At the time of Arthur’s death, his father was recording Skeleton Tree, his 16th studio album, as well as a documentary about the production of that album. The resulting film, One More Time with Feeling, was finally released in September of this year, and I do not believe that I have ever seen a more cynical treatment of human grief.
This is not Nick Cave’s doing. Let’s be clear on that point: he did not fail in this movie. Rather, Cave has been failed by it — by director Andrew Dominik and by fans desperate for false intimacy with the hero of their college playlists. Indeed, in watching the documentary, one gets the sense that Cave is not particularly sure of his decision to participate in it at all, despite ultimately having financed the whole thing. Allegedly, he did so in lieu of giving any more interviews about Arthur, desiring, quite understandably, to be left alone by entertainment journalists unable to resist the spectacle of a rock star’s grief. “Nick told me he had some things he needed to say,” Dominik says in his director’s statement. “The idea of a traditional interview, he said, was simply unfeasible, but that he felt a need to let the people who cared about his music [to] understand the basic state of things.”
Perhaps this has helped Cave avoid the media. But it has not, despite his intentions, spared him a spectacle.
One More Time with Feeling has a loose structure: a couple of long interviews with Cave (and, at times, with his wife Susie Bick), intercut with extended in-the-studio music videos. The film does not dwell overtly on Arthur’s death, or, indeed, explain what happened at all. Rather, we see Cave allude to his sadness and pain after the fact, to his friends’ efforts to be supportive, to his frustration with the press, and his resistance to neat clichés like, “He’s still alive inside your heart.” In this sense, it’s not a documentary about how a famous musician’s son died, so much as a documentary about his father’s grief. I suppose this admirable intention is what has led so many other critics to call One More Time with Feeling “subtle.”
But it is difficult to find much subtlety in what Dominik does with his material. The film is shot in black and white. It is also — inexplicably — in 3-D. (To look like stereopticon images, purportedly.) From the beginning, Dominik plays pointless metagames: the crew tells Cave that they’ve got to redo a shot, that the focus is off, that they’re just going to set up in the another room, could he hold on a minute? The non-diegetic sound — of Cave’s commentary, of the music — is overdubbed to the point of absurdity: you cannot force voices to sound more like they are whispering in your ear. The studio footage leans in even harder. We are treated to long, slow, 360-degree tracking shots of Cave singing; intense close-ups of a bandmate playing violin; whole sessions staged in ludicrously dark rooms, where the camera zooms in for a chance to see Cave’s face betray its upper lip before speeding off to drift down an empty staircase, or to fly through cracks below doors and into a blinding lens flare. When we are not in the studio or in Cave’s home, we are in a car on the streets: for every minute that we see Cave talking, we see him stare out the window. Look at all the people going by, all the people who seem so happy.
The effect of all this cinematic pretension is something like a teenager’s vision of the beautiful art they’ll make someday, the kind of excess that the same teenager invariably cringes at when, once grown, they remember their adolescent ambitions. This is not to say that Dominik is not a skillful filmmaker. The camera work is beautiful, and Cave’s music is some of his best. But these are the kind of elements that are best used to elevate a mundane subject toward dramatic heights. Approaching the sudden, violent death of a man’s son, they are gratuitous. (Is it okay to call a film about a man’s dead son “corny”?) The strongest moments of One More Time with Feeling come when Dominik gets out of the way — when Cave or Bick or a bandmate are allowed to talk for a while. But these moments are rare.
Compare this to another recent documentary, released to similar acclaim: Weiner, Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s account of former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s failed effort to redeem his political career by way of New York’s City Hall.
Where One More Time is loose — cutting between interviews and studio sessions without any particular account of time — Weiner is nearly over-tight. Its 96 minutes are cut into perfect thirds: half an hour for background, half an hour for triumph, and half an hour for the fall. The footage is shaky and in color. There is very little music. It’s comic: this is, after all, a story about a man laid low by his inability to stop sending people pictures of his cock.
