“Writers are awful to people who ask us where we get our ideas from,” said Neil Gaiman. “We get mean, in a writer-y way, which means we make fun of you for asking.” Creativity will always inspire curiosity, especially among those of us who lack it. We want it to be laid bare, explained, deconstructed. We who lack a true sense of imagination sometimes feel as though there’s a manual out there, possessed by all the geniuses who manage to spin beauty out of nothingness, the contents of which provide instructions on how to create art. Perhaps this curiosity is precisely why there’s an inexhaustible interest in artists explaining their method to us, like in this week’s movie recommendation, 20,000 Days on Earth.

Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard direct a film that never reveals whether it is an insincere representation of Nick Cave’s real life, or a sincere representation of Nick Cave’s all-too-unbelievable life. Cave, the hell-raising leader of the punk band The Bad Seeds, has a flair for the theatrical and a penchant for the morbid. His self-aware flamboyance and wry humor permit all sorts of ambiguities to intrude in the film’s voyeuristic representation of one day – his 20,000th – in his surreal life.

Cave now lives in a beautiful home in Brighton, where the stage-door window shutters (even the home is theatrically appointed) allow for stunning views overlooking the English Channel upon waking next to his faceless, supermodel partner. Something about it just doesn’t quite seem to fit — while he’s a charismatic man, Cave is undeniably unattractive and garishly out-of-place in the South Coast countryside. This isn’t to say that he’s unsightly; far from it. He actually has one of those ‘fascinating faces,’ rather like Eastwood’s, Mirren’s, or McKellen’s: it draws an audience’s eye away from anything else on the screen to study even his most minute facial expression. But he’s so incongruous, and his multi-ringed fingers adorned with grotesque jewellery so inapposite to the unassuming Brighton countryside, that the mood of 20,000 Days is surreal. Driving around the countryside, Cave is visited by past acquaintances who appear and disappear in the passenger seat of his car and share reminiscences with him. Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue are recognizable faces, but they, like the wife, are merely props, playing second-fiddle to Cave’s spectacle. You barely notice when a superstar like Minogue has vacated the scene, stage-left.

Cave is a commanding presence, but it’s manufactured to be so through those dream sequences, and the ludicrous musings he offers on the creative process (these are the moments in which we, the un-imaginative cretins who search for that magical instruction manual on creativity, will be most disappointed). He deliberately takes pains to explain that he is making the world in which he lives, rather than making songs about that world. Colors, characters, and experiences are all first conceived in his mind, then acted out on the canvas of his environment, and then “cannibalized” in song. He’s as content with the audience reacting to this pretension with the impression that he’s a fraud, as with the impression that he’s a messiah. Plenty of his fans think of him as the latter.

The closest resemblance to an ‘interview’ of the protagonist, perhaps merely to satisfy the forms and expectations of the biopic genre toward which 20,000 Days pretends, is a series of meetings with Cave’s therapist (played by Darian Leader). Not even this is real. Leader met Cave the day they sat down to shoot the scenes, and the questions asked during the therapy session are improvised. Again, while those looking to hear Cave’s explanation of his creative process will find these scenes incomplete, they are impressively revealing, tender, and downright funny.

It’s a beautiful film, and it requires next to no knowledge of who Nick Cave is or what music The Bad Seeds produced. Maybe the entire film, in the final blush, provides insight into Cave’s creative method. I’m content even if it doesn’t.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.