Film vs. Death: One More Time With Feeling (revisited)

“They told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied.” – Nick Cave & The Bad SeedsDistant Sky

Andrew Dominik’s One More Time With Feeling came up last night on HBO Go, as last-chance-viewing. I’ve seen this doc before, in my ex place of work, in 3D, the only film I ever liked seeing in that format. It was a terrifyingly beautiful experience then – beautiful, because I love the poetry of Nick Cave, and terrifying, because I could translate the trauma it tried to articulate – how people revolve around events of that magnitude for years, maybe forever. The tragedy becomes their dark sun.

Rewatching it, all the terror as well as the beauty had gone, and an eerie stillness set in, there was a new flatness to the image. Now I’ve seen it in 2D, sorrow could more easily calcify movement.

I’m always interested in the impulse we have to see films again – sometimes it’s a feeling they produce that we crave, or a mental diversion, a covert answer to an overt question, and vice-versa. Occasionally they are pieces of a larger puzzle that we misplaced and appear at serendipitous moments to set things right. I went back to it for probably a few reasons, but most of all I wanted to reclaim Cave’s music for myself again, as through the years it marked important events in my life and got appropriated by these points in time in the process of loss. It’s so curious how certain art can do this – cling to us as a ghost when we come across that dull sound of empty space once inhabited by a living, breathing emotion. But the difference between art and death is that art’s soul can be retrieved, given a new life, a different identity, transformed. The irreversibility of death is what this doc aims to convey, and it does it better than it wished it did.

The things I now see, and missed at first, mostly are a matter of setting. The room I am in. A place with more time to observe. Cave talks of the death of his son as a point of no return in the sense of perspective – a catastrophic event that changes a person so profoundly, that a renegotiation of one’s position in the world needs to occur. Whether it is an individual trauma, or a collective one, it rearranges the points of concern in a way that is almost final. You cannot be the human you have been before. Or maybe the way we view the world is the actual change, the relational aspect. How do we adjust? We all rely on habit and memory to sustain an existence.

What struck me most now is how Cave’s imagery, so crucial to his art and persona – this carefully, almost mathematically designed presentation, decays around the edges, like an old war photograph, showing the wear and tear of unaestheticised reality, the bones of grief beneath. Cave’s wife Susie is the other side of that coin, holding on to the beautiful garment, as means of sanity, the one that keeps the perfect frame, while Nick quietly leaves it.

It is really heroic what they do, and probably life-saving, a testament to the inexplicability of mourning, and the therapeutic nature of art. In this case, the art of the moving image, the most conjuring art of all. Cave talks of the creative rupture in his music, an inability to continue as before. Susie finds the physicality of her fashion design work a saving grace, the routine of it. The camera becomes a dignified way to navigate the grieving process, to share it – showing it all, and not showing anything at the same time. It offers focus. Cave reminds himself that people are kind, to be kind back. There is a great generosity in One More Time With Feeling.

He talks of his love of words, and his fear of them, what they can expose about someone… And it’s true. It’s the words that are said, and that are not said, that convey the emotional centre of the situation, not the elegant dark lines of the couple’s worldly lives, the soft-spoken camaraderie surrounding them, and most shockingly, not even the heavenly music the man creates.

That discrepancy between art and death, the fragile eternity against an unforgiving mortality, becomes clear with the last tune – his late son Arthur sings Marianne Faithfull‘s Deep Water, with his twin Earl, their father on piano – a young voice beyond the grave joining the living, never to grow up, but more real than air, in what must be one of the most haunting credits recorded.

Film as communion, echo of a longing, an evocation of love in that eternal painfully human quest to transcend death. And it does. As instrument of connection.

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