Thursday, 29 May 2008

Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, 1988)

Terence Davies's intimate investigation into the persistence of memory announces its intents with its opening sequence. A BBC shipping forecast is heard off-screen as his camera statically observes the exterior of a somewhat dreary house. In the middle of a storm, a woman (known simply as "Mother") opens the front door and collects the bottles of milk that have been deposited outside. She quickly returns to the safety of her home, and Davies follows her by cutting to a shot inside the house. The camera remains static as we now observe the unsurprisingly drab interiors of this humble abode. Mother shouts up a staircase to awaken the other members of this household. After a second reminder, we hear the rest of the family coming downstairs - but curiously we do not see them, although off-screen dialogue identifies them as Mother's children. As "I Get the Blues When It's Raining" plays on the soundtrack, the camera slowly glides forward towards the staircase before completing a 180-degree pan and resting upon a shot of the same front door that we had previously viewed externally. The shot dissolves and a temporal ellipsis occurs - the formerly closed door is now wide open, revealing a hearse pulling up outside (the storm has since disappeared). Another dissolve leads to a tableaux of Mother and her three children (Eileen, Tony and Maisie) staring directly at the camera, as if from a photograph album. The soundtrack has since moved on to an operatic rendition of "There's A Man Going 'Round Taking Names". The camera once again glides forward, this time towards a genuine photograph hanging on the wall. As the family walk off-screen, the image of a man and his horse comes to dominate the frame. In its lucidity, we correctly presume that the man is the (now deceased) "Father" of this household.

In under four minutes then, Davies manages to fully establish the context in which Distant Voices, Still Lives will unfold. The shipping forecast and the decor situate the film historically in the post-war era of late 1940s/early 1950s Britain, and the latter also helps define the distinctly working-class milieu that the director will survey. Familial bonds are already placed at the fore, and the early allusions to weddings (during the words that Mother and Eileen exchange off-screen) and funerals emphasizes the communal rituals around which the film's loose structure is constructed. The long-takes, gentle pans, tableaux vivants, frequent dissolves and stately pacing that characterize the film's visual style create a stream of consciousness sensation that intensifies and complements its narrative of remembrance. Meanwhile, Davies's veritable soundscapes marry the everyday rhythms of blue collar life to a catalogue of incredibly emotive songs, whilst further muddying the waters of time: the traditional relationship of aural to visual is modified to accommodate the temporal ellipses that pervade the film. In the director's complex memorializations, the manes of the past engage in an neverending process of imprinting themselves upon the present. The close-up that concludes the opening sequence identifies Father as this film's ghost that refuses to disappear.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is actually a diptych of two short films that comprise a single 80-minute feature. Although structured as a serene entanglement of memories, the differentiation is not inappropriate as the first part (Distant Voices) clearly focuses on life with Father whilst the second (Still Lives) is concerned with life after him. The coercion generated by the presence of this antagonistic patriarch renders the Distant Voices segment the more emotionally volatile of the two, with its tones oscillating wildly between the harmony of recollection and the trauma of unhealed wounds. Numerous juxtapositions enunciate these cinematic mood swings: one such instance finds Eileen longing for her father's presence, but the scene that immediately follows finds said Father savagely beating his daughter with a broom; in the midst of her piercing screams, Davies cuts back to a shot of Eileen summoning a brave smile and repeating her initial refrain - "I wish me dad was 'ere". Tragic irony is used to expose Eileen's blind reverence as a symptomatic consequence of domestic violence, and the device will feature frequently in both halves of the film.

Despite its tendency to appeal to our sympathies, one shouldn't fall into the trap of making character judgments as a result of a single (albeit fairly typical) sequence. A later juxtaposition finds Father placing stockings on his children's bed at Christmas, and in this rare moment of clarity the paternal affection that radiates from his unassuming face is endearingly visible. Naturally, the very next scene sees him exploding in untriggered fury at the dinner table, before ordering Mother to clean up the damage caused by his wrath. The contrast here is especially vital, for not only does the film's prevalent streak of character ambiguities finally manifest itself in the most unexpected of locations, but the completely unprovoked nature of the outburst implicates external factors beyond their control for both Father's authoritarianism and his family's capitulation to it. One senses that these troubles are not entirely divorced from their socio-historical context - the archetypes of the British working-class ingrain themselves into these characters, and a reluctant tolerance of domestic strife is the result.

Still Lives builds on this premise by quietly shifting the film's focus from the private to the public sphere, thus comprehensively articulating the social dimensions that tantalized in Distant Voices. It expands upon the collective practices of the family and views life itself through the prism of multiple social gatherings, thereby reinforcing their status as one of the core components of this class experience. The prominence of baptisms, weddings, funerals, Christmases, and even (or especially) meetups at the local pub highlights the reassuring unity that can be offered through these shared encounters, and it's a comfort that confers the women in particular with the strength to assert their once "distant" voices. These female and communal proclamations take the form of songs that are contemporaneous with the era, and which subsequently uncover the most intriguing peculiarity of Davies's work: its relation to the movie musical.

