There is more paradise in hell than we’ve been told — Nick Cave, speaking in One More Time With Feeling
Grief is the only real chasm. Those who live on the wrong side of it can spot their kin immediately. The language of innocence deferred casts a long shadow from every angle, it speaks even in silence. Living with loss forces you across the chasm, there is no choice involved, and in the midst there seems to be little difference between the long fall and landing. Recklessness is the easiest darkness to shoulder after intimate loss, but there is a difference between free-fall and jumbled heap. There is a way to return to careful, gentle affection.
One More Time With Feeling, a documentary by New Zealand director Andrew Dominik about Nick Cave in the wake of losing his fifteen-year-old son Arthur articulates the weight of going through the motions while coping with death. Cave was already in the process of completing this year’s spectral, sixteenth record with The Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree, when his teenage son fell to his death. The decision to continue with the work moved from necessary expression to urgent distraction — a reason to get up each day.
“When a kid dies, it really puts everything else into perspective,” Dominik said by phone last week, in an interview about the movie. “Films don’t seem that important, records don’t seem that important. No one was thinking. I wasn’t looking at it from a career perspective or an opportunity. I made this film without any of the usual kind of guarantees that I like I going into a movie. I knew that my feelings were not paramount, Nick’s feelings would be paramount. If there was a disagreement, I would just lay down and let him have what he wanted. Because he was in pain, basically. I never considered saying no. But it wasn’t like making a film.”
Grief is a force of separation, not just from the person you love(d), but from the other people who surround you. Your own grief — this one, mine — feels so specific, so unthinkable, it seems no suffering could be more acute than yours. That is the selfish suck of grief; it’s a brute force of mercenary blindness. Why shouldn’t it be? There is nothing more primal than unprovoked, unexpected loss. Perhaps it is the one thing we can’t evolve away from. Wild grief ruins imagination like a bully kicking in a sandcastle. A worthy act of retaliation is creating something beautiful, anyway, even with the sense that it could be lost or belittled just as easily.
Immediately after Arthur’s death in 2015, The Caves issued the following statement: “Our son Arthur died on Tuesday evening. He was our beautiful, happy loving boy. We ask that we be given the privacy our family needs to grieve at this difficult time.” Eventually though, it seemed what Nick needed was a protected but public way to discuss his loss. As a public figure, his grief was already as public as his art, and it inevitability worked its way into the record, so Cave chose to meld the two. One More Time With Feeling is the harried, heady result.
“The big problem with a film like this, is should you even make it?” Dominik said. “There’s a certain amount of discomfort, to look at ourselves in the worst possible way as being these people that are exploiting a tragedy to… sell records. That’s not really the real intention behind it at all, but that does exist in it. Is there something disgusting about the fact this film, on one level, a promotional tool to sell a record? We were always trying to work out where was this film a legitimate portrait that has some kind of integrity, and where was it grief porn?”
Grief porn is an interesting term, because it conveys a sense of the lascivious “otherness” that those who aren’t processing trauma feel when observing those who are. To avoid that sense of overdoing it, of wallowing or exploiting, throughout the film there is a constant acknowledgement that a film is being made. The fourth wall is completely disintegrated in a sense, and that disintegration process becomes the work of the film itself.
“At the heart of this record is this devastating tragedy,” Dornik said. “And we were always conscious of that. Since we couldn’t work out where that line was, we decided that the only way to deal with that was to be honest about the confusion that surrounded it all. Look, if you’re shooting a film, I don’t give a f*ck, there’s no such thing as a fly on the wall. People can forget — maybe if you’re there the whole time people eventually forget that you’re there — but it’s an unnatural thing.”
“To not acknowledge the camera is perverse. At the beginning, you need the camera to even break down before people are prepared to be real. You see what happens with that conversation I have with Warren [of The Bad Seeds], where I’m asking him about, at the start of the movie, what was it like to go to [The Cave house] in the aftermath of Arthur’s death, and he won’t even tell me what he really thinks until the camera breaks.”
Every attempt to articulate pain lessens the feeling, every expression seems a farce because it can never be the thing itself. The best thing an expression of grief can be is a bridge across the chasm, a bridge for the self, and a bridge that others may use to follow. One More Time With Feeling is an attempt to bridge that chasm.
