Friday, January 7, 2011

Make Way for Yesterday (Distant Voices, Still Lives)

How is that Terence Davies, conceivably the greatest of all British narrative filmmakers, is also one of the most neglected? To answer this question, one has to begin with what's been termed the cinematic apparatus: that is, the processes regulating the production, exhibition, promotion, and discourse around motion pictures. In short, theatres need a constant supply of new movies (or they'll go broke), but for customers to want to see a particular film--whether it's a blockbuster like Inception or an indie film like Winter's Bone (both 2010)--it has to be well promoted. For instance, the latter film might have disappeared into the void with hundreds of other low-budget features which are produced each year had it not been accepted by the Sundance Film Festival (where it won the grand prize) and received across-the-board rave reviews from the English-speaking press.

However, when it comes to films that can't be easily classified or summarized (unlike Winter's Bone, as good as it is), all but the most adventurous distributors tend to lose their nerve. And the majority of reviewers, whose allegiances are to the studios more than filmmakers or audiences, are likely to react to such a film with hostility. If you go to the Telegraph's website, you'll find their two-paragraph review of Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) from the film's 2007 rerelease buried under much longer reviews of the Adam Sandler film Reign Over Me, and a documentary called Hacking Democracy (2006) originally made for American television (both unseen by me), which are evidently much more important to the art of cinema than Davies' film.

Davies wasn't the first filmmaker to receive this sort of treatment, nor was he the last. One only has to think back to last spring and the uproar surrounding Godard's Film socialisme (2010) from reviewers like Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy. I've only seen the latter movie once, but I suspect that twenty-two years from now, when Winter's Bone and the rest of the year's Oscar contenders have all faded into insignificance, Godard's film will look almost as good as Davies' does today. But because the brilliance of both Davies and Godard--like that of Leos Carax, Pedro Costa, Philippe Garrel, Miklós Jancsó, Béla Tarr, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul--is more a matter of combining sounds and images than conventional screenwriting, their films don't fit into the steady, mindless flow of commercial movies that wash up on the multiplex every week.

Like his debut, The Terence Davies Trilogy (unseen by me), which consists of three short films made over a period of eight years (1976-83), Distant Voices, Still Lives is technically two shorts filmed two years apart. Both segments are set in Liverpool in the 1940s and '50s, and centre on the same working class family. Distant Voices opens (and closes) with the death of the family's tyrannical father (Pete Postlethwaite), which is followed sequentially by the marriage of the eldest daughter, Eileen (Angela Walsh), to a man who turns out to be just like him. Still Lives begins with the second daughter, Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), giving birth to her first child, and ends with her younger brother, Tony (Dean Williams), getting married. Much of the film's second half takes place at a local pub where the family goes to celebrate the birth of Maisie's baby, and these scenes, and the flashbacks they lead into, elaborate on the relationships between Maisie, Eileen, her childhood friends Micky (Debi Jones) and Jingles (Marie Jelliman), and the men they're married to. Needless to say, this brief description fails to do justice to the film's emotional intensity.

Unlike a traditional plot-driven movie, where Event A leads to B which leads to C, all in a logical sequence of causes and effects (even in films that play with chronology, like Memento [2000]), Distant Voices, Still Lives consists of a series of discrete moments of intense emotion. Early in the film, while posing for a wedding photo, Eileen remarks to Tony, "I wish me dad were here." The camera then turns to Maisie, who says in voice-over, "I don't. He was a bastard." This leads into the film's first flashback, in which the father forces Maisie to scrub the basement floor before giving her the money to go to a dance. As she scrubs the floor on her knees, the father throws some coins on the floor and then viciously beats her with a broom. This episode doesn't have any far-reaching consequences, nor is it ever referred to again later; it's simply the first of several instances in the film where the old man physically abuses the female members of his family. (Although he's emotionally distant with Tony, we never see him hit the boy.) Adding to the feeling of narrative stasis are the film's planimetric tableaux stagings, in which the characters seem to be forever posing for family portraits.

Whereas a traditional narrative film would give specific reasons for the father's outbursts (something would happen to set him off), Davies makes no attempt to understand his behavior, leaving open the possibility that he's just insane. The only time his behavior seems even somewhat understandable is during a flashback to the Blitz. The children are all outside collecting firewood when the bombs start falling, and after narrowly escaping an explosion, they're finally led into a bomb shelter by a soldier. There, the father slaps Eileen (played as a child by Sally Davies) and orders her to sing a song. (Her rendition of "Beer Barrel Polka" is one of the most moving moments in the whole film.)

I don't know if Davies intended this, but I can't help but draw a parallel between the randomness and viciousness of the Blitz and the father's sudden outbursts, and his need to hear a song--any song--as a means of dealing with the reality of the bombings and the pleasure the other characters take in listening to music throughout the film. Earlier in the movie (which is later in the story), when Eileen and Micky want to go to a dance, the father remarks that the two of them are, "Bleedin' dance mad." Even under the most difficult circumstances, the characters stubbornly attempt to go on with their lives.

The achievement of the film is that, while the characters' feelings are presented as pure states of emotion, without the usual narrative justifications to get from one moment to the next, at no point do the film's emotions feel under-motivated. A good example of this is the film's second flashback, which begins with Tony (who's gone AWOL from the army) punching out the windows of the family home and shouting at the father inside, "Come out and fight me, ya bastard!" The next shot shows Tony inside, calmly offering his father a beer, his hand still bleeding from the broken glass. The third and final shot of the sequence shows Tony being dragged out of the house screaming by two fellow soldiers, and tossed in the back of a van. Later, in a separate flashback, we see Tony in the brig playing the theme from Charles Chaplin's Limelight (1952) on the harmonica, which seems especially fitting in that Chaplin was another British filmmaker who specialized in moments of strong emotion, but wasn't much of a storyteller.

Although it was made a quarter of a century ago (Davies began filming on Distant Voices in the fall of 1985), Distant Voices, Still Lives, as well as Davies' subsequent features, The Long Day Closes (1992) and The Neon Bible (1995), feel like movies from the future--despite the fact that all three are steeped in nostalgia for the Hollywood cinema of the 1950s. As with the best films of Godard, all three are so far ahead in terms of sounds and images that, in comparison, most commercial filmmakers just don't seem to be trying very hard. But until distributors figure out a way to market this kind of cinema, and reviewers find a way of writing about it (and I should note that Jonathan Rosenbaum has written about all three films at length), we're doomed to living in a world where the multiplexes are full movies and there's still nothing to see.

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