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Interview

In Image issue 86, filmmaker Samuel Gray Anderson writes about darkly poetic rocker Nick Cave—and how a nice guy became a fan of such violent, discordant music.

Image: You write that you sometimes describe the last decade of your life like this: ten years ago you were a U2 fan and now you’re a partisan of Nick Cave. If a person wanted to start listening to Cave, where would you recommend she start?

SGA: The Boatman’s Call is his most highly regarded album, and undeniably great. But the double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus gives more of a taste of Cave’s full range as an artist—at times tender, at times confrontational, with reflections on belief, despair, and the artist’s vocation that swing from sincerity to corrosive irony. The album that was made from the following Abattoir Blues tour is a great introduction to both his force as a live performer and some great standards from earlier in his career.

Image: You write about how Cave, like U2, has a relationship with Christianity that plays out in the music. But where U2 offers you an enchanted world that feeds your ambition, you write, “the music of Nick Cave feeds on my doubts, giving me a means by which to harrow them and turn them toward a new purpose.” Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by “harrow”? It’s an interesting word choice.

SGA: I don’t feel that I can rest easy with Cave’s music. Especially when he is at his most transgressive, he is constantly pushing us as listeners to question why these songs appeal to us, what that reveals about us. And many times I find that what the songs appeal to in me is the suspicion—and the fear—that it is chaos much more than order that governs life, and that there is no benevolent God who will speak through my delusions and guide me onto the right path. But his songs also have a way of troubling this despair—which could, after all, become its own comfortable conviction—and prodding me to rage against accepting all that appears senseless or unredeemable about the world as the final word. I think that is what I mean by harrow—not letting fallow ground lie untouched, but working back over it (and often this is hard and unrewarding work) with the conviction that it could one day produce a bountiful harvest.

Image: You describe yourself a nice guy. Do you think nice people have a particular attraction to art that’s dark or violent or bleak or makes us look at things that are ugly or painful? And if so, why?

SGA: I wonder if the answer depends on how at ease a person feels with the label “nice guy” or “nice gal.” I often feel that being nice is more of a mask that I hide behind, a safe way of relating to the world, than a genuine expression of my self, whatever that might be. It’s not exactly an attempt to fool people, but is often a ruse for avoiding conflict, and perhaps comes out of a naïve belief that if I just keep from troubling anyone or anything, I won’t have to worry about experiencing anything truly dark or shattering myself.

Cultivating an affinity for dark art may be another way of trying to keep anything truly traumatic at bay. But it is for me also a means of seeking encounters that could shatter my complacency. I place much more value on those artists who seek to confront me rather than simply entertain me through shock or transgression. Sometimes they do it by going to particularly dark or violent places, as Nick Cave often does, and as some of my favorite filmmakers do—David Lynch, Claire Denis, R.W. Fassbinder. But other times, I think they do this through aesthetic play and philosophical questioning, like Godard and Pasolini. In all, I find that the works of such artists allow me—or force me—to question whether being nice is really the goal of life, and whether achieving acclaim is the goal of work. They appeal to a conviction that art should be as much about troubling us as providing entertainment or exalted encounters with beauty. And—perhaps most troubling to me—they stir the desire to make art of my own that provokes outrage, disgust, or discomfort if the situation calls for it.

Image: With Lee Isaac Chung, you wrote the script for the critically acclaimed film Munyurangabo, which deals with the legacy of the Rwandan genocide. Your most recent project with Chung, I Have Seen My Last Born, is a documentary also set in Rwanda. How did that come about? Did you always have a sense, after Munyurangabo, that there was more of the Rwandan story you wanted to explore?

SGA: We didn’t know after Munyurangabo if we would go back to Rwanda to make a film; there were some things closer to home that we wanted to address. But Isaac in particular remained active in Rwanda throughout the intervening years, and a couple of years ago we started to discuss the idea of returning to make another film, one that might witness things about the contemporary reality there that can’t be defined by the legacy of the genocide. It was in the process of researching a potential fiction project (which we have since, unfortunately, set aside) that we made I Have Seen My Last Born, an intimate portrait of our close friend John Kwezi, who was a central collaborator on Munyurangabo.

Image: Your film projects seem often to deal with memory and regret. Are there other artists besides Cave whose treatment of those themes has influenced you?

SGA: I stumbled onto Proust when I was a teenager, and for both good and ill he has been an enduring influence ever since. I still have yet to encounter work from another artist that has given such a strong sense of simultaneously describing and creating my inner experience as I read (or watched). Few words are etched in my imagination as clearly as these from the conclusion of Swann’s Way: “(T)he memory of a certain image is but the regret of a certain moment.”

I have a strong memory, which can be a blessing and a curse. It is often accompanied by a vague but pervasive sense of regret, for things lost, things left undone. Alongside Proust, artists who have most aided me in cultivating an understanding of these aspects of myself are Philip Roth and the filmmaker Philippe Garrel. They’re similar to Proust in the way that they often make of art a deeply personal play of experience, memory, and, at times, regret. They all model a certain freedom in relation to these things, which I aspire to but don’t feel I have achieved. Memory can be a rich field of exploration, but also a kind of sickness, if all it does is feed regret; I would like in the future to make work that turns both memory and its regrets to new purposes, as I feel these artists do. I am also interested in looking beyond these things to time and its effects on us; memory and regret are perhaps simply two intertwined ways we reckon with these effects.

Image: In the essay you talk about how becoming a father two years ago produced a significant change in how you saw your vocation as an artist, and in the way you respond to art. Your son is six months older now than when you first wrote that. What else has changed for you as he’s grown?

SGA: I could only give an adequate answer through an artwork, one that achieves the impossible task of capturing my son, and my relationship to him, at each moment of his life. Then maybe I would see the secret pattern of these moments, which is always at least two steps ahead of my understanding. I often feel that nothing and everything has changed. Perhaps I could sum it all up by saying that there is now no way that I could see my life without his.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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