20,000 Days on Earth begins with a biographical credit sequence. A display rapidly counting the number of ‘days on Earth’ sits alongside an ever increasing number of televisions, each with various snippets of archive footage chronologically recounting Nick Cave’s life in moments. The narrative opens with a shot of a little analog alarm clock showing 6:59am. Cut to Cave in bed, eyes open, laying in thought. The alarm sounds and Cave looks at it for a few seconds before casually turning it off. A tightly composed curving dolly shot jibs up and reveals Cave’s wife Susie asleep in the bed next to him. The camera continues moving and finds a symmetrical resting frame at the foot of the bed, as Cave’s narration explains his daily routine of waking, writing, eating and TV.
20,000 Days on Earth boasts a curious combination of fly-on-the-wall-esque observation and delicately resplendent cinematography. It makes no effort to hide the staged nature of its set-ups, whilst simultaneously feeling like a natural and believable reconstruction of events in Cave’s life. The plot is built around casual conversations between Cave and various friends and peers, recording sessions, live performances, Cave’s narration, and an interview/counseling session with acclaimed psychoanalyst Darian Leader. It is this final component, in which we delve into Cave’s psyche – his motivations and fears, his relationship with his father and his earliest memories – that provides the backbone for the narrative structure, its content and its rich and intelligent visual metaphors.
Cave’s biggest fears – exposed to the audience through one of Leaders many (improbably unscripted) lines of questioning – are losing both his memory and the ability to continue doing what he does. It’s these concerns that the film’s directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard tackle in both the film’s content, and its admirably focused and inventive subtext. We’re shown Cave waking, eating, writing and watching TV. We see him perform. We see him ably doing what he does. He converses with previous collaborators during daydream-like drives along Brighton’s rainy coastline and takes lengthy looks at himself in the mirror. These fabricated scenes aren’t necessary to expose any particular information. If Cave’s enthralling and impressively self-aware analyses are obsessed with recounting previous ‘moments when the gears of the heart really changed’, then the film itself isn’t just a vehicle for recounting such moments, but it’s also an exercise in exploring the feelings behind them.
It’s clear from Cave’s conversation with Leader that he’s scrupulously self-aware and continually self-analysing. Leader’s (probably staged or at least pre-warned) questions are answered thoroughly, insightfully and openly. It’s a testament to the cinematography, editing and directing that the film successfully mirrors Cave’s own introspective abilities through its thoughtful and poignant long takes and dynamic montage. It’s the directorial pair’s ability to forge such a harmonious balance between the substance and style of the film that makes it such an expressive and accomplished work. We learn just as much form the bewitching soundtrack and beguiling cinematography as we do from the many conversations and interviews. Whether conversations are scripted is of little importance. 20,000 Days on Earth isn’t concerned with capturing improvised moments of reality. It instead seeks to reveal a deeper, more visceral and objective brand of truth.
Cave writes about his troubles so that they become fictitious. He was scared about the birth of his twins, he was fed up with Brighton’s gloomy weather, so they became the subject of his writing. He wrote about them and the troubles became productive and positive. Cave comically explains that his ostentatious younger self wrote a will leaving everything he owned (which apparently wasn’t much at the time) to the creation of a memorial in his name. Like his previous troubles, his fear of being forgotten, losing the ability to perform and be creatively productive, is tackled in the film’s very content. It’s an output for Cave’s fears. It stands as a cognisant autobiographical tenement to Cave’s prolific and accomplished career. A work amounting to something much more meaningful than a collection of archive footage as seen in the opening credits. It’s immortal proof of Cave’s charismatic and enviable ability to mesmerise his dedicated fans; but more importantly, it’s an eloquent and evocative form of self-expression.
20,000 Days on Earth (2014), directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, is released by Picturehouse Entertainment, Certificate 15. Watch the trailer below.