The Terence Davies Trilogy

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January 25, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

”People either love what I do or they absolutely detest it. One woman said of the Trilogy ‘I loathe every frame of it.’ One critic said ‘These films make Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis.’ …other people come up to me and say ‘I’ve seen my life on screen.’” – Terence Davies

Between 1976 and 1983, before Terence Davies became the most heralded British filmmaker of his time with his films Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, he made this trilogy of short films. Each film finds Davies evolving as a director and cinematic technician. Each represents an artistic leap forward, with a growing refinement, sophistication, but, above all, expressive strength. Yet, despite the seven years separating their beginning from their end, there’s a stunning coherency. All are marked by a stark and ascetic black & white aesthetic. All feature a poetic formalism built on impressionistic memories, dreams and life-long obsessions. All are fragmentary and elliptical, reminding one of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” in their temporal liquidity and search for a greater meaning while being anchored in the material world. Perhaps, above all else, they offer an overwhelmingly poignant portrait of an individual fraught with a lifetime of suffering. Yes, they are overtly dour and depressing, but the films could be said to be a portrait of depression itself.

The first entry, Children, certainly shows Davies’ inexperience as a director, and he is genuinely humble in the commentary when discussing it, frequently pointing out basic directorial mistakes and obvious areas that could have used improvement. Yet, despite the roughness, Children has a raw power to it, like touching an exposed nerve with an electrical current. According to Davies, shooting Children was the most grueling three weeks of his life as none of the crewmembers liked him or his method and felt he was constantly getting it wrong. He almost wholly credits cinematographer William Diver for supporting his vision and encouraging him. Given the technical and artistic limitations of the film, it’s aided tremendously by the fact that the story is so universal and told with great focus and patience. Like the others in the trilogy, Children paints a picture of suffocating isolation, and isolation is never more profoundly felt than in childhood. For anyone who has ever suffered through school bullying or an abusive parent, the film is more likely to hit home than if they haven’t.

Young Phillip Madsley plays Tucker as a boy, and his silent demeanor constantly tells a story of pain and torment on its own. As in the other films, Davies is already displaying a remarkable ability for rendering memories in palpable detail, especially Tucker’s fear of undressing in public for school examinations or public showers, and his first awareness of his attraction to men. But most painful is Tucker burying his head in his pillow as he listens to his father beating his mother, who later comes up in an attempt to comfort him. Already Davies is establishing Tucker’s/his close relationship with his mother; remarkably, though, he doesn’t paint her as an unrealistic angel, but merely as a sympathetic individual who loves him unconditionally in a cruel world that’s broken him down. The funeral of Tucker’s father provides the climax of the film and, as with Davies’ rendering of the school and domestic settings, it’s given a torturously realistic sculpting, displaying British funerals for the macabre, grotesque rituals they are and how terrifying they must be for someone at such an impressionable age.

Of all the films in the trilogy, Madonna & Child finds Davies most distinctly exploring his central themes, especially those of Catholic guilt, his homosexual fantasies, his relationship with his mother, and his oppressive isolation and devastating depression. It also finds a middle-aged Tucker stuck in a wearisome, life-sucking office job. But Davies is also displaying a remarkable growth as a directorial technician, and Madonna & Child is full of mature cinematic devices. One of the most notable is the pervasive use of high contrast black & white, which moves the film into a darker world than the more gradated grays of Children. The high-contrast galvanizes scenes such as when Tucker knocks on the door to an exclusive gay club, whose framing and look is echoed later during Tucker’s confession scene at Church.

Beyond the visual look, one distinct motif in the film is juxtaposing the holy with the profane, such as when we hear Tucker’s voice-over requesting a tattoo on his “bollocks” while the camera sweeps across the inside of a church. Another juxtaposes Tucker’s confession of his sins with him giving a blowjob; whether this is memory or fantasy is left ambiguous, but what’s obvious is the latent guilt over it. But the holy/profane motif is also accompanied by others, such as Tucker’s homosexual fantasies contrasted against the soul-sucking mundanity of his office job, or even the innocence of his relationship with his mother contrasted against those very fantasies. In one memorable sequence the film cuts from a scene between Tucker and his mother drinking tea, and Tucker involved in an S&M scenario; this odd pairing itself seems to echo one in Children which cuts from his mother comforting him to Tucker’s first homosexual experience, which certainly makes it hard to overlook the Freudian angle.