At the time of its release, Weiner was widely characterized as a kind of redemption story, an earnest effort to humanize a punch line. But in revisiting the documentary, it’s difficult to escape the opposite conclusion. It’s Weiner himself who believes that he is participating in a redemption story — Steinberg and Kriegman do not. “I can’t believe he let them film this!” was a common reaction. — But why wouldn’t he? Weiner believed that he was going to win. He thought it would be incredible, the comeback of the century. Even when it becomes clear that he will not win, and he is forced to rewrite the story that he is telling about himself, he clings on to this vaguely pathetic redemption arc, insisting over and over that he is a misunderstood fighter, that it’s only the world that’s in conspiracy against him. But it is Weiner telling this story, not the film. The directors let him tell it, and in doing so, they reveal something more sinister. Anthony Weiner — the pathological narcissist who is shitty to his wife and shitty to the people supporting in him, the man now revealed to be not only pathological but a predator — that man is left to hang.
I raise Weiner because it is an honest movie about a cynical man. One More Time with Feeling is a cynical movie about an honest man. The difference is critical, because it allows a movie about something far more serious, concerning a subject far more sympathetic, to become more of a farce than the one literally about dick pics. Weiner was an intimate film because it functioned the way that intimacy does in the world: by being there, by just seeing how a person is, by letting them speak and knowing from experience where their words diverge from reality. One More Time with Feeling replaces intimacy with the idea of intimacy, the reality of loss with its pantomime. “Well, you’re not really a Nick Cave fan, though,” a friend objected when I told her that I hadn’t liked it. The success of the film depends on such reactions: it insists that you can’t appreciate the reality of its circumstances unless you are inclined toward the myth of its aesthetics. That’s not the study of a human being. It’s a fetish.
The worst play that I ever saw was the one that took itself to be the most beautiful. Both its writer and director shared a fetish for the pinnacles of Great Art: the moments of transcendence, when a composition reaches its crescendo, lingers a while, and becomes beautiful. Those beats were what they loved in theater — who doesn’t? — and what drove them was a desire to make such beats themselves. The trouble was that neither knew what steps must come before the climax. They remembered only what had lingered with them in the work of others, and set about reproducing those things only.
The result was a play that dispensed of its whole plot within the first scene. What followed was a parade of beautiful moments: actors with their hands stretched out in silence, a single spotlight coming down. Deep pauses. Declarations like catharsis where there wasn’t any tension in the first place. Lacking prerequisites, these moments were not beautiful; they were gestures. They were the shell of what a beautiful thing looks like but empty on their insides. Devoted to the idea of artistic resonance but unable to trust the long path to that thing, the play was nothing but earnestness pushed all the way back round to cynicism. Watch the actor linger in the blue light and you’ll feel something, won’t you?
Midway through One More Time with Feeling, Nick Cave raises a perverse wish familiar to any artist: the desire for something tragic to work with. If only something really awful could befall me, then I’d have something to write about. Then my work would have meaning. But it’s bullshit, Cave tells the camera. Tragedy is not fertile ground for creativity. It dulls the senses and distracts. It takes up all your mental oxygen and suffocates the mind. This is the film’s best moment. But its strength comes from how pointedly it contradicts every scene around it.
Because it is difficult to escape the impression that Andrew Dominik does not agree with Cave’s assessment. What is this whole project, after all, but an effort to extract resonance from tragedy? Nearly every moment of this film is a flashing arrow set to sad music. Dominik has made a movie like that play, a movie that does not earn its pathos but insists upon it. He takes tragedy and throws it up in black and white, in three dimensions; he intercuts it with haunting songs and panoramic shots of their sad singer singing. Every scene is a transcendent moment; every beat is deep. The camera takes us out of the crack on the top of the studio door, through blinding lights, and into London. We rise high above the block and above the street and above every building until we are all the way up in space. The whole world spins slowly in the void. There might well have been a neon sign atop it, brighter than the sun: One More Time — WITH FEELING!
That is the real trouble here. It is precisely because Dominik does not really trust our capacity to feel that he closes off the route to feeling in the first place. We might even forgive the milking of Cave’s tragedy if the theatrics weren’t so helplessly cynical. It’s like Weiner that way — the man, not the movie. It won’t stop telling you what you’re meant to take from all of this. It worries that if it stops telling you, you might not see it the way it would like to be seen.
“I think I’m losing my voice,” Cave says early on. This has been quoted endlessly as a kind of resonant metaphor, and perhaps it is. Cave says that he wanted to say something in this movie, but his voice is drowning under Dominik’s terminal insecurity. The “state of things,” as Cave put it, is lost. What remains are just the heavy-handed aesthetics of sorrow. A dead child and a father’s grief, reduced to a gesture. Reduced to the long pause, to the spotlight, to the outstretched arm, reaching past the resonance so close at hand, grasping air instead.