Portrait Of Grief: One More Time With Feeling
Sitting in the theatre waiting for the lights to go down, I could feel an introduction to this article already starting to form in my mind. The idea being that I would gently usher forth some bile about the patrons surrounding me – in particular one charming American gentleman in the row behind who wouldn’t stop moaning about how PJ Harvey politely refused to take a selfie with him in the foyer. This, at a screening of a film about the death of her ex-lover’s teenage son. Sincerely, fuck you buddy; you and all the other fuckers out for a lovely Thursday night at the movies, gently slurping your five pound pints and hurling popcorn down your gullets, ironically whooping the usher who apologises for the late running.
But such petty digs feel entirely irrelevant in the wake of this brilliant and deeply uncomfortable film. One More Time With Feeling is a stuttering meditation on love, mortality, memory and grief, that also doubles as a studio document of Cave’s brave and ultimately selfless new album Skeleton Tree.
An apology – if this piece feels a complete tonal mess and composed largely of fragments, then it stems from desperately wanting to do this film justice but barely having a clue where to start. And perhaps also a semi-conscious attempt not to edit myself too much, like how Cave mentions he and the band drew some kind of confidence from not overworking their material. In one early scene we see his visceral struggle with recording an overdubbed vocal on ‘Jesus Alone’. Understandably given the circumstances surrounding it, this is an album that was simply allowed to happen, rather than laboured over; although that’s not to suggest that Cave wasn’t also beset with doubt along the way.
He talks about how he used to write narrative but now just can’t do that any more. It wouldn’t be appropriate. We all want to believe that (our own) life is a narrative, one with meaning and structure, but the brutal truth is that it’s not. How could it ever be? Other than the certainties of birth and death, life is just a series of unordered fragments in which we’re desperately trying to instil some futile sense of order.
One of the strengths of the film is the ceaselessly jutting 3D, which is used to great effect and accentuates the undeniable sense of voyeurism at play here. As if the viewing experience wasn’t uncomfortable enough already, director Andrew Dominik pushes everything up against you, forcing you to confront it in all its sadness and painful hesitation. Where Cave may once have seemed untouchable, now the barrier between him and his audience has been eroded, with little to no resistance. Never before has he seemed this close. He talks about feeling himself ‘diminishing’ – a phrase so upsetting that Dominik feels moved to ask, “Really?”, to which Cave simply replies in the affirmative.
Occasionally Dominik draws more attention to the camera, as in a couple of the performance scenes when it drifts around the studio space, unmoored, exploring hallways and peepholes and staircases. But on the whole this sort of artifice – the kind that was such an integral part of Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth’s 2014 Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth – makes way for a more direct and ‘honest’ mode of filmmaking. The cameras are simply on all the time, everything is captured – we even feel the crew getting to grips with the 3D technology, hear Cave explaining it to his family. It’s messy and unsure, but it’s also direct and powerful.
We’re told that the film exists in lieu of promo appearances, but perhaps there was something cathartic about its making; an effort to achieve some sort of closure, however minor? This theory is debunked fairly easily, as Cave grapples with the idea of trauma as being like an elastic band that keeps you firmly on its end. It keeps pulling you back to the fact, to the moment. It inspires chaos, and – crucially for a man trying to work out how to respond to this tragedy in his chosen medium – it leaves you with no imaginative gap, no distance, no breathing space.
Cave soldiers on, though in places it feels as though his spark has been extinguished. It’s uneasy viewing to see him so awkward or uncomfortable, or at a loss for words. He struggles with kindness, concern, and most of all pity. “Don’t touch me”, he pleads on ‘Girl In Amber’. Standing in the supermarket queue becomes a form of torture. One week after having seen the film, the idea that’s stayed with me most is his expression of somehow becoming a different person; recognising your body in the mirror but not the person inside.
As the film progresses, the circles that it traces around Arthur’s death gradually become tighter, Cave’s references more direct. One moving scene finds his wife Susie displaying a painting of a windmill done by Arthur at age 5. Just before his death she’d had it framed in black – and now she pauses before admitting to feeling superstitious. Nick also thinks about this issue as it relates to his music. Writing for Skeleton Tree had already begun before the incident which changed everything, and he hints at some of the lyrics now feeling like grim premonitions. I’m reminded of the awful, irresponsible tabloid reporting that occurred last year – articles which fell head over heels to mention Cave’s dark, morbid back catalogue as though he had in some way created an environment in which the tragic death of his son was allowed to happen. But now even the man himself cops to feeling superstitious. I suppose we'll never know which lyrics came before and after the event.
There is occasional lightness here, even humour – for example when Cave’s voiceover states that he doesn’t believe in accidents, immediately before knocking the camera over. There is tenderness, as when his Arthur’s twin brother Earl absent-mindedly strokes his mother’s hair in the studio. There is beauty, in Dominik’s gentle black and white cinematography. But ultimately the film keeps you on the end of that elastic band, lost in permanent orbit around the tragedy at its centre. Without wanting to give anything away, the film’s final shots are a real gut-punch, totally heartbreaking in their directness. Remarkably I had avoided crying until this point, but as the credits rolled, so too did the tears.
As a companion piece to Skeleton Tree, One More Time With Feeling is somewhat essential. I’ve rarely been privileged enough to enjoy such a memorable first listen to an album, and now I find it impossible to separate the two works in my head. A moving, tender, unsteady portrait of a family united in grief, and a man learning how to do the thing he’s been doing his whole adult life.