Favorite Film: DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES (1988)

December 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Terence Davies’ 1988 autobiographical masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives is a film of the rarest and most elusive beauty. It is at once a loose collection of memories that coalesce into a narrative, a color-drained family album possessed of a great sensory warmth, and an ardent expression of childhood nostalgia that remains tactful in its reminiscences, alternating freely between rose-tinted musical reveries, wistful caresses, and scenes of violent brutality. What might at first seem like fanciful stream-of-consciousness, awash in comforting sepia tones and full of dreamy flights of fancy, emerges as something far more challenging. Attuned to the vivid intensity of each individually recollected moment, Davies also manages to integrate each memory into a greater emotional architecture, an ostensible free-associative weightlessness masking a formidable novelistic density.

Born in the slums of Liverpool to a working-class family, Davies spent much of his childhood recoiling from the frequently administered violence of his abusive father and reconciling his budding homosexuality to his strict Catholic upbringing. As his interviews attest, Davies harbors a bitterness toward the domineering social institutions that enabled such an arduous home life and that instilled him with such unnecessary guilt for his sexuality, but, as is evident in his art, he also can’t undo the ties of nostalgia that bind him affectionately to the sights and sounds of his childhood. In Distant Voices Still Lives, this seeming contradiction comes into sharp focus as something harmonious, fondness and resentment flowing in and out of one another as part of the same retentive stream.

‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ concatenates the titles of two separate forty-odd minute films commissioned by the British Film Institute and shot two years apart, both chronicling the life of the Davies family in Liverpool during the 1940s and 50s. The first film, Distant Voices, orbits around the death of the father, played by Pete Postlethwaite, and grapples with his troubled relationship to the rest of the family. At the beginning of the film, we see the mother (Freda Dowie) and the three children—Eileen (Angela Walsh), Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), and Tony (Dean Williams), all adults—standing in family-portrait formation in front of his framed photograph on the occasion of his funeral. This stark tableau vivant appears to be the movie’s framing device, a placid present tense from which the tumultuous memories usher forth. But as soon as Maisie prompts a jump back in titme to a brutal beating she once endured at her father’s hands, any notion of ‘tense’ begins to evaporate. While variations on the portrait composition appear sporadically throughout the film, often functioning as palate cleansers between some of the more violent episodes, there is no anchoring present-day scene or reference point that helps us situate the remembrances, no flashback structure that allows us to parse or compartmentalize the shattered chronology. And yet for all the randomized leaps from one timeframe to another, there is never a jolting sensation of being pushed around in time, so strong is Davies’ mastery of poetic association and emotional continuity.

A case in point: During her wedding celebration at a local pub, Eileen takes her husband Dave aside and begins to sob, crying for her deceased father. This occasions a leftward lateral tracking shot that enters into total darkness, proceeds past the whole family (many years younger) in prayer before a candlelit statue of Mary in a darkened sanctuary, and then, after another interval of darkness, continues down a neighborhood street at Christmastime and finally arrives at the Davies home, where the father is seen hanging Christmas decorations in the window. The ‘shot’ is clearly artificial, three separate shots spliced together by invisible cuts. But the slow, ambulatory pace of the movement, the choral music that accompanies it, its lyrical employment of pitch-black space, and the manner in which the camera implicitly adopts Eileen’s state of mind as warm reminiscences pour out from her sorrow—all of these combine into a clean, crystallized sequence whose poetic and dramaturgical motivations are instantly understood on an emotional level that defies verbal articulation.

This sequence also exemplifies his total subservience to his characters, even during his loftiest moments of pure aestheticism. The tracking shot described above is the kind of streamlined cinematic intervention that cinephiles fawn for, a privileged moment in which the filmmaker indulges the purely aural and visual qualities of the medium to impose a unique meaning or perspective on the diegesis. Such formalistic exercises almost invariably create a sense of distance, of holding the plot at arm’s length. But the tracking shot in Distant Voices, for all its self-enclosed perfectionism, feels like the natural next-step in the story, proceeding as it does from Eileen’s sadness and not as a function of a grand narrative design. Its aestheticized sweep through time is nothing more artistically indulgent than a reflection of Davies’ love and sympathy for his sister, whose process of grief-stricken remembrance he seeks to capture as sublimely as possible. Furthermore, the sequence is not an enshrined, dramatically perfunctory ‘moment’ set apart from the rest of the film, but an essential transitional interlude that flows gracefully from one scene and into another, deepening our understanding of the characters in the process.

