Separating the real from the reconstructed: Nick Cave and 20,000 Days on Earth

In the documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, British artists Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth push the boundaries of documentary filmmaking by working to capture the essence of the artist instead of a factual account of, in this instance, one particular day in the life of musician Nick Cave. Pollard and Forsyth, after a successful working arrangement filming promotional footage for the latest Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, Push the Sky Away, Nick Cave made himself available to the artists if they wanted to build on what they did with that project. The decision to expand on this working relationship led the pair to reading Nick Cave’s notebooks where he records a lot of the process of his lyric and music writing, and the premise of asking Cave questions and then fashioning his answers into a film of his 20,000th day. (Apparently, Cave records the days he is alive in his notebooks.)

The resulting film is a little piece of fiction and a little piece of the "reality" that Cave lets us see, knowing full-well that his transparency will only have us notice that which we are looking for anyway.

The film starts off with a heavily contrived psychoanalysis session, obviously staged, that reveals some interesting anecdotes about the iconic performer. It turns out his upbringing was quite normal, expect for the fact that the girl he was first attracted to sexually used to dress him up in women’s clothing until his parents intervened. Australians will recognise exactly the small town mentality that breeds the kind of slight dysfunctional approach to life that Cave has managed to turn into a persona that externalises a teetering on the brink of self-annihilation through his dark songs involving a mix of violence, death, god and eternity. For Australians it makes perfect sense that this persona comes from Wangaratta – the rest of the world won’t see it so clearly.

The “day” then continues with various scenes, presented as chronological, where Cave wanders around going about the business of being Nick Cave. This includes three insightful conversations in the car he drives with Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue and Blixa Bargeld, a visit to Warren Ellis which included some work on Push the Sky Away, and a trip to visit his archivists who are working on the boxes and boxes of preserved memorabilia Cave and others have accumulated about the singer over the years.

Every scene includes ruminating, reminiscing and philosophising by Cave. All of these are interesting, particularly his observations on the journey between “the real” and “the persona” that he presents on stage. He describes his life as an endless journey in trying to have the persona take over the real, to invent himself as he prefers to be seen, or as he sees himself, which is really only an act he can confidently portray on the stage. It’s the gist behind the entire project, a question in the artists’ life about the point of separation between how the world reflects you back and how you wish to be seen.

In this way, 20,000 Days On Earth is the only authentic way to film a documentary about Nick Cave, as a contrived collection of anecdotes, impressions, words, songs and histories all combining and colliding to create something before the viewers' eyes, who is welcome to take whatever they want away with them at the end, as if they were ever going to do anything else. There is no “real Nick Cave” – finally, he might say. All that’s there is what he tries to portray to us and himself and what we see through into.

It makes 20,000 Days on Earth the ultimate creative act, to make something out of something already made, all the more exciting because in this instance the something is a human being. Nick Cave, as with his music, has allowed himself to bring everything he can bring to the project, resulting in that fascinating Cave phenomena where what makes him so brilliant is the same thing that gives him a naive vulnerability.

One can never entirely buy into the Nick Cave universe. He pulls us in and pushes us away together making those of us who love his music, always and forever hungry for the next piece of Nick Cave that just might finally take us to the promise that always hovers around his music.

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