Review: 20,000 Days on Earth
Visual artists Iain Forsythe and Jane Pollard’s debut feature 20,000 Days on Earth is a dreamlike, contemplative film about the Australian musician, actor, and author Nick Cave. Drawing small inspiration from Godard’s One Plus One (shorn of its radical politics) the film is separated into alternating installments: a day in the life of Nick Cave interspersed with footage of the artist at work, recording and performing his latest record with his band The Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away. The rockumentary component of the film is rather by the book (authored by Pennebaker, Maysles, Scorsese, et al), offering a fascinating look at the band offstage and in concert. The “day in the life” scenes, however, are something else entirely: carefully staged unscripted scenarios in which Cave’s apparent candor is at odds with the vivid cinematography and slick editing. The result is a film that acknowledges the conventions of documentary filmmaking without adhering to the rules.
Forsythe and Pollard have collaborated on a number of projects with Cave in previous years in addition to staging full-scale “reenactments” of epic concerts by David Bowie and The Cramps. Piecing together selections from Cave’s notebooks, they were able to create something that is closer in form to an essay film than a documentary, layering Cave’s patchwork narration over their hypnogogic imagining of the songwriter’s 20,000th day on Earth—or some day at the tail end of his 54th year, to be inexact.
The camera sails peacefully into Cave’s office early on that 20,000th day to reveal him pecking away with two fingers on a manual typewriter. Forsythe and Pollard flood this scene with the dramatic import of a Hollywood film, dressing it up with stately background music and a quick torrent of edits to help illustrate Cave’s voiceover. In his commentary he speaks of his romantic devotion to writing and telling magnificent, violent stories. The whole package of words, images, and sounds appears to set the stage for something grand, presumably Cave’s own story, reimagined for the film. But this anticipation quickly subsides as Cave shifts to ruminating on a different topic and the filmmakers tone down the effects. It’s a brilliant false start, signaling the film’s hybrid nature.
Fancy camerawork and effects mediate our access to Cave’s home life, allowing him to uphold his puckish image. We are left instead to over-consider details that may or may not be part of his act. Does he really go to sleep at night wearing all of those heavy gold necklaces and rings? How can those towering stacks of books in his office possibly stay upright? The filmmakers overindulge our nosiness early on by treating us to a freakish closeup of Cave’s eyeball googling in the bathroom mirror, his contact lens not yet settled into place. Stopping short of X-ray vision, how much closer can you get?
Keeping his strut in stride and his private life under wraps, Cave appears to speak freely in a series of pre-arranged interviews disguised as impromptu conversations. He chats with Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue while driving aimlessly in his jaguar. He chauffeurs former bandmate Blixa Bargeld around Brighton and finally asks the guitarist why he quit The Bad Seeds, 11 years after the fact. And over an eel lunch, Cave and his hirsute band mate Warren Ellis dissect two of their favorite live shows by Jerry Lee Lewis and Nina Simone, both unhinged, manic performances and probable inspiration for Cave’s own rousing stage antics.
“The truth is boring,” Pollard said at a Berlin press conference for the film, to which Cave might have replied in his trademark baritone: “Amen to that!” Nick Cave lives, he says, for the transformative act of performing. At the Nick Cave Archive (that’s a real thing, shipped from Australia to Brighton for the film shoot) he commandeers a slide show of old concert photos for a rapt audience of rubber-gloved archivists. Under a soft spotlight at a staged therapy session he tells a Freudian psychoanalyst with a James Lipton vibe about the time his father attended one of his concerts in secret. On stage, Cave gyrates in a gold lame suit and throws emphatic gestures like a feral televangelist—preaching to the choir of a flailing, wild-eyed audience.
Forsythe and Pollard have made it clear in interviews that they did not want to muss Cave’s image, and indeed many of the early reviews of the film marvel at how he manages to uphold his lauded cool. As a self-described “front row performer,” Cave is at home in this unusual film, backstroking in the ornate aquarium that Forsythe and Pollard have constructed for him. Being ogled is not an issue, as long as he remains the biggest fish in the tank.