The Persistence of Memory
Closely Watched Films: Terence Davies,
Pacific Film Archive, February 20-27, 2008
For more than a decade, Terence Davies toiled away as a shipping clerk and a bookkeeper. Inauspicious as it may seem, the filmmaker's early career nevertheless begins to chart a fitting course through contemporary British film history. A Billy Liar of sorts, creatively hobbled by a stifling windowless work environment, Davies emerged, with artistic longing intact, from the sort of workaday conditions used as dramatic fodder and sociopolitical expedience by the proletariat-minded directors of the British Free Cinema movement of the early '60s (Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson). Short-lived though it might have been, the British New Wave (generally 1959 to 1963), with its emphasis on the downtrodden and decidedly unglamorous working class, left a mark on the national cinema that remained indelible even amidst the coming decades' worth of insipid costume epics and swinging-London exports. By the time Davies began making movies, in the late 1970s, while studying first at Coventry Drama School and then at the National Film School, the movement was long gone, but its lessons could still be traced in his methods, in part because, unlike such filmmakers as Anderson and Richardson, he actually came from the working-class environment that had defined it.
Davies's first film, the wrenchingly autobiographical, black-and-white short Children (1976), was as stylistically influenced by Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson as by the films of his compatriots, if not more so. With British cinema at one of its least fecund periods of the century (the industry, coming off a decade of overblown, depersonalized projects, was tied up in failed ventures meant to appeal to the American marketplace), his work was, necessarily and by design, completely outside of trends, yet also inextricably wedded to a British film-historic continuum. With his first films, Children, Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983) (all of which would be released and distributed to festivals as one feature, known as the Trilogy), Davies was, along with other independent trailblazers such as Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman, paving the way for a radical new cinema.
It may seem strange to group Davies with such subversive, anti-narrative tricksters as Greenaway and Jarman. He is known for his ruminative, graceful, Proustian period pieces Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), and his Edith Wharton adaptation The House of Mirth (2000); his new film, Of Time and the City, which premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is a fond, nostalgic documentary about Liverpool. But one needs to recognize the shocking, confrontational nature of Davies's first works. Much more than an artistic catharsis, the Trilogy is a harrowing, introspective journey into Davies's biographical traumas. Via the surrogate persona of a man named Robert Tucker, charted from adolescence to infirmed old age, Davies dares not only to plumb the depths of his past but also to imagine his own death (illustrated not as a glittery Bob Fosse showstopper, but as a rasping, solitary reckoning with a blinding unknown). Though Davies would further dramatize onscreen his experiences with his abusive father, his paralyzing Catholic guilt, and his wrestling with his homosexuality, never again would they be depicted with such penetrating clarity or rawness as in his first three shorts, all shot in unforgiving, inky black-and-white. Whereas in Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, the past is an ever-present, ghostly inhabitant, in the Trilogy, there is no discernible distinction between the past and the present, which are scrambled up into one irreversible Now. Davies achieves this through a stunning mosaic of images that, within the space of little more than 100 minutes, assembles a fuller portrait of a single life than most directors have managed in twice the running time.
If cinema is simply a strategy for harnessing time and memory, then Davies might be our greatest contemporary purveyor of its essences; the genius timepieces of Alain Resnais at his peak similarly collapse temporal boundaries, but to represent fabrics of social memory and political discourse rather than approximate the fragmented pieces of an individual psyche. Davies is rather unabashedly inward-looking, and the incessant focus of his early films on mediated autobiography flirts heavily with nostalgia. Despite their avant-garde peculiarities and their constant push-pull between fond reminiscence and nightmarish recollection, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes fall somewhere between the more mainstream post-Amarcord auteur remembrances of the late '80s and early '90s, like Woody Allen's Radio Days, John Boorman's Hope and Glory, and Barry Levinson's Avalon (all of which eschewed cause-and-effect strategies for more episodic narratives) and the more ascetic, abstract forms taken by Bergman in dredging up childhood terrors.
Davies renders his working-class Liverpool childhood with deceptive serenity, exquisite long takes with drifting cameras and single lateral tracking shots that unite yesterday and today; and he'll sometimes interrupt these idylls with bursts of jarring violence. This is especially true in Distant Voices, his most explicit portrayal of his own father's tyranny. As embodied by Pete Postlethwaite, his father is an erratic beast, given to fits of irrational cruelty, perhaps most memorably shown during a single-shot, fixed-camera Christmas dinner scene, when without instigation he destroys the meal and table so elegantly laid out before him and his children. Coming mere seconds after Davies presents his father in a rare moment of tenderness—wishing his three children a merry Christmas and hanging their stockings with care at the foot of their bed—the sudden rage is especially traumatic, the perfect encapsulation of one man's unreasonable violence and a prime example of the filmmaker's ability to synecdochically represent years of familial conflict through twinned images of peace and destruction.
