Know that I love you
Know I don't care
Know that I see you
Know I'm not there.
—Nick Drake, "Know"
Last night, the SF Indie Doc Fest screened Jeroen Berkven's A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake, and I happily headed out into the first real crisp weather of the season to see it with a friend. Afterward, she said she felt the documentary had fallen short—that it hadn't given her much sense of who this guy was in life, either as an artist or as a man, whereas I thought A Skin Too Few was great exactly because it conveyed what an enigma Drake was, even to those who knew him best...probably even to himself.|
There is no archival footage of Nick Drake at all, only a few family home movies, taken when he was a kid. He was a deeply contemplative, private person who gave only a handful of live performances in his brief career. Left without the option of putting Drake himself on display, most directors would have opted to populate their films with many-a-talking-head, as Tim Clements did in A Stranger Among Us: Searching for Nick Drake. Berkven was otherwise inclined. There were none of Clement's jawing neighbors or misguided pilgrims hovering about the ancestral home, asking, "I wonder how much it costs?" His strategy was to try to lend us Nick Drake's eyes for a time: to immerse us in the the English countryside in which he grew up, and to which he returned in his last years.
Tanworth-in-Arden represented both refuge and exile to Drake, who once said to his mother, "I don't like it at home, but I can't bear it anywhere else." Between interview clips with just a few people who truly knew him (insofar as that was possible) Berkven shows long, exceptionally well composed shots of a place so bucolic as to be surreal. While my friend interpreted these shots as "filler," I was only too happy to take in Berkven's painterly landscapes while listening to Drake's music. Aside from this just being a really pleasant aesthetic experience, Berkven shows how these surroundings must have both inspired and isolated Drake, and how they contributed to an autumnal tone in his work:
"Falling fast and falling free you look to find a friend
In other words, Berkven has an eye similar to Drake's ear, and whatever this film lacks in blah-blah-blah, it more than makes up for in the richness of his attention to light, color, and form. Berkven shows photos of Drake standing in front of these massive palisades of foliage while his early music rolls; each note sounds as articulated and humbly perfect as the leaves on the trees. In one time-lapsed shot, intricate chrysanthemums of ice bloom one-by-one in the panes of a window, as Drake plays in that style so often described as exceptionally "clean" and "crystal clear."
And really, all things considered, this approach seems the best one possible. Nick Drake's life was not one that lends itself to a sensational, confessional, or even literal style of documentary. He was a poet and an introvert, given to long silences and staring out windows for hours on end. He had a minimum of physical contact with others, and his idea of a good time was reading tomes of Blake, Butler, and Yeats. "He was barely there," remarked Linda Thompson in a 2004 interview with The Guardian. "I'm not even sure
if I'd call it shyness. I never felt like he really belonged here at
all. He was spectral."
Nick Drake may have been spectral, but he inspired those around him to startling levels of eloquence...almost as if they were trying to fill in the gaps. One of the best moments in A Skin Too Few is when Drake's sister recites a poem called "The Shell" that her mother wrote about Nick. It reveals Molly Drake's profound empathy for her son's depression, and in this recitation from memory, Gabrielle Drake—an accomplished actress—shows a sense of timing as masterful as her brother's. It's a gorgeous, touching scene, but one that also demonstrates how even those closest to Nick found it difficult to describe him without resorting to artfulness of their own.
This extends to Berkven too, who throughout A Skin Too Few remains devoted to a kind of cinematic portraiture of Nick Drake, without ever lapsing into trivia or hearsay. It's the right kind of documentary to make about a man who, by the end of his life, seemed capable of communicating only through song. As the film draws to a close, Berkven succeeds in giving us a sense of Drake in the only way such a thing is possible: by drawing in all the negative space around him. By the end, you can just make out the barest silhouette of a person who was a ghost long before his physical death. It makes you wonder if Drake could have handled the recognition he craved, but to this question and others Berkven wisely gives only the music itself as a reply.
Speaking of which, if you have a moment, listen to some of Molly Drake's music too. It's been made available both on this archival MySpace page, and on the Family Tree album. She was a talented songwriter in her own right, and the church bells and birdsong in these home recordings give another great sonic snapshot of what Nick Drake's childhood must have been like. A transcription of her poem, "The Shell," is on the MySpace page as well.