Prayers for the damned: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace

There’s something strange, to me, about modern cinemas—the architectural interiority of them, I mean. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been to them so infrequently over the course of my life, leaving my experience of them to be a series of lurching momentary mutations rather than a steady evolution of form; I don’t know. But it feels like theatrical opulence—already ersatz by the time I first got taken to the movies as a child—has given way to something more like the Star Trek holodeck, the theatres themselves designed to provide as little distraction from the spectacle of the screen as possible.

I think back to the Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield, opened in 1920, and the way in which it was clearly designed to imitate (and, I believe, to act as) a theatre in the older, dramaturgical sense. That included, of course, a class hierarchy reproduced in the tiers and balconies of seating, but it also included a sense of the communal, a sense that the show on the stage or the screen was not the whole of the experience, that the setting (and the audience) were there to be seen and noticed as well.

This in comparison to the new Nordisk Film Bio cinema in Malmö’s Mobilia complex, a plaza of stuffed-animal hybrid architecture. Through the door to the lower lobby, there to meet the foot of an escalator long enough to look like a tongue-in-cheek pomo metaphor for the ascent to heaven, long enough to give you a sense of being lifted out of and/or above the world outside, which then deposits you in a garish and all-but-unpopulated lobby, with tacky-glossy plastic statuary depicting deities from various Extended Cinematic Universes, overstocked with snacks which are clearly never going to sell before going stale, but which the corporate three-ring binder doubtless insists must be fully stocked nonetheless. And then past the almost-over-helpful attendant, reduced to pointing a barcode scanner and explaining where the toilets might be found, and into the stark black cube of Salong Två with its overspec’d bassbins and Wall-E-esque robo-recliner couches, to join ten people sitting in a room designed for twenty times as many, all of whom have floated up the raked floor to the back row as if fearful of being sucked into the semantic gravity of the screen itself.

I have vague recollections of threadbare velveteen on little flipdown seats, knees pressed up against the back of the seat in front, sticky floors and cricked necks—none of which I’m exactly nostalgic for, but which seem nonetheless to say something about what it was that the cinema as an infrastructure had to say about itself as the frame in which a particular medium was delivered. The pack-’em-in privations of the fleapit did nothing to harm the popularity of cinema’s golden age creations. Indeed, I wonder if they didn’t actually enhance it, the screen offering an escape into the obvious but attractive artifice of story which was enhanced by the cramped immobility of the interior design; now, it seems as if all the sensorial overload of the lobby, all the overstuffed luxury of the theatre seating, plus the incredible hyperreal fidelity of image and sound, serves only to distract from the reduction of mainstream cinematic product—the stuff that actually makes box office, or at least did—to sheer spectacle. Where once people longed to step into the screen and escape, it now feels like the screen is a black hole to be escaped from, yet into which we cannot help but peer, even as we fear being inhaled by it.

Or perhaps I’m just overthinking it. (Hardly out of character, amirite?) I’m sure people for whom cinema has always been a vital medium of interest have a much better take on this than I do. But I still find the luxury isolating, almost enervating, somehow; it’s not that I want discomfort, exactly, but something about the concern shown for the lazy, plush and technologically-oversprung comfort of the space, far above any concern for its aesthetics as a space—which are more an aesthetics of non-space—makes me feel like cinemas are now temples that we’ve raised to ourselves as consumers, rather than to the art that we’re ostensibly consuming in them; that we can’t even imagine a decent god anymore, beyond the notion of ourselves reclining replete and supine in the dark, the circulation pooling in our elevated legs, the sugar pooling in our distended gullets… ah, but I am a curmudgeon, and dabbling here with an asceticism which marks me out with the arrogant inverted elitism which Nietzsche railed against, even if I don’t care to impose my preferences on others. These spaces are not designed with me in mind—and given how rarely I have gone to cinemas over the years, there’s no reason that they should have been.

But nonetheless, here I am, sitting down to watch Idiot Prayer, the screening of Nick Cave’s recent solo performance. It’s just Cave, some mics and cables and camera dollies, and a shiny black grand piano stood smack bang in the middle of an empty Alexandra Palace, back in the bright panic of the lockdown summer, which feels like an aeon ago, but also like it was just yesterday. And it is a performance, not a show—because a show implicitly has an audience in the room, and in particular the sort of show that Cave usually does; the mediations through which he’s working here, of technology and of time, are not his traditional territory.

And in contradiction to some of my misgivings mentioned above, I’m immediately glad that I’m seeing it here, rather than streaming in my living room (as I had meant to when it was first released, but was prevented from doing so by unexplained technical problems), on a screen so large and crisp that every pore and scar on the man’s face is visible, the sound system so good that every groan of the piano’s sustain pedal and squeak of his heel on the floor as he counts out funereal tempos—because the fidelity, applied to this material, makes of it a kind of antispectacle, and amplifies the void of the setting in which Cave is playing.

