20,000 Days on Earth, or, Friday Night I Went to the Movies

Okay, this is one of my vices:  I like movies that have to do with art.  Also with musicians — composers.  I even play some music myself, as tenor and leader of a (mostly — we field a harp as well and sometimes a violin) recorder consort that plays (mostly) Renaissance dance music.  I go to art shows that feature Matisse and listen to jazz inspired by his work (see July 26, April 27, below) — but also read the captions he wrote describing its origins and meanings.  I do some cartooning and sketching myself and, in the past, did some illustration as well as writing.  I go to movies about making movies, like JODOROWSKY’S DUNE (see June 22).  I haunt the film room at sf/horror conventions, in part just to see what’s new, but I also attend panels on movies and illustration and music as well as on writing and I do these things because I’m on a quest.

My quest is this:  I want to find out, to get an idea, through all these approaches to it — of what art is.  Because if I can figure that out, maybe, in my writing, I can do art myself.

So this was the catalog description for Friday night’s IU Cinema showing of 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH (this one they themselves consider important enough for a three-day showing — Friday was night one), and you can bet I went.  Drama and reality combine in a fictitious 24 hours in the life of musician and international cultural icon Nick Cave.  With startlingly frank insights and an intimate portrayal of the artistic process, the film examines what makes us who we are and celebrates the transformative power of the creative spirit.

It did not disappoint.

(Fun Fact, courtesy of Wikipedia:  After his secondary schooling, Cave studied painting (Fine Art) at the Caulfield Institute of Technology (now Monash University, Caulfield Ca20000_days_on_Earthmpus) in 1976, but dropped out in 1977 to pursue music.   Cave revealed in a 2013 interview:

(“I really wanted to be a painter — the lifestyle, what I considered a painter to be, I found really attractive when I was young.  The solitary aspect of it.  But I failed at arts school, so that was that  . . .  I’m glad I’m not a painter now.”

(As it happens, as an undergraduate I did set design for my college’s little theater, but also had notions of becoming a painter, even taking some evening classes at the Boston Museum School — cf., incidentally, the title story for THE TEARS OF ISIS for some scenes inspired by those olden, olden days.)

Yes, this is relevant, because the idea is that I shouldn’t just passively watch movies like this, but should strive for them to affect me.  What might it tell me that I’m doing right?  (I took notes as best I could in the dark:  Early on, Cave says of songwriting, “the point is counterpoint.  You put two disparate images side by side and see what sparks fly.”  My idea as well, and one I must remember — in a number of years, for instance, I’ve written an “annual Christmas story” to use the holiday with its expected associated feelings as a counterpoint to evoke some new horror.)  He speaks of using his wife, his friends, his memories, his life as a cannibal might, ingesting all to evoke inspiration.  And so, not entirely unexpectedly, he starts with small things, snippets, vignettes, to put together (I especially followed the parts of the song “Push the Sky Away”) until the film ends with concert footage.

So, yes, he says things that afterward might sound a little too pat, but in context sound right.  Perhaps some things might seem a little pretentious — wonderful images of monsters, dragons, regarding “truth.”  “Have I honored the ghosts of the past enough?”  The film recalls the transformative experience of concerts by Nina Simone and Jerry Lee Lewis, of art transforming the artist as well as those who experience it.  “[To] forget who you are, become somebody else.  . . .  You turn it on, you turn it off.  Then one day you can’t.  You’ve become the thing you’ve dreamed.”

And the parts, as with “Push the Sky Away,” start to come together.  But the thing is, for me, have I not experienced these things as well — or at least shadows of them?  As a musician, part of my joy has been in putting concerts together, working last summer with the dance mistress, as leader of a group of pickup musicians at a Society for Creative Anachronism coronation, on a playlist for that evening’s ball.  She suggests “taking a chance” by using a sort of novelty number to start the opening set, which I like very much, suggesting myself that then we can start the set after the break with the more expected processional opening — something that turns out to serve us well when unexpected events require us to play the first set only, earlier than the dancing had been originally scheduled, and having to get it started fast (“Announce that the first dance will be ____,” I suggest to the dance mistress.  “It’s noisy and fun and people may come.”  It worked!).

But also, and I’ve said this enough in virtually every interview I’ve done in the past year — and even one or two convention panels — the fun of editing THE TEARS OF ISIS myself, unlike my earlier prose collections, not just picking stories but picking them to fit into a broad theme, and then the order within that theme, one story flowing into another, sometimes echoing back tropes from several stories before, knitting all together with, at the end, the title story about a sculptress circling back to the poem about sculpting that started the book off.

Thus it’s about me — but also the things I may not do so well.  In playing dance music, people dance, but do people react vicariously when they read my stories?  Do their minds sing when they see my poems — do they hear the sound of them?  Perhaps one can’t know, but perhaps I should keep these questions in mind (of course other stories and poems may be meant to be more intellectual, to evoke ideas or just to be clever — but then do I keep these distinctions in mind?).  The film speaks of editing and collaboration, of seeing art changed by the input of others.  Do I think of poems as they might be set to music by others (this actually has happened to me with two early poems, but through no real action of my own), or fiction in terms of how it might be transformed to film?

Back to the catalog description:  VARIETY MAGAZINE calls [20,000DAYS ON EARTH] “Simply astounding, razor sharp, and dynamic,” and Andrew O’Hehir of SALON said the film is “an unclassifiable and frequently spectacular documentary.”  I might add myself, it’s also humbling.  I recommend it.


  1. I very much liked what you say about this movie, and the language of the movie itself that causes one to think –or to relate to it personally. Perhaps to inspire lines in a poem, for that matter. I put it in my “saved” Netflix queue (not available yet). There simply aren’t enough movies with such inspiring dialog these days. Thank you, Jim, for sharing!

  2. Marge, thanks. The film was only released in September (Europe and the USA — the film itself is British) although it was shown at festivals like Sundance (which I think it won for documentary) earlier in the year. I have no idea when it will become available on DVD, but possibly not for awhile (it is listed on IMDb though, as well as Wikipedia).

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