A Different Kind of Birthday Party: Nick Cave Looks Back in 20,000 Days On Earth.

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In the opening scene of Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s quasi bio-doc, Nick Cave pronounces, over delicate voice-over, “At the end of the 20th Century I ceased to be a human being.” Didn’t we all? With the rise of smart phones and a plethora of life managing apps, few of us can claim complete organic status. Yet, herein lies the first of many misleads in 20,000 Days On Earth. Not that he is lying, but the meaning of his personal proclamation remains arcane. Throughout the film, Cave is staunchly mechanical. He’s seen pecking away at a manual typewriter. During practice sessions with collaborator, Warren Ellis, Cave sticks atavistically to an upright piano while Ellis mans a synthesizer. There is one fleeting shot of Cave holding an iPhone, but that’s about as digital as this quixotic songsmith gets. Even every clock shown in the film (of which there are many) is analog. What Cave means about ceasing to be human—like much of what the film puts forth—straddles a sad line of empty philosophy.

20,000 Days is about as low concept as it gets. Nearly impossible to nutshell in one sentence. As the title implies, this doc is predicated on the idea of celebrating Cave’s 20,000th day on Earth by way of looking back on his life, talking with old friends, sifting through old journals, photos and drudging up the past with a psychoanalyst. The majority of what goes on is staged, and the filmmakers make no effort to convince us that this is actually a day in Cave’s life. Flashing back and forth from two separate recording sessions, several long driving scenes, a concert, and a trip to Cave’s cache of mementos in Sydney, Australia, prove none of this could have occurred within a 24 hour span. Yet, Not since Orson Welles’ F is for Fake, has a supposed bio doc played so teasingly with the haze of truth. The difference is, unlike Welles’ grand prank, 20,000 Days never intends to be a “put-on.” The film, at heart, is about memory. The fear of forgetting, and the fear of being forgotten. What does it say for a film steeped in reflection to be so heavily staged and fictionalized?

Forsyth and Pollard’s tome sits indefinably amongst other slice of life music docs, such as Wilco’s pensive I am Trying To Break Your Heart and Bruce Weber’s jumbled look at Chet Baker, Let’s Get Lost. It is narrative to some extent, more feature film than documentary. So devoid of talking-headism that even Cave never speaks with the filmmakers other than as casual conversation while looking through archival materials. The film’s tone keeps an almost painful flatline. Although the avoidance of hyperbolic deism is refreshing, 20,000 Days suffers from the same malaise as Cave’s own post post-punk output. That is to say, Forsyth and Pollard are doing something different, without putting the necessary thought into what that might be.

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