“You could say anything, and it could be completely true, but as soon as you put a camera on it there’s an element to what a person’s saying that cannot be trusted,” Dominik noted. “Because it becomes a performance. It does and it doesn’t — Nick is a lot more hung up on that than I am. He’s a very self-conscious person, or should I say self-aware person. He’s aware of how he’s seen, and I think that he is quite an uncomfortable person, and he’s a really private person who lives a public life.
“He’s a bundle of contradictions. I had a rule about how I could use their grief. It’s okay if they’re telling you something about the process of grieving, or if they’re giving you an insight into what it’s like to be in the situation they’re in. That was okay to use. I didn’t really use the outpourings of feeling. That’s when I felt it was kind of pornographic. Unless they had something to say I didn’t want to just show their feelings.”
Along with Nick Cave, the film includes appearances from his wife, Susie Bick, and Arthur’s twin brother Earl, along with performances of songs off Skeleton Tree and appearances by members of the Bad Seeds. To encompass all of these elements at once, Dominik conceived of shooting the film entirely in black and white 3D.
“The movie is basically a collection of fleeting moments,” he explained. “I knew that this film was really just going to be a kind of collection of impressions, of a person trying to navigate this new life that they’re finding themselves in, and that works a lot better in 3D. I think when you see the film in 3D it washes over you in a way that the two dimensional version of the film doesn’t. It pushes you inside even if it maintains a certain distance.”
The only salve I ever found in the face of extreme trauma was to create a narrative around it, a way through, even. There is strange relief in issuing a response or synthesizing the experience, in creating a record of how it was for when the pain inevitability fades. This film, in particular, is a rare look into the private life of Nick Cave, who is a notoriously reclusive family man.
“I wasn’t setting up some method documentary about the process of making a documentary,” Dominik said. “That wasn’t the way it was conceived or the point of that stuff — we’re trying to be honest. The only way to do that was to acknowledge the artifice of what we were doing, to give a sense of how difficult it’s going to be to get to this subject, how tender it is, how much confusion surrounds it, and how intrusive we are to life. It’s also a huge responsibility.
“First of all, it’s somebody entrusting you with a representation of the most significant thing that’s ever happened to them. He’s paying for the film out of his own pocket, it’s probably not going to make any money. I was responsible financially, I was responsible creatively and I was responsible emotionally. There were times when that was pretty frightening, because the film could’ve gone all manner of different ways. He’s not an easy subject to deal, with, Nick. He’s prickly.”
That prickliness comes through in plenty of the shots. Nick is especially protective of his family when they are being filmed, and is easily frustrated with the process of maintaining continuity in the film, or re-doing takes. These behind-the-scenes moments become central points in the movie, and are further indication that making the movie was another form of distraction for the grief-stricken family. Frustration with re-doing a shot is different than frustration over continuous reminders of loss, focusing on the annoyance of a film was an easier, lighter place to fix their daily attention.
So, those who have been through the process find a sense of familiarity in Cave’s moody helplessness — and that he makes no attempt to hide or mask it. Too often grieving people try to jump immediately to hopefulness, or a “lesson,” and sometimes there is no lesson in pain. It’s just pain, unthinking and absurd and stupid. It’s actually much more soothing to see a film reflect this bleakness without any saccharine placating.
One of the most intense moments of the film is when Susie shows the camera a drawing she found that her son had done at a young age. It was of a situation strikingly similar to the location and situation he died in. The drawing had been framed in black. She talks about her horror at finding it, and the decision she faced about whether or not to share it with her husband.
“What I find so interesting about that, is it really shows something about her dilemma,” Dominik explained. “She finds a thing that knocks her over, and she has to make a decision at that point about whether to put Nick through the same feelings, or whether to keep it to herself and deal with it herself. On the one hand she spares him, but on the other hand she cuts off an avenue for intimacy between them. These are choices they have to make all the time. There’s something about that I can imagine is a real thing, that a person has to deal with continuously. That must be so f*cking hard.”
Many parts of the film contain Nick’s voiceover, even over parts where he himself is talking in the shot. Considering his voice is the element the majority of viewers are already the most familiar with, it helps bring a sense of continuity to fans of his music. But it also gives the film yet another layer, yet another perspective on how this man and his family are coping with their great loss.
