In recent weeks I’ve watched a few music films which experiment with the form of documentary. The two most successful and memorable of these were Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One (1968) (released in England as Sympathy for the Devil) and Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days of Earth. Godard’s film on the creation of the eponymous Rolling Stone hit is at times fascinating – we are invited to watch Mick Jagger et al. slowly develop ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ from its fundamental components to the finished product – and at others obscure, difficult and alienating. The film occupies a peculiar position: the seemingly unrelated political interludes which disrupt the songwriting narrative are often said to alienate both Rolling Stones and early Godard fans, rewarding only the hyper-specialised devotees of Godard’s post-1968 Marxist period. It appears that the repeated insertion of Black Panther militants, Maoists and guerrillas worked to defy all expectations and were the agents of the film’s demise (in terms of both 1960s critical and audience reception). If there has been a renaissance in critical reactions towards the film, it surely comes as an acceptance of its experimentation. Whether you like his work or not, it is impossible to suggest that Godard did not revolutionise our understanding of cinema. From Breathless (1960) through to Le Mépris (1963), Weekend (1967) and into his Dziga Vertov Group films of the late 1960s and early 70s, Godard systematically disrupted every element inherited from the films of the Hollywood system, alienating audiences, enthralling critics and creating some of the greatest works of 20th century art.
When I watched Forsyth and Pollard new film about Australian musician Nick Cave, a fictionalised documentary of a day in his life, Godard and what he stood for kept returning to my thoughts. It is telling that Forsyth and Pollard regard One Plus One, alongside Led Zeppelin documentary The Song Remains the Same and Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man, as a key influence on 20,000 Days on Earth. If Godard took the music documentary form into uncharted territory, Forsyth and Pollard can be seen as continuing this process, albeit with an accessibility unknown to the enfant terrible. Although Forsyth and Pollard do not aim for the alienating and disruptive effects of Godardian aesthetics, they are still interested in experimentation. 20,000 Days on Earth occupies the amorphous territory between documentary and feature film which films such as Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (2010) have also explored. It is a rejection of the promises of cinéma vérité – objectivity, the search for truth, photography as recorder of reality – and the acceptance that documentary films distort the truth and that reality will always be manipulated by the camera, filmmaker and editor. While much of the history of feature film and documentary realism is indebted to the techniques developed by the cinéma vérité school of filmmaking, films such as 20,000 Days on Earth and their ilk can arguably be thought of as exploring a new form of realism, a realism which rejects the mere illusion of ‘documentary’ aesthetic practices and draws attention to its place as a construction.
The central ideas of 20,000 Days on Earth, which inform both its aesthetics and much of its content, are memory and the fear of losing it. The film is constructed as a collage: unordered ideas, recollections, archive photographs and videos without overall narrative form the bulk of its content. Forsyth and Pollard make use of the day in the life narrative in order to organise this disparate material, grounding the film and offering a familiarity and structure to otherwise nebulous content. After the noisy video art style opening credit sequence, which draws attention to Forsyth and Pollard’s history working in the art world, the film’s narrative content can be summed up as the following: starting in Brighton, Cave drives to meet his psychotherapist Darian Leader; we are invited to watch one of his sessions take place; Cave then drives to band member Warren Ellis’ house for lunch; this is followed by an exploration of the Nick Cave archive brought to Brighton from the Melbourne Art Centre and with Cave settling down to watch Scarface with his two twin boys in the evening. Even if one were to ignore the inclusion of Ray Winstone and Kylie as real or imagined car passengers throughout Cave’s driving sequences, these aforementioned scenes feel fictitious, staged and with little documentary ‘realism’. And this seems to me to be one of the most important elements of the film. The overwhelmingly distracting fakery of these scenes draws attention to Forsyth and Pollard’s attempt to divorce themselves from the type of realism proffered by many documentaries indebted to cinéma vérité ideas and aesthetics.
With the self-consciously fabricated narrative in place, Forsyth and Pollard move to switch our attention to more important things: Cave’s thoughts and recollections on the nature of songwriting, the transformative power of music and the irremovable mask of the rock star. It is the intelligence and eloquence of Cave which rewards this unconventional study. There were times where I wished I had a transcript of what was spoken, as much of his thoughts have a value and depth seemingly rare to artists (or at least this is what critics, who believe it is they that have the final word, would have you believe). Abstaining from the classical talking head style, we watch Cave reveal ‘intimate’ secrets about his first sexual appearances, his fears and his father to a psychotherapist who is played by an actor. But what we fail to be rewarded is the type of gossip central to exploitative documentaries. Instead Cave is defensive and offers anecdotes which, like the narrative, could be constructed solely for the film. If Forsyth and Pollard’s film successfully creates one reaction in its audience, other than admiration, it is surely doubt. In 20,000 Days on Earth we are invited to interrogate everything we hear and see.
If 20,000 Days on Earth is not the type of documentary that invades the privacy of its subject or calls upon the realism of its content, it is neither the type of music documentary that focuses just on the concert. Music is of central importance to the film – not just the recording or touring process but thinking about music, how it works and what it enables its performer and audience to achieve. Anecdotes about the transformation of an angry, dishevelled Nina Simone into an electric, indelible performer form the key to Cave’s musings on transformative capacity of music and the bulk of his lunchtime conversation with Warren Ellis. Some other asides enable us to explore Cave’s mental processes in ways usually obfuscated by his answers to other questions. For Cave, music is one of the only thing that does not die, that lives on after its creator is deceased. Music like the photograph captures a moment in time, preserving it mummified for eternity. And it is this fear of loss which haunts Cave. Through music, Cave has the powers of deification, creation and immortality. Some will read this as his arrogance, his self-confessed ostentatiousness yet it has an honesty rare in this film of self-conscious deceit.
Juxtaposed amongst these critical musings are studio recordings of songs for his 2013 album Push the Sky Away and performances in small gig spaces and the Sydney Opera House. These are all fascinating to watch with some moments acquiring the captivation of the corresponding sequences in Godard’s One Plus One. In addition, Forsyth and Pollard’s film makes use of montage, juxtaposition, startling sound design, shallow focus and other photographic techniques to create an original audio-visual experience expected of two artists working the field of cinema. We can just hope that their next film will have the power and depth of 20,000 Days on Earth.