The use of songs as an extension of the characters' mindsets is a recurrent feature in Distant Voices, which fluctuates between the use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound. However, Still Lives finds a more emphatic movement towards the former option, and in doing so it transposes the essence of the musical into the unlikeliest of contexts. Its expertise in conveying the transformative power of personal expression is contrasted against the bleak actualities of impecunious Liverpool, thus exposing a painful dichotomy that denies its characters the multicoloured transcendence available to their Hollywood predecessors. When Eileen defiantly belts out a heartfelt rendition of "I Wanna Be Around" in solidarity with her best friend, the entire world momentarily seems to pause as a lifetime of suppressed sentiments comes to the fore. For less than a minute the cathartic bliss of movie-euphoria overwhelms both film and audience - but never are we divorced from reality. The grimy, indifferent pub setting and the presence of its misogynistic males drives the song towards its ecstatic highs, but it's these same factors that simultaneously provoke the sombre resignation on Eileen's face after her impassioned stand is completed. The long-term viability of this brand of escapism is something that Davies and his characters are all too acutely aware of.

"I Wanna Be Around" is exemplary of the softened restrictions facing modes of expression in Still Lives. Father's absence here alludes to an elapse of time that provides it with a greater scope than its sister segment. Time inevitably causes change with progression as a potential byproduct, but the content of Still Lives is a fundamental actualization of its title. In spite of slight but discernable differences such as the increased presence of radios and the more affirmative female voices, this later section maintains the introspection of Distant Voices both stylistically and emotionally. One of Davies's deftest touches in this regard is the motif that he creates with doors - throughout both parts characters are framed against doorways, quietly magnifying their need for escape. Tellingly however, the doors are used as entrances as opposed to exits - and in the few instances when people do exit, it's simply to collect an item before returning back into the comfort of their home. The need for escape is a projection of the audience's desires onto characters who resist with the insularity that dominated their life with Father, thus accentuating the discrepancy between our freedom and their entrapment. In this way, Distant Voices feeds directly into Still Lives: the transitional scene between the two is punctuated by an off-screen male's angry screams at Eileen. Had it not been for the man's utterance of "I'm your husband!", we would have sufficient grounding to presume that this was another flashback with Father. And yet in some senses it is, for the cyclical nature of abuse has fully manifested itself within this family's lives, and the spirit of their patriarch continues to infringe upon the action from beyond the grave. The past's inextricable link with the present ensures that the ruins of the former will permanently handicap the latter.

This is not to say that Davies's film is a bleak one, however. There are glimpses of deliciously off-the-wall humour (think Uncle Ted), and its resonance derives from the autobiographical warmth of tender familial bonds that even Father can't destroy. Perhaps the most memorable sequence in the film occurs towards the end: a crane shot rises from a floor of umbrellas amidst pouring rain, towards the roof of a movie theatre as the swelling strings of "Love Is a Many Splendored-Thing" inundate the soundtrack; as we pass a poster for said film, the take dissolves into a delicate pan over the faces of the audience, before resting on Eileen and Maisie - weeping like little children. These two simple shots serve as a beautiful homage to the unparalleled power of cinema, and it's a description that's perfectly applicable to the rest of Distant Voices... Davies's working-class ballad is a staggering achievement that refuses the despondency that many of his compatriots succumb to when dealing with the underprivileged: under this director's microscope, their troubles are harrowing, but they themselves retain their dignity. Moreover, the fragmented narrative functions as a breathtakingly unique exposition of the internal, imbuing each of Davies's exquisite compositions with an emotional panorama that remains unmatched within British filmmaking. Through this series of disjointed memories, the director crafts a remarkably cohesive and full-bodied portrait of life itself, and whilst doing so pays tribute to: the cinema; the working-classes; the past; the present; and, most stirringly, the future. For any astute film enthusiast (and particularly those that are British), Distant Voices, Still Lives gives cause for pure elation.


Matt said...

Good insights. This is a great film. Hope more viewers can see it some day in the U.S.

spicebrain said...

Thanks for the response, Matt. Its lack of availability in the US irks me, esp. considering the influence that the nation and its critics possess when it comes to the world of cinema. I've persuaded a number of people to petition Criterion (via email) for a DVD release of this at some stage down the line. Here's hoping!

In the meantime, the BFI DVD that we have over here is well worth investing in if you're in possession of a multi-region player. This is a film that I've watched over and over since I posted those thoughts, and it continues to reward me with every one of those viewings.