I remarked to a friend afterwards that Idiot Prayer will likely become one of the definitive art documents of this pandemic moment in the Global North, and not just (or at least not only) because there’s been so little else to even try to compete with it, so little else that’s had a chance to be an event in the mass-cultural sense; it’s also got to be due to the strange mirror it holds up to the times. And of all of the people who might have had and pulled off such an idea—a performance for a nation (and a world) in lockdown, with no charitable piety, no chin-up cheeriness, no market-ready right-on Bonoisms, just this man with a murderer’s face and a weight of guilt and grief and rage which is clearly visible in his every movement, despite the incredible rigour of his posture before that piano, unbowed by tragedies self-inflicted and otherwise, pouring out these twisted stories in glorious, echoing isolation. Comes the hour, comes the man… not as hero or saviour, but as a channel, a conduit, as someone who can with a strange legitimacy carry and direct a grief that most cannot put words to, let alone music, a grief that even someone who knows only a little about him will know to be dwarfed by his own. The setting, both intimate and isolated, apocalyptic and antiseptic, the emptiness of Ally Pally like the fancy box in which an empire was once delivered, long ago, a hall of memory now filled only with a fading forgetting… and it’s that emptiness that I feel echoed by the garish emptiness of the all-but-silent cinema as we leave afterwards.

But before that, Cave plays and sings, after first walking through an empty palace, his shoulders rolling beneath the jacket of his impeccable brimstone-preacher’s suit, that helmet of slicked-back hair swept shoulderwards from a high, unlined forehead. He’s far from conventionally handsome, but there’s a black magic, a magnetism there, a sense of a black electricity coiled in the set-square angles of this man sat so straight in front of the black-and-white truth of the keys, flipping through loose sheets and bound books of hand-written lyrics and chord changes, tossing the finished songs to the floor as if relieved of their weight, like parcels delivered on a long round which will never end, until the end.

I should note here that I hardly know Cave’s oeuvre at all, but for the few pieces that have become a commonplace on alternative radio and cinema over the last decade or so. For me Cave will likely always be that waxen-faced monster looming over Kylie in her Eliza Day guise, a wild rose pushing through the thicket of laddish swagger and lycra-clad pop excess that was mid-Nineties MTV. (And how wise of Kylie to realise that her pop persona had to die for her to escape its trap, and to to realise that for the murder to take, it had to be done by the right hand.) But to hear (and to see) his work this way, well, perhaps it’s been my best way in… though it might equally exhaust his other output for me, too, because while it will be something like this, it will never be anything like this. The exposure of it, the contradictory and paradoxical suspension of intimacy and isolation, the artifice of non-artifice… oh, I’m not so naive as all that, I can see the stitching-together of a whole day’s recording (and the use of the varying levels of light), edited for narrative structure and atmosphere; and I will always be a rockist, I suppose, always drawn to these antiheroes, antichrists, these monsters in the confessional mode. But nonetheless, the illusion is sustained at least in part because you want to believe—I want to believe—that this man is sat in the timeless void at the heart of the husk of a collapsed empire, of an emptied-out universe, of a film set yet to be fully dismantled; that he sat there outside of time and poured out this grief and anger and tenderness and relentless self-loathing, less an antichrist than an everted christ, offering no redmemption beyond the knowledge that there’s no redemption to be had from outside of us; that we’re all sat alone at that piano in the deserted palace, all pacing through dust motes a-dance in summer sunlight streaming through an open doorway, all carrying our hopes and fears and regrets and passions, carrying the knowledge of every wrong thing we ever did, even the ones we committed only in thought rather than deed.

Comes the hour, comes the man.

No one else could have done that, perhaps. Because no one else dared—and I think it notable that no one has yet dared to try to follow it, either. Because how could you, without it being obvious that that you were trying to imitate its perfect imperfection? How could you follow this oratory for our collective innocence? How could you follow something which somehow captures the essence of finality?

Oh, sure, you could put on a show, put on a spectacle; you could almost certainly put on something that more people would watch, by someone more people had heard of, playing something more accessible and uplifting. Get Coldplay in, dedicate it to the NHS, have a succession of guest appearances from the pop star pantheon, say worthy things between the songs while looking down the barrel of the camera… even with the need for social distance, it would be doable, and maybe even lucrative. But no one has, because anyone with a shred of instinct for this stuff cannot help but see (and hear) that while Idiot Prayer is a small thing with a smallish audience, it has mass, and mass has gravity. And not even art can escape gravity, particularly not in grave times.

At the end of the film—though clearly not at the end of the filming—Cave stands up from the piano, turns on his heel and strides into the sunlight streaming from a doorway at the far corner of the hall, his footsteps echoing in the emptiness… and I want nothing more than to follow him, out into the light, out into a summer which could be any summer, even though I know it is not just any summer. Instead, the light into which I am reborn from the technological womb of the theatre is the sickly artificial light of the lobby, with its reflective plastics and garish commercial colours, its air of sudden apocalyptic abandonment… which in turn gives way to the drizzle and darkness of a Nordic November evening.

No redemption tonight. Maybe not ever. But it’s always been that way.




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