Shortly after we see the father hanging Christmas decorations and lovingly sending his children off to bed, we find him the next morning at breakfast ferociously convulsing. In a terrifying eruption of brutality, he pulls the tablecloth off the table, sending the dishes crashing to the floor, and violently orders his wife to clean them up. From whence his father’s abuse stems, Davies refuses to say. He can only be true to what he remembers of him and to the stories he inherited from his older siblings, and this means accepting his moments of goodness and bursts of deep-seated anger as integral parts of the same inexplicable mystery, that of a complex human being filtered through a process of recollection that preserves only his most extreme, and therefore dissonant, actions. The father’s breakfast table spasm no more cancels out his Christmas Eve kindliness than does the family’s suffering their joy for living, Davies’ bitterness his nostalgia.

Davies’ willingness to let opposing feelings harmonize with one another is one of the most refreshing aspects of his work. In both of the films that comprise Distant Voices, Still Lives, he refuses to let the pain that afflicts his characters negate the boundless pleasure they derive from life, even when incarnated in folk songs and Hollywood musicals. When Eileen cries for her father during her wedding festivities, it does not represent a private unhappiness standing in ironic rebuke to the public celebration going on around her, but rather a fraught illustration of marriage as a true transitional point, one that brings the tragedies of the past and the promises of the future inexorably together to be reckoned with at once. When Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Taking a Chance on Love’ plays over a particularly nasty beating suffered by his mother, it isn’t to mock her troubled marriage but to speak sincerely to her spirit and fortitude. One of the most beautiful sequences in the film begins with a vertical camera movement from a group of umbrellas clustered together in the rain to posters advertising Guys and Dolls and Love is a Many Splendoured Thing. The theme of the latter carries us into the packed theater, where Maisie and Eileen, lit apart from the rest of the crowd, are seen in tears, utterly transfixed. Davies’ sensitivity to his characters is such that the mere observance of them in the act of feeling strong emotions, whether born of momentous life events or of the simple act of watching a movie, is worth our deepest attention. The same principle applies to the sing-a-longs in the local pubs, where the simple act of singing carries a tremendous emotional import, lending expressive freedom to women whose voices are often squelched in abusive home lives and allowing everyone to surrender his or her individual grievances to joyous communion.

Most of the celebratory sequences appear in the second film, Still Lives, which observes the dissolution of the family in the aftermath of the father’s death, as the children slowly leave home to start families of their own. The sense of conflict is less pronounced than in Distant Voices, lying dormant until a wrenching final scene. If Distant Voices is about a family wrestling with an abusive father figure, then Still Lives contends with the possibility that his ghost will inhabit the husbands of the daughters and their friends, many of whom exhibit the same brutish qualities. This anxiety for the future comes to a head when Tony, the youngest sibling, is finally married off at the end, his wedding celebration melting into a series of departures strung together by overlapping dissolves and set to Benjamin Britten’s elegiac rendition of ‘Waly, Waly.’

Describing Davies’ working methods, Freda Dowie wrote, “Terry shows things so economically; the way he can evoke an air raid with the noise of sirens and children running. He’s a poet, he thinks like a poet, and he looks with the eyes of a poet.” Distant Voices, Still Lives overflows with such examples, not least of which an opening shot that mixes rain, milk bottles, a shipping forecast, a somber folk song, disembodied voices, and a lurching camera movement into a haunting synopsis of many of the film’s major themes while effortlessly conjuring up the textural and sensory landscape of postwar Liverpool. Few filmmakers have done more to dilate cinematic time through such exacting distillations of sound and image than has Terence Davies. Through these richly detailed recreated moments suspended in time, endlessly evocative, imaginatively interrelated, Davies relives many episodes of the past in all their seething intensity even as their mysteries and contradictions remain irresolvable. In heightening these mysteries, Davies gets at the fundamental tragedy of lost time, one of the many reasons why the mournful sendoff to the world of his upbringing that concludes Distant Voices, Still Lives is so profoundly heartbreaking. Davies’ confluence of fondness and resentment continues unabated. – Stuart

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