Dig, Lazarus: 20,000 Days on Earth

by |
09/10/2014 4:00 AM |

20,000 Days on Earth
Directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard

20,000 Days on Earth is a portrait-of-the-artist documentary, subset atmospheric, presenting glimpses of its subject at work and in life rather than an objective or introductory career overview. It is distinguished by a subject, in the eloquent and watchable Nick Cave, rewarding of such scrutiny; and by an unusually strong formal hand. Given Cave’s evidently close participation with the filmmakers (he takes a cowriting credit), these two elements are likely related.

Cave, in his post-punk apocalyptic blues-prophet mode, is shown at work, both in the studio and in live performance, so that we see a song come together, cohere, and then break apart; he shares an affable lunch with longtime Bad Seed Warren Ellis, while other previous friends and collaborators periodically appear, like noir-ish apparitions, in the passenger seat or backseat of his car as he drives around rainy Brighton (Kylie Minogue, casually revealing a heretofore unexpected and enviable gift for prose, tells him that the first time she saw him live, he reminded her of a tree, a big bare-branched tree, in silhouette, in a black-and-white movie). Cave shuffles through childhood memories in an effectively strange, staged hybrid of interview and psycholanalysis with a plummy and open-ended interlocutor. In dirgelike voiceovers, he reflects on performance and transformation, on art as pushing towards the Other within the Self; like his persona (the dyed-black hair and scarecrow physique, the sharpish suits with open-collared dress shirts and goth rings) and his music, his literary contributions are overwritten by 10%, but entertaining for it, and compelling for their sustained dialogue with folk-mythic tradition.

If the film does not transcend its fans-only destiny, this cannot be blamed on any failure of execution. (If anything, the atmosphere of heavy portent makes a well-calibrated case for Cave fandom.) Still, one sequence in particular is especially compelling, expanding the film’s reflexive reach outward to both the nonfiction genre, and the act of recollection more generally. In an “archive,” ostensibly consulting with researchers into his life, Cave narrates a slide-show of black-and-white photos of his wild years in Berlin: a series of snaps from a Birthday Party gig in which a fan got up onstage to take a mid-song piss, and a portrait of Cave in his bohemian loft/curio cabinet. Narrating the events, and branching off into memories, his recall, once triggered, is sharp and lyrical, but not without its gaps; as the mental archive is sorted according to the evidence available, the film digs into the ambiguous, almost mystical process by which things are forgotten, remembered, preserved, or retold as a story.

Opens September 17 at Film Forum