Cave’s life; but this, like almost everything else in the film, is cunning artifice meant to draw the viewer into what might otherwise be a dull and self-congratulatory film. So the archive cited above does not exist, and is a pretence to get Cave to come in and explain some old photos and objects to camera (trogs rejoice! Freedom!), as is a confused media interview meets therapy session where Cave extemporises on the theme of memory and its importance to songwriting, or Cave at work writing and putting a track together, and when Cave is shuttling between these momentous encounters we get the pleasure of him interviewing old colleagues in the car as they magically appear, like his mobile is some sort of Harry Potterish portkey to the realm of washed up celebrities and also rans. What emerges throughout the runtime of 20,000 Days on Earth is Cave’s self-nomination for Augustinian elevation to cultural Godhood; and if you think that’s overstating the case, then watch aghast as Cave states and restates his theory of the rockstar as God, and mounts an argument to establish that by achieving the former status the transitive power has given him the latter.
‘It is just shit, isn’t it. But important shit, for me at the time’ he reflects at one point. Yes Nick, although you could have left the second sentence off and had a pithy encapsulation of the entire film. This is a long, dull, and disjointed review; so for those of you with trains to catch, here’s my review in short: If you want to watch Nick Cave dicking around for 97 minutes, intercut with portent overblown statements of faux-grandeur, then this is the film for you. Otherwise you are likely to find it as embarrassing as those smug master classes Billy Joel went around offering to the undergraduates of the United States after he got fat and everyone had forgotten about him.
The long review? Where to start. Perhaps with the over-stylised narration provided by Cave himself, as he refers to his ‘tapping and scratchings’ that produce ‘crooked versions of myself.’ At least Narcissus fell into the lake and drowned; no such luck for Cave, who regards every metaphorical high-gloss surface as an opportunity to contemporise on himself, and remains alive to narrate the length of the film. ‘Places choose you,’ he remarks, ‘they can take hold of you whether you like them to or not.’ Vague meaning aside, this is neat illustration of the Cave creative style:
1) Take an overused cliché;
2) Insert typical Cave-isms inbetween them (e.g. ‘first creating the narrative of our lives’ etc, ad nauseum);
3) End sentence with word randomly selected from the Nick Cave thesaurus (e.g. memory, love, song, explosion, lie, narrative, fiction, story, lives, etc).
And violá. Something that sounds profound, but crumbles under intelligent cross examination. Cave is all style and no substance; and the content of this film is entirely affectation. Note the ornamentation that accompanies the main narrative – Cave ‘tapping and scratching’ away on his vintage typewriter, receiving messages on his vintage tape answering machine, driving away in his vintage car, celebrating his now vintage glory.
His insights into song-making are unhelpful, to say the least. He describes song-writing as ‘counterpoint,’ by which he explains he means the putting together of two disparate images. The interviewer doesn’t have the heart to tell him that he actually means ‘juxtapositioning,’ and to send him away to listen to some Bach or Mozart as a lesson in what counterpoint actually means. He remarks that song writing is capturing memory, ‘because memory is what were are; your whole reason for living is memories.’ That’s strangely and arbitrarily reductive, and sucks if you are Guy Pierce’s character from Memento or are suffering from amnesia. But Cave is going somewhere with this, and he describes his process as ‘chasing after’ these memories, finding those moments when ‘the gears of the heart really change’ and concluding that ‘song writing is retelling of these stories, losing memories would be a massive trauma in that world.’
So let’s talk about the songs we actually see Cave writing during the progress of his day. Cave writes with a weird referentiality, not quite producing a free association of words but randomly associating them enough that the listener has to strain to make any sense of a larger narrative within them. So we are treated to lines such as:
Sitting and singing the Higgs boson blues, everyone bleeding to the Higgs boson blues, and if I die tonight bury me in my patent yellow shoes.
And the memorable:
The caliphate did to the Jews, Hannah Montana does the African Savannah.
I’m not a die-hard advocate of the philosophy that song lyrics must make sense; but Cave seems to be straining to claim that his lyrics do have a deeper meaning and, I may be mean in demanding some consistency from Cave’s random proclamations and ejaculations throughout the film, that they are somehow ‘crooked versions of myself’ as he states. Yet the above lyrics indicate that he writes a verse or two, then inserts a buzzword or two from whatever newspaper happens to be to hand in a less impressive and hyper-hipster version of Weird Al’s ‘Mission Statement.’
In this he exhibits the worst symptoms of faux-culture idolatry, and his singing does not help. Or at least, his attempt at singing does not help. Imagine the most awkward karaoke singer possible attempting a particularly difficult number. The start is always the rockiest, because the singer has to decide whether to commit to a full hearted attempt at the song or not – i.e. whether to sing, or just ironically “speak” the lyrics in the same pitch as the melody. Generally they settle into one or the other eventually; not Cave, who part-sings and part-speaks the entirety of his tracks like a teenager’s voice from the depths of puberty. It never settles comfortably or resonantly. Every now and then he’ll attempt a wistful Tom Waits sigh or scream, but with a reedy adolescent’s voice that cannot pull it off. Yet we are supposed to pity the genius in his creative cage, as he summons sound engineers, band members, obscure instruments, and a whole fucking children’s chorus in an attempt to bring his vision to life. Goodness, it must be hard having so many elements to prop up your shitty composition. ‘Now I’m brutal with editing’ Cave states, despite fifteen minute tracks and all evidence to the contrary – both in the material he produces, and in this film over which he had the final edit (and seems to have spared us no pretension).