The impulse to buttress two disparate elements up against each other to create one revealingly contradictory expression is at the heart of Terence Davies's cinema. A child with nine siblings, Davies has said that he nevertheless always had the emotional character of an only child, and it's this self-negation, this sense of being part of a family yet being alone, solitary as an oyster, to borrow Dickens's phrase, that marks Davies's characters. Images of family together or friends robustly belting ditties at the local pub barely conceal the isolation they experience individually, whether from parents or lovers. The extreme alienation Davies felt as a Roman Catholic–raised homosexual coming of age in 1950s Liverpool is implicit in all these films (there's an intimation of a sexual awakening at the outset of Long Day Closes, when the prepubescent protagonist stares curiously at a bit of shirtless male musculature from his bedroom window). But it was never more blatantly represented than in the Trilogy, his most forthrightly queer work. For Robert Tucker, religious and sexual guilt create an irreparable rift between body and soul, and Davies subtly makes the viewer experience this split by dissociating sound from image—most forbiddingly during a telephone conversation between Tucker and a tattoo artist, in which Tucker (who's shown a self-flagellating predilection for leather and S&M) asks if he can have his "bollocks" tattooed. All of this is played over roving camerawork taken inside the darkly lit gloom of a Catholic church: it's a spiritual and physical disembodiment fueled by the matched-set masochisms of religion and sex.
Davies creates such densely layered visual and aural textures that watching his films, so evocative of their locations and periods, feels like floating around in the ether of a lost era. Whereas Children and Madonna and Child mostly relied on silences to capture their protagonist in a psychological freeze-frame, popular music became more integral to his cinema starting with Death and Transfiguration. In its opening scene, over images of his mother's coffin being carried to its gravesite, we hear the peachy strains of Doris Day's "It All Depends on You." The odd counterpoint serves as the most blatantly ironic device of the Trilogy (especially contrasted with the grave, bravura shot at the climax of Children, in which young Robert and his mother, doubly reflected in the windows of their house and a hearse parked outside, are obscured by the father's coffin as it slides into view—wiped away, like ghosts slowly fading from this sorrowful world). Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, something of a pair in content and style, so often deploy fondly remembered popular songs and folk standards that the films almost take shape as deconstructed musicals—"Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," "I Get the Blues When It Rains," "My Yiddishe Momme," "Buttons and Bows," "Tammy," and dozens more, either sampled on the soundtrack or sung by the characters, at parties, at pubs, while doing housework. Furthermore, in The Long Day Closes, a more direct evocation of the influence of cinema on Davies's impressionable adolescence, he layers the soundtrack with ephemera from his movie-going experiences—hushed dialogue and tremulous score from Meet Me in St. Louis, a bit of Orson Welles's acidic voice-over from The Magnificent Ambersons, a snatch of the Carousel waltz, and in a wonderfully meta moment, a blast of Alfred Newman's 20th Century Fox fanfare, which, following a lengthy credits sequence, opens the film not over regal searchlights and block lettering, but the image of a blank brick wall. Yet none of this is a blissful retreat into a pop Eden. In Distant Voices Davies allows a scene of the father viciously striking down his wife to intrude upon the mellifluous perfection of Ella Fitzgerald's singing; sound-bridged from the prior scene, the music continues to sway, even if we need to shield our eyes.
Davies's choice to keep the past at a critical distance might strike some as a quintessentially British approach; there's a long, misguided film critical heritage that chastises British cinema for its supposed emotional constriction. But Davies uses his reserve as an artistic strength. His often immobile compositions, with his actors in center frame, staring out at the camera as if waiting for a photographer to say "cheese!" suggests a sly critique of the dictates of propriety more than an embrace of them. As the second half of its title implies, Distant Voices, Still Lives takes a painterly approach to memory, its narrative sketches framed as inanimate still-life evocations, pregnant with pain and hardly the stuff of arch British mannerism (both Distant Voices and Long Day Closes offer memorably lengthy takes of empty staircases, while the latter contains one of Davies's richest images, of light shifting on an abstractly patterned throw rug for an inordinate amount of time—how many filmmakers show this much pure love for even a human character?). There's little time or space for landscaping in Davies's films; he prefers to shoot interiors, perhaps because his characters are always products of their strictly enclosed environments.
