Saturday, 10 September 2016

One More Time With Feeling: Nick Cave (2016) - Movie Review

Nick Cave, in no uncertain terms, is one of the finest musicians that Australia has ever produced. With his pitch-black sense of humour combined with a taste for subject matter that almost begs for the word ‘morbid’ to be redefined as human dictionaries recognize it, he has produced some absolutely amazing works of musical art. I grew up with Murder Ballads as a regular in my mother’s car stereo, with tracks like Henry Lee and The Curse Of Millhaven creating an indelible impression on my brain. Probably goes to explain my own love for all things dark and weirdly funny. He also done great work beyond that, writing numerous books and film scripts that have gone on to become seminal classics. He was also the subject of what I consider to be the best film of 2014 with 20,000 Days On Earth, a film so good as to induce what I can only describe as a personal religious experience while watching it. Needless to say, this is another one of those occasions where I would probably be talking about this film even if I didn’t have this cinematic obligation hanging over my head. So, how does this latest documentary on one of the most fascinating creative minds in the world fare?

The plot: Aussie filmmaker Andrew Dominik offers a look at Nick Cave’s creative process, this time during the recording of his latest album The Skeleton Tree. It explores Nick’s personal views on the creation of music and art in general, as well as giving a perspective on his own mindset at that time, up to and including dealing with the unfortunate death of his son Arthur.

A general rule of thumb when it comes to documentaries is that the more realistic it looks and feels, the better. This usually ends up translating into very homespun production values, looking like something that was shot on the cheap because it usually is to make that effect work. For comparison, look at a film like He Named Me Malala and then look at something like The Aristocrats: The former is way too polished to make the realism factor pan out too well, while the latter is shot as basically as humanly possible which only ends up helping the film in the long run. I bring all this up because the production values with this film start out on a weird footing. Basically, it involves Dominik and co. still figuring out the focus and such for their 3D video camera while trying to block Nick’s movements as he gets dressed. Apart from leading to a nicely sarcastic use of the film’s title, this also makes for a good tone setter for the rest of the film.

Even through the higher-quality camera quality and cinematography, this is meant to be a pretty unfiltered depiction of Nick Cave at this particular point in time, both in terms of his music and his personal history. We get a good mixture of one-on-one interview time, fly-on-the-wall viewing of the Bad Seeds in the studio and even some smooth music video footage for the songs off The Skeleton Tree, all of which not only work in their own right but also fit nicely alongside each other. There’s also a lot of after-the-fact narration done by Nick Cave, coming across like the editor accidentally spliced the commentary track into the actual film. However, rather than feeling out-of-place, it ends up working as his own inner monologue as he goes over his own retroactive thoughts and feelings at certain points during filming. It’s kind of like the soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man in how it was conceived, implemented and ultimately the effect it leaves on the film.

I described watching 20,000 Days On Earth as somewhat of a religious experience, and I can pinpoint the precise moment when that feeling hit me. It was during one of Nick’s darkly sardonic musings on his own life, where he ended up saying this: “I can control the weather with my moods. I just can’t control my moods.” That saying has grown to be one of the most poignant phrases I’ve ever heard in relation to any artistic medium, and it ends up encapsulating Nick’s entire approach to his craft: He is perfectly aware of his own capabilities, but also his limitations.

This film continues that depiction of his creative process, only it shows a far more helpless tone on his part. When describing how the music on his new album came about, he comes across like this desperate man trying to carve a sculpture out of this amorphous blob that never stops shifting. He is completely at the mercy of his craft, portraying himself as trying to grasp at whatever concrete musical ideas he can grab because they will often just elude him. What’s more, he has a very clear compulsion to create that sculpture, as if he has some moral obligation to the art form and he must satisfy it. In the studio, he even talks about how he will often lose track of the chords that the song is in… which makes some sense, considering the song in question was initially improvised. Such things are hardly unique to him, as forcing one’s self to create often doesn’t end too well, but showing that aspect of the art is something that doesn’t come up nearly often enough.

When dealing with any creative art form, it is usually considered somewhat of a boon when tragedy strikes. Callous as it sounds, some of the greatest works of art came about as a result of something unimaginably terrible happening to the artist in question, giving them inspiration as well as a general need to distract themselves from the issue. However, that is only half of it. As Nick himself explains, tragedy and trauma are two entirely different things in the creative realm. Tragedy, in much the same way as it can with comedy, can lead itself to art after enough time has chipped away at it. Trauma, on the other hand, ends up hampering that process more than anything else as the scarring from such an event can make one unable to articulate it through any means, let alone music. Nick, almost in contrast to his approach with the music, explains that he never releases a line in a song unless he is absolutely satisfied with it. This perfectionist approach to his words shows in how he deals with the unfortunate death of his own son; in that, he doesn’t directly talk about it too much. Instead, he and his wife spend most of their time talking about talking about it, needing that veneer between the two because they understandably haven’t completely come to terms with it yet.

As Nick explains about his perspective on the so-called narrative of life and how less story-driven his own songs have become of late, you can definitely understand why he wouldn’t see comfort in the idea that everything in life is planned out and has a grand direction to it. But Nick knows that he has to deal with this in some way; hell, the major reason why this film exists at all is so he wouldn’t have to talk endlessly to journalists about the event. From the very start, we see that Nick clearly doesn’t want to do this film at that time; he’s still dealing with the loss of a loved one and he’s not entirely sure if he’s even coherent in how he articulates his own feelings about it. But, much like with his music, this is something that he has to make, if for no other reason than to help deal with his own grief. It’s rare that a film where the subject clearly doesn’t want to be involved in it would work for precisely that reason.

All in all, this is yet another fascinating look into the mind and music of Nick Cave, only this is far more melancholy than last time. Through Nick Cave’s improvised mutterings about his own life and the nature of that life, along with Andrew Dominik’s exquisite direction, we see various extents to which grief is capable of affecting a person, from necessary detachment to potential inspiration to eventual acceptance. This ends up factoring into how the musical process is shown on screen, with Nick showing that the idea of tragedy leading to great art isn’t as clear-cut as some of us may have thought.

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