A few tweaks here and there, and these guys could be a force to be reckoned with.
One More Time With Feeling
The premiere of 20,000 Days on Earth, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 2014 documentary about musician and author Nick Cave, was preceded by red carpet pizzazz, and the irreverent film itself ended – beside the sea – with an optimistic message of boundless hope and creativity.
It’s these memories that make Andrew Dominik’s mesmeric new documentary even sadder. We’re used to seeing the elegant, lyrical Cave effortlessly turning horror into romance. But here we see him slouched in a tracksuit top, unsure what to say or do to console his grieving wife, who clutches a painting that their son, Arthur, drew when he was five.
Our knowledge of the fate of Arthur Cave, who fell to his death last year aged 15, is assumed and it looms over the film like a literal shadow. Shot almost entirely in monochrome, the mood is mournful throughout, punctuated by the briefest levity, usually between Cave and Warren Ellis, his long-time collaborator.
The film makes few narrative concessions. There’s no dramatic moment when the bad news comes through. No crash zooms on crying faces. Early on, Cave reflects on something Ellis has said: that past, present and future exist all at once. And this is how it feels in the final edit, as we never know which footage (if any) is from before the tragedy and which came after.
We are given no names in subtitles and the context is barely explained. It’s not informative in the typical sense. This isn’t a criticism but a fact. Rather than a charting of specific events, One More Time With Feeling is a document of mood and emotion. Punctuating this texture are studio recordings. The tracks from The Bad Seeds’ new LP, Skeleton Tree, released the day after this one-off cinematic event, are universally downbeat: looping, suffocating, darkly ambient swirls and tragic piano descents. More than ever, the lyrics are aching and sometimes abstract. Cave is the master of effective verbal repetition; and, as he mentions at one point, no line is wasted. Dominik lets four or five tracks play out in full while his camera prowls the moody studio darkness. His direction is tasteful, atmospheric, and sensitive.
And necessarily so, because the feelings are raw. Cave talks unbearably movingly about the impossibility of softening his grief with lyrics. (I was reminded of Theodor Adorno’s comment about how there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.) He’s also coming to terms with the fact that the trauma cannot be escaped, such is its “elastic” grasp, always pulling the bereaved back. However eloquently Cave has sung or spoken about death and loss in the past, the situation here is obviously something profound and unique, and the aftermath is a maze of indefinable despair, beyond the best poet.
Watch with caution, for this is a difficult documentary which is not designed to console or comfort. It exists to draw you unsentimentally into the sombre rhythm of grief. Yet the fact that a perfectly calibrated and deeply moving work of art could come out of such a moment in an artist’s life does, on some level, leave us with a kind of hope.