So claustrophobically intense had been Davies's inward gaze that critics were understandably curious to see what he could accomplish when moving out of his "safe zone" (though the extent to which he excavated his own difficult memories shouldn't be considered anything but dangerous). The answer came, rather drastically, with two adaptations of American novels: The Neon Bible (1995), based on John Kennedy Toole's bildungsroman debut, set in 1930s Louisiana, and The House of Mirth (2000), from Edith Wharton's scabrous tale of turn-of-the-century New York social customs. In the former, the director basically applied the Davies template to a new milieu, while in the latter he eschewed his collage approach, without forgoing his artistic and rhythmic temperaments. Though at the time of its release The Neon Bible met with harsher criticism than any of Davies's other films—both for the questionable faithfulness of its adaptation and the filmmaker's seeming inability to reconcile his abstract visual design with a conventional cause-and-effect narrative—the film's stunningly composed, dreamlike evocation of the South makes it a unique entry in the canon of American coming-of-age stories. Toole's fiction, written when he was just 16, simply provides the canvas for Davies to further empathically explore his own real demons, and the elements familiar to his autobiography (abusive father, put-upon mother, idolized older female relatives) become totemic marking points.
With The House of Mirth, Davies put himself up to a greater challenge, tackling a heavily plotted, dialogue-driven chamber drama; rather than rearranging the novelist's chronology to best suit his filmmaking talents, as he had with Neon Bible, he smartly stuck to Wharton's linear trajectory. The result, an ever-intensifying series of two-person drawing-room confrontations that add up to a dense network of treachery, was meticulous, exquisitely wrought tragedy. In its depiction of the unwritten societal rules that restrict and destroy female individuality, it is influenced as much by Douglas Sirk and Kenji Mizoguchi as by its source material. To best portray New York as a seething nest of vipers, Davies moved from the still-lifes of his memory films to a more intimate portraiture in the style of John Singer Sargent, allowing new expressiveness into an oeuvre mostly defined by fleeting impressions. And after Neon Bible's use of major actors (Gena Rowlands, Denis Leary, Diana Scarwid) as mere seasoning, sprinkled about for random flavor, rather than as emotional anchors, Gillian Anderson's finely honed and delicately stylized portrayal of Lily Bart's spiritual and physical confinement proved once and for all that Davies is as capable of directing fine performances as he is of capturing shifting patterns of light.
Despite Davies's reputation (in 2008, the British newspaper the Guardian named him "our greatest living filmmaker"), he has had well-reported difficulties getting projects off the ground. It comes as a boon to film culture that Davies has a new film this year, although the circumstances of its production provoke mixed feelings: namely, is it really fair that Davies, who has many dream projects still unrealized for lack of funding, can only make a film after being awarded 250,000 euros from a conglomeration of cultural institutions (including the BBC and the Liverpool Culture Company) in a digital filmmaking initiative? Regardless, Of Time and the City, a poetic, abstract essay film documenting his hometown from 1945 to 1973, appears to bring Davies back not only to a subject eminently comfortable for him but also to a very British brand of cinema, in this case, he has said, inspired by Humphrey Jennings's Listen to Britain (1942). In a recent interview in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, on the occasion of a 2008 retrospective of his films at the Pacific Film Archives, Davies lamented about his native land, "We don't have a cinema in this country . . . A lot of people in this country don't see any difference between cinema and television. All they want is talk and things happening. That's fun, but it's not cinema."
If Davies sees a void where British cinema should be, then perhaps the enigmatic final images of The Long Day Closes most perfectly summarize his career thus far. Bud, his lonely young self, enters a mist-enshrouded cellar door, swallowed up by the darkness beyond. The camera then slowly rises from the basement to a hushed theater, where Bud's silhouette faces a screen projecting images of a sun going down behind drifting clouds. This natural, melancholy splendor, accompanied by the lush Arthur Sullivan choral hymn that gives the film its name, overtakes Davies's frame, the sun's descent occurring in what seems like, but cannot possibly be, real time. Like Davies, Bud enters the black hole of memory, of time, of cinema, and he's on the verge of some form of revelation. There may indeed currently be a gaping hole at the heart of Davies's national cinema, but he fills it with nearly indescribable beauty.