Distant Voices, Still Lives

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January 26, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

If you combined the personalized art therapy of Ingmar Bergman and the formal ellipticism and familial focus of Hou Hsiao-hsien with the theme of an elusive, fractured and free-association memory in Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, you’d have a perfect, if difficult, description of Terence Davies’ aesthetic. Davies had begun his career with his Trilogy, three short, black & white films made between ’76 and ’84. Poetically fractal and challenging in their own right, The Trilogy chronicled Davies maturation as a filmmaker, beginning with the rawness of Children, to the more studied and transitional Madonna and Child, and concluding with the masterful Death and Transfiguration. But if the Trilogy was the herald, then Distant Voices, Still Lives (DVSL) is the Second Coming—the ultimate testament of the greatest of post-war British filmmakers. This film retains all of the emotional and aesthetic power of its predecessors, while offering a sophisticated, refined form and style to match.

DVSL also contains a more ostensible link to its predecessors due to the fact that its narrative is rooted in Davies’ autobiographical past. In the Trilogy, Davies had focused on his own life (and imagined death), but DVSL removes Davies the character from the equation. Here, the canvas is much broader, trading the isolated suffering of the Trilogy for a more communal one. What emerges is an impressionistic take of a working class family in England during the ’40s and ’50s. As the Trilogy was made up of three thematically connected short films, DVSL is made up of two, half-feature-length films itself. Distant Voices traces the sense-memory associations of Davies’ family’s life through the period up until their father’s death, capturing that life in brief snatches of scenes that flow into others like tributaries into lakes. Still Lives, however, takes us outside the oppressive home environment to focus on the marriages of Davies’ older sisters and brother, and the birth, christening and party for the first child of the siblings.

Davies stresses in his commentary how important it was to establish early on that this wasn’t going to be a linear film, and the opening shot features a static camera in front of the family’s home, with its green front door and bay window to the right, and a small fence and knee-high brick partitions in the foreground. It’s raining, and Davies opens with the shipping forecast which, to him, immediately set the time period as the ’50s. The next shot is of the immediate interior with its cramped hallway and ascending staircase—a location Davies will return to as a motif—as the mother calls the children down, and leaves the frame. Davies holds the shot for several seconds, and even though we hear footsteps we don’t see anyone. The children converse with their mom, but we still don’t see anything.

Essentially, Davies has already recreated the “Distant Voices” of the title, conjuring up the ghosts of the past through visual emptiness but pregnant audio. After holding the shot for more than a minute, Davies’ camera slowly tracks forward. When it nears the steps, it begins to pan right, eventually turning 180-degrees to face the front door with its spectral light creeping in. Doors and windows abound as a motif in the film, standing in as physical correlatives to Davies’ cinematic transitional devices. Rendered through Davies’ lens we’re allowed to imagine the world of possibilities outside these mental and physical prison cells. Davies dissolves from this shot as we watch the mother and her children getting into a hearse. At the funeral, Davies frames them as if in a still photo. He focuses on each member; Maise’s memory of her father is of him beating her with a broom after she asked to go out dancing, Tony’s memory is of his father refusing to have a beer with him after he broke a window soon after coming back from the army. Eileen’s memory is more recent. Hers shows the family gathered at the hospital around the father.

A voice-over introduces Micky, a girl Eileen’s age and her friend, who mostly remembers being able to charm Mr. Davies enough so she and Eileen could get their way. This interlude takes us through Eileen and Micky’s friendship up until Eileen’s marriage and the reception, introducing the first communal song that will become another major motif. The jovial mood is interrupted by Eileen’s emotional breakdown in the hospital, and it gives way to one of the most extraordinary shots in the film as Davies’ camera tracks left to a chilling performance of In the Bleak Midwinter. The camera moves past a scene of the family gathered and praying around a homemade Virgin Mary altar, to a scene in front of the house of their father putting up Christmas decorations. As is so common in the film, this brief scene of bliss gives over to one of brutality as, at dinner, the father erupts, pulling everything off the table and demanding that his wife clean it up.

One inspiration Davies constantly lists is T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and their theme of time, memory and mortality. That temporal liquidity is all over Distant Voices, conjuring up a world of memorial ghosts that seem to haunt the frames and even what’s beyond them. The editing is certainly more concerned with aesthetic, thematic, and tonal cohesion over dramatic linearity, and the diversity of transitional devices Davies uses is extraordinary. L-cuts, or the use of sound (dialogue or music) overlaid on one scene to transition to another, are pervasive in the film, but Davies frequently subverts this, introducing sound but not cutting to the scene connected to it. Images and events frequently compress illogically, allowing Davies to explain them or connect them later on. This seems to mimic the associative nesting of memory, as scenes don’t unfold linearly in time but in the order in which one is associated with another, making the connections all the more suggestive.

Davies also saves one of his finest moments for the transition between the film’s two main sections: the camera elevates up towards the outside of a closed window, tracks forward, dissolves to inside with the window open and light streaming in, tracks back, cuts to the mother bathed in light, cuts to a bitter scene from Eileen’s marriage, dissolves to an empty chair and pans down to the fireplace, dissolves to the mother sleeping in her chair with the rippling reflection from the fire, tracks back down to the fire, fades to an ultrasound-like image of the Themes, cuts to the scene of Eileen giving birth, before finally closing on the christening. It’s a remarkable sequence of poetic editing, weaving these superficially disconnected strands together into the finest of cinematic tapestries, enfolding the motifs of fire, water, motherhood, abuse, life and death all into one.

