October 2014: 20,000 Days on Earth at the Prince Charles Cinema, Leicester Place, London
You know that feeling, as dawn shines promise on a new day and you begin stirring to wakefulness? When the grip of sleep loosens just enough to make you vaguely aware of the dreams your brain is projecting in full colour? You know when it's impossible to be certain of what is a genuine memory and what is a product of the imagination?
Well, escaping the clamour and confusion of London's impatient streets and settling into the generous, purple leather seats of the PCC, that's exactly how it felt watching 20,000 Days on Earth. Scripted as a day in the life of its subject - musician and writer Nick Cave - it eschewed the typical 'warts and all' approach of films about singers and bands in favour of something verging on esoteric.
The portrait of the titular landmark in Cave's life took him from waking beside his wife, to an interview with a therapist, reminiscences at the Nick Cave archive, numerous recording sessions, lunch with his bandmate Warren Ellis, watching a movie with his kids, and driving around Brighton engaged in 'imaginary' conversations with friends and former collaborators.
It might sound like a whistle stop tour around a man's life, but Cave's mesmerising creative outpourings and deliberate articulation of thought made it impossible to feel rushed. The concentrated blend of philosophy, life history and song-writing entranced the viewer with a world that seemed entirely plausible in its artifice. Rather than begging multiple questions, it was a world that concentrated on just one:
Who is Nick Cave?
Not a question that 20,000 Days necessarily sought to answer; rather, the question I asked myself while queuing for a ticket. The poster depicted a dark, brooding man sitting behind a typewriter, and the promotional stills showed the same lean figure at the wheel of a car (with Kylie Minogue for a back seat passenger). Curtains of shoulder-length black hair framed a thin face, and there was something enigmatic in those features that hinted at a life well lived by a complex personality.
The promise of insight into the creative process attracted me to see the film in the first place, but whose creative processes were up for examination? I went into the quasi-documentary with my eyes open (or as open as they can be when entering a dream), but for many audience members my ignorance was surely sacrilege.
I said the film verged on esoteric, but there was too much critical praise for it to only interest fans of Cave and the Bad Seeds. Nevertheless, the people I was sharing the screen with clearly knew their answer to the question. One guy half a dozen seats away never sat back in his chair, leaning forward in hypnotic reverie for the duration, while snatches of laughter routinely punctured the atmosphere.
Rather than breaking the spell, they left me wondering what jokes I was missing and deepened the sensation of being on some other plane of reality. Familiarity with Cave was working for others, seemingly confirming their view of an image cultivated throughout his career. Could I penetrate the layers of that image via a ninety minute film?
Who knows their own story?
This time the question was Cave's, asked early in the film (before positing that "life is all just clamour and confusion"). Trying to make sense of things in the moment, he reasoned, is fruitless. Creativity offers the breathing space to make sense of our thoughts and experience. Perhaps that was Cave's motivation when agreeing to participate in the project - if, that is, the notion was truly his and not a fabrication of the script.
All involved in 20,000 Days insisted that while the Nick Cave character played by Nick Cave was still Nick Cave, it was not the real Nick Cave. Instead, it was a Nick Cave that Nick Cave has played for years. Is it possible, though, to be two versions of yourself so distinctly for so long?
Creativity is a natural extension of our enthusiasm
said Earl Nightingale, an author and motivational speaker. If you were Cave - writing songs, novels and screenplays at the same time as being front man for various musical projects - could you ever control the extent to which the private 'you' remained detached from your public work?
Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard - the artists who directed 20,000 Days - said:
the important thing for us was not breaking the mythology.
If Cave was creatively invested in their mythologising then it was hard not to think of the statement itself as a greater part of the mythology; a ruse to disguise that maybe I was actually seeing Cave's true (albeit highly stylised) self. The natural conclusion, then, was that he knew exactly what story the film was telling - because, deep down, we all know our own stories.
It's just that not all of us are lucky enough to find the people who can help us tell them.
When is the time to act?
Among Cave's deliberations on the nature of ideas was the concept that an idea is neither good or bad until acted upon. It sounded like the kind of cod philosophy that novelty fridge magnets and Twitter specialise in, but it also rang true - especially when associated with statements like:
We cannot afford to be idle.
(Any person who has ever actually created something knows how critical momentum is; how potentially destructive inactivity can be).
Like many cinemas of the tour, the PCC has had various guises. Since 1991, despite Leicester Square's glitzy multiplexes sitting just metres away, it has carved a niche in London's film culture using the multi-faceted chisel of cult film screenings, imaginative double bills and marathon all-nighters.
What, I wonder, was the first idea? Who conceived the screening that set the template for everything that followed? And did they ever come close to not acting on the idea?
The PCC's programme was perhaps the ultimate antidote to the dissatisfaction I felt in 2009 when mainstream venues started disagreeing with me; it only took five years to find! Visiting a new indie and wishing it was my local was nothing new, but the PCC offered the most creative film selection of all. Not just the occasional special event, but a consistently inventive schedule. In 2014, other cinemas are just catching on to the idea of singalong screenings that the PCC pioneered in 2010.
Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, and not every cinema faces the scale of competition that the PCC does. Nor does it have access to the size and diversity of audience to be found in a nation's capital. But somebody has to take a lead that others can eventually follow, and if it leads to more choice and more imagination then, boy, I'm glad the people at the PCC used one of their days on earth to act upon an idea.
If you enjoyed this blog post ...
... then you might like the tale of my journey around some of the UK's finest indie cinemas (and a few further afield). A Tour of the Indies: A Creative Quest for the UK's Best Cinema's ... and Cake has this dedicated page where you can read more.