The centrepiece of the film is a thinly disguised interview meets therapy session, in which Cave airs his unintentionally hilarious thoughts on childhood, performing, and being a God. He relates his own subjective odyssey of early love, which adds nothing to the genre and comes across as a pale account of Proust’s obsession with Odette from Swann’s Way. On performance he is even stranger, claiming that he becomes ‘godlike,’ and that it is important to ‘pay witness to that.’ Confused audiences aren’t helped along by his definition of God, which he relates as ‘someone taking score’ but not in real life; seemingly picturing God as an all knowing Top 40s chart that keeps track of his album sales (no, really, that was the only way I could parse his statements on the matter). He states that ‘concerts are so important’ and they allow you ‘to go beyond something.’ We get to see one of his concerts, shot pretty close to the stage to cover the lack of attendance, and the entranced hipsters that turn up. He reaches out to them, touching their heads and blessing them like a Gucci-clad saint. Here they can touch the hem of his robe, like a pope or a king.
There are some bright spots, almost entirely confined to the buoyant appearance of Warren Ellis, with whom Nick deigns to have lunch. I would absolutely have a few beers with Warren, and he unintentionally undermines some of the cred Cave has been trying to build through relating a story about Nina Simone. Cave and Co. once performed in a concert she headlined; Nick’s account of her presence was of a fiery dragon who stared down the audience, then gave the most amazing performance imaginable, building into Cave’s argument for the ascendency of the performing God. Warren’s account is rather different; relating that the stage manager went by her dressing room, asking if the furious “Dr.” Nina Simone needed anything. ‘Champagne, cocaine, and sausages!’ she demanded, and once these were produced was as happy as a pig in shit. A great story, just not in Cave’s own self serving account where he remarks that concerts allow you to ‘forget who you are, the place’ and project yourself into the idol onstage. An old Dionysian cliché. Similarly, the only people who will like this film are those who want to be him; a teenager still wanting to be a deity, despite his 20,000 days of mortality. His 1987 last will and testament has the amusing bequest of what little he had to go towards the ‘Nick Cave Memorial Museum’ with ‘a small room or rooms.’ This is the statement that the tounge-in-cheek archives are built around within the film; which are more an unintentional indictment of late-stage capitalism, where our ultra-bourgeois tombs will be archives to all the shit we have bought and no one else wants.
This also occasions an exploration of Cave’s ‘Weather Dairies,’ written while in London so that he could assert his control over the terrible weather; in effect he wanted to take control of the weather by writing about it (a suitably deluded Caveian idea). One amusing entry, seen briefly in shot, reads ‘why do I keep thinking about the bell shaped cloud I saw on the 16th of May, 2000?’ Pity the poor PhD student who has to wade through that morass for a thesis. He becomes more and more unhinged, writing ‘the weather is becoming a lie, my day to day life is becoming fictious, a lie.’ That’s not art, that’s psychosis. ‘Did you know I control the weather with my moods?’ But cutely, he states he cannot control his moods. Now that’s full-blown schizophrenia. ‘Your limitations make you,’ he states vaguely, ‘the wonderful disaster you probably are.’ That cringe you are experiencing now aptly sums up the feeling you’ll have throughout.
Finally, Kylie portkeys into the back of the hipster mobile. ‘You were like a tree’ she says, remembering meeting him, and presumably meaning it as a compliment. ‘I had to speed read your biography’ she recounts. That Cave felt the need to publish a biography after 39 years on Earth gives you an idea of just how unsubstantive this forlorn James Franco is. At this point I was sure we were headed for the blessed end of the film, with narrated gems like ‘How does a song stare down extinction or slay a dragon?’ Goodness Nick, is that what songs are for? I’ve been misusing them all these years, when I could have become an independent St. George for hire in the troubled countryside. But he has more wisdom he wishes to impart – ‘All of our days are numbered, we cannot afford to be idle. Follow the idea! Hold on to the flame! Massive powerful world changing!’ I can’t Nick, on your previous advice I’ve just song-slayed the dragon that was my primary source of flames! Please, make up your mind.
Then we’re on to one of those interminable classical orchestra concerts every washed-up rocker feels entitled to – as if it heralds their ascension to late-career credibility. He cites the ‘truths between the surface of the words’ – I have no idea either, sorry – and then we’re finally at the end. Wait, we’re not? This is worse than The Lord of the fucking Rings, as the film attempts ending after ending to out-grandeur itself. ‘Now I’m brutal with editing’ echoes and echoes in my head. Finally we get a shot of Brighton Pier, as we slowly drift away, in a closing credits sequence that attempts to emulate the end of The Great Beauty. Oh no you fucking don’t, 20,000 Days, that film is a legitimate masterpiece that earns its catharsis and you are a cheap, catchphrase-driven, pseudo-mystical pile of bullshit.
That’s perhaps the best way to view this film. It is like the argument for the existence of God through mystical experience. You just have to feel it; and if you have, you’re already on board. If not, it is never going to convince you and the attempt will come across as faintly ridiculous. So goes 20,000 Days on Earth; as the credits tell me that the tedious love letter I’ve just watched was also ‘Featuring Nick Cave.’ As if his name weren’t enough upon it.