Nick Cave’s playfully autobiographical adventure 20,000 Days on Earth, reveals the interplay of the artist and the forces that shape him. What seems to set Cave apart as an artist is that he is able to accept his own powerlessness. He is at home with grief and suffering, but manages to avoid being consumed by them.
The film guides you through an internal monologue, spliced with conversations with friends and collaborators, a therapy session, and live performances.
What emerges is an artist who, despite the loss of his father and having been a junkie, is remarkably sane. The creative process may not be the mysterious key to that sanity, but the film shows just how important creativity is as a stabilising force – particularly that of the performing artist.
The fantasy figure, the bravado of the rock star image, the worship and erotic command of Nick Cave on stage, is a very powerful tool in this creative process, for both the audience and the performer.
Suffering is necessary to creativity, but no more so than joy. Suffering fascinates us, because it puts our humanity on the line, brings our values and fears and our subconscious into clear focus. The ritualistic dance of the performance artist, is to get close to the flame of existence, but never to allow oneself to be suffocated in it, or to try and extinguish it.
One thing that had always evaded me was the sexual power of Nick Cave. I understood that some might find him attractive, but he has a particular erotic power that was only available to me once I had seen this film, and it is crucial to his place as one of the great rock and roll performers.
The comfort with being multiple selves, and the ease with which Cave is able to assume his stage persona without guilt or self-consciousness is key to this draw. In one of the vignettes of the film, where Cave is conversing with an imaginary Ray Winstone, he says that the image of the rock star is someone who must be ‘drawn in one line’. It’s a great phrase, and what he must have meant is the completeness of the image, like a religious icon. Otherworldly certainly, not necessarily flawless, but effortless, and easeful, lacking in existential uncertainty.
Perhaps this is the importance of the image of a performer. People actually want you to be this otherworldly figure. They need you to be. And in playing with this need, without necessarily falling into its magic and delusion completely, one is able to make magic with those images of fantasy and darkness that lie dormant in our experiences of the day-to-day world.
This explains, I think, Nick Cave’s erotic power. Grown women, not teenie-boppers, swoon at his performances and lust for him. Cave, as I now see, is the thinking woman’s crumpet. He is able to melt the heart of otherwise tough and furiously suspicious women, and he is able to do this with his ability to play with his image. Not just as a performer, but within his own creative experiences.
The film itself is an example of that. He is playing with the image, and having fun with it while recognising the importance of it. Nothing is taken too seriously, but everything is given its due significance, and therein lies the power of the great artist.
The need to escape oneself is very important in 20,000 Days on Earth. Cave talks of a need ‘to be someone else’, and it is a basic human need, not just a unique pathology. The difference between the artist then, and everyone else, is that they embrace this need. Drugs of any kind offer a cheap fix for this compulsion. However, there is a sense that by being playful with multiple selves, multiple lives and perspectives, one gets out of one’s head, but that ship of the self never quite leaves its home port.
When Cave discusses his ‘weather diaries’, the functional role of creativity in his life becomes stark. With a pregnant wife and settled on the English coast, Cave wrote about the misery of British weather from the perspective of an Australian, trying to work through the heartbreak of day after day of storm cloud, rain and gloom.
Eventually, he says, Cave began to love the weather, because, ‘bad weather is much more interesting than good weather.’ The artist fuses his self with the environment, builds a relationship with forces outwith his control. In the process, a kind of peace is reached. It is wrong to say that such artistic, and very much writerly, instincts are an attempt to control the weather. Rather they are an attempt to make peace with the environment. The self exercises its agency to its fullest degree. Creativity pushes the boundaries of where mind and world meet. But the artist knows they cannot be the supreme leader. All they can do is test this boundary, and play with its fluidity.
By his own admission, Cave tells us that mystery is more important than anything that can be understood. By writing about the weather, or making up songs that explore grief or loss or pain, we do not attempt to purge them from our consciousness. As Cave says at the beginning of the film, ‘memory is what we are.’ No. The point is to flex the imagination’s muscle, in order to maintain a shifting and adaptive relationship with our fickle environment, and the unforeseen tragedies of life’s onslaught.