“Just before we started shooting I came up with the idea that there should be voiceover, but that was almost for practical reasons,” Dominik explained. “I knew the film was going to be in 3D, and I don’t believe that you should cut a lot in 3D so I wanted to have long shots. I thought that would be boring, so I wanted to hear a little bit about what was going on with Nick. Then I realized that what I could do was contrast the external life that he’s sort of moving through with the kind of internal thing that’s going on inside him, and then the film would become something that’s like a poem, or it could be really beautiful.”
The film does have the same impact as a poem, given its loose string of associated images and lack of focused, demanding narrative. That freeform structure still unfolds as a story, a message is asserted loud and clear, but there is space between the lines for audience members to fill in their own thoughts, feelings or experiences. It is the opposite of grief porn — it becomes a communal place where those who have experienced similar trauma can convene.
“The movie is completely improvised, there was no plan other than show up with a camera,” Dominik said. “What I feared the most was the idea that I was going to somehow diminish or trivialize or mythologize this, that I was going to somehow make it smaller. Or that I was somehow going to dishonor Arthur. At a certain point, it was terrifying, it really was. Most of the time, there’s no time to think. But I think I also knew Nick was offering me a real opportunity. In my opinion, I think Nick is a significant artist. To me, he has been in my life.”
Dominik and Cave have been friends for nearly thirty years. They initially met when Andrew was dating an ex-girlfriend of Nick’s, a woman named Deanna who Nick wrote a song about on his 1988 album Tender Prey. Eventually, through her continued friendship with Nick, he and Andrew developed their own closeness.
“To be able to have access to a person, like all-access to somebody like that, is a real opportunity,” Dominik noted. “Someone who is as articulate as he is going through a trauma that we’re all going to suffer. We’re all going to suffer grief. We’re all going to lose people of huge significance in our lives. Most of us, it won’t happen until we’re much older. But everybody is going to go through what he’s going through.
“Perhaps not losing a child, which, is probably the worst thing, it’s almost unfathomable. It’s not imaginable. But, to be given the opportunity to go in there and let your curiosity be the guide with someone who is willing to cooperate, it’s a real opportunity as well as a responsibility. So I’m very grateful to him for allowing me to do it. Because we made something, I think it’s beautiful.”
One of the most beautiful things about the film is exactly the way it captures the exhaustion of grief. At one point, Susie describes how it physically took energy out of her to move through the pain of it, and even the film’s title points toward the repetition of day-to-day life in the midst of the extreme existential pain that suffering death elicits. The title is a line from one of the songs on Skeleton Tree, “Magneto.”
“The music documentaries that I really like have a title that’s an action,” Dominik said. “Don’t Look Back. Stop Making Sense. So I wanted to find something that was like a verb, and I wanted it to be a line from one of the songs. The title is obviously ironic. I had the title in mind, but then there was that perfect opportunity that came when we were shooting in the hotel of using the title like a joke. It was kind of surprising, the way it pops out makes you laugh.
“So it was all of the above. The title is about exhaustion. The title is about having to do it, having to perform, having to express yourself, and having to be real. I’m not sure the title is exactly straight, although it could be read that way. But mostly it’s about exhaustion. I think that he’s feeling a kind of exhaustion — at having to do it again. Whether it’s the next take, or the next record, or the next breath. Or the next foot in front of the other. Which is really what life was down to, for them, at that point. It’s literally about just getting through the day with this weight.”
Healing is a loss too. Losing the initial thrum of grief is another, lesser form of trauma. Healing is only a series of similar wounds that open and close over time. Healing is not a completed state, wider circles just form around the pain like padding, like a tree getting older. That you can heal seems an affront to the initial bright-hot sadness, to the unbearable weight.
Healing is a choice, too. Or maybe, as Nick says in the final lines of the film, healing is the ultimate revenge on an absurd and uncaring universe. In the midst of such recklessness, there is nothing more rebellious than the choice to be gentle and careful. To continue on, one more time with feeling, until the chasm begins to close.
One More Time With Feeling is out today, 12/1. Find a place to see it here.
After a time, Susie and I decided to be happy. This happiness seemed to be an act of revenge, an act of defiance. To care about each other, and everyone else, and to be careful. To be careful with each other and the ones around us. — Nick Cave