But, as in Children, Davies saves the best for last which features a nightmare of his own death and judgment, foreshadowing the next film. In a scene that subtly echoes the morose focus on the casket at his father’s death, Davies’ camera follows a procession as it leads up to a casket where he himself lies in a church with a priest giving a voice-over eulogy. Tucker’s scream as he wakes up is one of the most chilling in the history of cinema. According to Davies, these nightmares regularly plagued him, likely brought on from him being forced to sleep in his father’s bed when he died. But much of the film’s potency comes from the realization that Tucker’s nightmare is as much a waking one, as can be seen when he enters his work, only to have the door slowly, automatically close behind him, as if an invisible force is barricading him in his own life. But the remaining hope is, as Davies said on the commentary, the fact that he was able to “get out”, and escape into a life of professional filmmaking.

“When the light goes out, God dies.”

Death & Transfiguration brings the trilogy to a transcendent close, and I’d even go so far to say that I have never seen death rendered more powerfully in cinema outside of Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Both are films I would vividly compare to Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, which portrayed death as a horrifyingly isolated event, as a progressive cutting off of the individual to all vestiges of life. In his final role, Wilfrid Brambell plays the elderly Tucker, confined to a hospital after a stroke. But, like with Ivan Ilyich, while his body is static and broken, his mind is all the more free to roam. In that context, Davies’ technique of transient memories rendered in elliptical editing takes on an even more apropos purpose.

Here, Davies’ has reached the pinnacle of his cinematic maturity; as with Madonna & Son, Death & Transfiguration is full of juxtapositions and transitional devices, but here they are seamless. This is a film that moves time and memory like a knife through water, carving out a lifetime full of impressions. Davies’ obsessions are the same, but here they all coalesce into a oneness. Death & Transfiguration has a paradoxical quality to it, full of polar opposites; it has an inner peace while still struggling against life, it’s rooted in the pain of the flesh but there’s also a spiritual grace to it, it’s full of despair, but it revels in the concept that hope can only be found in such despair.

Here, the Trilogy ’s motifs seem to echo more subtly, but more loudly. The pervasive choirs of children, usually singing Christian songs, take on a haunting quality that lingers. The transition between the nurses putting up Christmas decorations in the hospital and a young Tucker celebrating Christmas with his mother has an almost unbearable poignancy to it. The outstanding rendition of Doris Day’s It All Depends on You opens the film with a muted sentimentality, barely preparing the audience for the moments to come. One scene finds Davies panning from Brambell in his wheelchair over to a rainy window, back to find a younger Tucker (Terry O’Sullivan, reprising the role from Madonna & Son) standing by the window in his place in one take; encapsulating the film’s ability to slip in and out time. In the film’s (and, indeed, the Trilogy ’s) most harrowing moment, Davies slowly tracks through the darkened hospital as Brambell’s Cheyne-Stokes breathing—an abnormal pattern afflicting stroke patients—punctuates the soundtrack. When the camera finally reaches them, a nurse coldly checks his eyes, but Davies then cuts to him reaching upwards towards a majestic light.

This last scene proved to be one of the most powerful I’d ever witnessed in cinema, leaving on an image that will be permanently burned into my brain. But that impressiveness marks the Trilogy as a whole; this is painfully intimate filmmaking at its most personal. On that level, it’s easy to understand the harsh criticisms Davies received. Art like this is easier to look away from, dismiss, or make fun of than it is to actively engage with and sympathize with. The Bergman comparison is particularly apt, seeing as how Bergman also spent a lifetime obsessed with religion and God, and with its private settings and reductive casts, the Trilogy certainly bears resemblance to Bergman’s chamber dramas. But Davies lacks Bergman’s theatricality and narration; the Trilogy never makes any concession to mainstream entertainment or storytelling techniques. No, this is cinematic art at its most profound, dour, and challenging, and it’s one of those works that could be putting someone’s life up on screen. To those who dismiss it, I understand, but to those who empathize, I can’t help but pity you.

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