In contrast to this elusive editing, the visuals provide concrete, tangible textures. DVSL has a supremely unique look and feel to it; Davies said it was due to a bleach process in film development that desaturated the color, creating slightly washed-out tones. Davies calibrated this to the range of browns and sepia colors, creating a film that looks like old-photographs without ever being obvious or one-dimensional. The art design and lighting adds to this, and it’s certainly one of those films where you can almost feel the tactile quality of the surfaces, from the stones to the wood to the wallpaper. As the Distant Voices section gives way to the Still Lives section, Davies consciously warms up the tone. Even though it’s still desaturated, there’s now more angled, diffused, glowing light. The grays and blacks of the former give way to the golden reds of the latter. This is especially potent during Davies’ repeated fades to white, which envelop his characters in an angelic glow.

I can only imagine how difficult casting the film was. Davies said that the only cast-member that resembles their real-life counterpart was Pete Postlethwaite, who turns in a bone-crushing performance as the father. Davies returns repeatedly to a wall-hanging photograph of his real father and his father’s horse, and it’s difficult to tell they’re not the same person. Freda Dowie is the mother, and hers is a loving, understated, and nuanced performance. Even though her role isn’t large in dialogue, her presence is always felt. Dean Williams plays Tony, Terence’s older brother, Lorraine Ashbourne is Maise and Angela Walsh is Eileen, Terence’s two older sisters. But it’s truly Debi Jones’ effervescent Micky who steals the show. One thing Davies learned from the Trilogy is that dramatic power is best when balanced with levity, and, as dour as DVSL frequently is, it’s also extremely funny. Much of that humor can be attributed to Jones and Micky, who is Eileen’s best friend in the film. One hilarious scene finds she and Eileen reminiscing over a trip where Micky hit their friend, Jingles, in the head with a mallet after Jingles accused Micky of farting. Later on, the witty banter between Micky and her husband, Red, is delightful, almost conjuring up the aesthetics of ’30s and ’40s screwball comedies.

If the editing is the film’s soul, the images its feeling, and the characters its flesh, then the music is the lifeblood that galvanizes the whole. Davies mentioned that he grew up idolizing Hollywood musicals, and that DVSL is his version of a mini-musical. Most of the music from Distant Voices is non-diegetic; besides the aforementioned In the Bleak Midwinter, Jessye Norman’s rendition of There’s a Man Goin’ Round Takin’ Names somberly accompanies the opening funeral. Ella Fitzgerald’s upbeat Taking a Chance on Love poignantly scores one of the most powerful scenes in the film, as Davies cuts from an image of the mother scrubbing windows, being asked why she married her husband. She replies, “because he was nice, and a good dancer.” Davies tracks in, and then violently cuts to the father manhandling the mother, beating her backwards as the camera tracks into the hallway that opens the film. Eventually, he throws her down out of frame, as the music swells and Davies holds on the empty space, eerily reminiscent of a similar hospital motif Hou Hsiao-hsien used in his A City of Sadness. The next image of the mother attending to her bruises is shattering, and, taken together, the two present the most overwhelming depiction of domestic abuse I’ve ever seen in cinema.

In Still Lives, the music takes on a much more elated tone. Here, happy and infectious folk and pop songs like Button and Bows and I Love the Ladies are sung as the family celebrates the birth and christening of Eileen’s child in a bar. If another Hou comparison is to be made, here Davies is more like Hou circa Flowers of Shanghai, though not as technically virtuosic. But Davies infuses his familial gatherings with a sense of warmth and affection, effortlessly capturing the time period and these people who were an immense part of his life. Davies goes long stretches of simply panning and cutting to his characters singing, but, even here, the songs seem to reveal the characters underneath. He continues this even up until the party leaves and the characters disperse. Davies only returns to non-diegetic music for the closing, which finds its characters walking off into the dark night to a haunting rendition of O Waly, Waly, played by Benjamin Britten and sung by Peter Pears.

If Distant Voices was marked by its temporal leaps, then Still Lives seems marked by a static lack of progression—perhaps appropriately, considering its title. Even though the father is dead, the memory remains and, in Davies’ cinema, memory is as alive, real, and affective as any present. It also plays on the title’s possible double meaning, ambiguously suggesting both its pairing as an adjective-noun and adverb-verb (their lives have stilled, because the father still lives). The biggest time shift features a remarkable cut from Eileen and Maisie tearfully watching Love is a Many-Splendored Thing in the theater (with the title track swelling), to Tony with Maisie’s husband falling in slow motion and crashing through glass from a top-down perspective. As is typical in the film, we only find out what this is connected to later, as both were injured in a scaffolding accident.

But more important than Davies’ fascinating cinematic techniques is the profound heart and soul behind it all. There are very few artists in film’s history that have so poignantly and poetically captured their own life on celluloid. While Davies’ Trilogy is more severe, DVSL is richer, more complex, sophisticated, and, in the end, perhaps even more heartrending. It’s one of the few films that has moments of such power that even I felt compelled to turn away, especially during scenes like a mother tending to her bruises. It’s also a film of terrifying, nostalgic beauty, where music and images swirl in kaleidoscopic aesthetic textures, while the illusive editing weaves it all together. While the Still Lives section lightens the mood, the memories and the scars remain. DVSL might not capture how people live day-to-day, but it arguably captures something stronger, and that’s how we remember, how we feel, and how we feel when we remember.

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