Distant Voices, Still Lives





 by Harlan Kennedy


Movies are a many-splendored thing. Bombs fall. Babies are born. Lives are lived and lost.

The old Britain wrestles with the new in raw Northern streets.

Place: Liverpool.

Time: any and every year between the war's end and the beginning of the Brave New Fifties, in transition from austerity to You've Never Had It So Good.

British cinema has reportedly never had it so good either. But even in a dec­ade studded with Renaissance gems, Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives looks like the Koh-I-Noor diamond. It outshone almost every other movie at Cannes this year, where it nabbed the International Critics Prize.

Normally sober, and even normally drunk, critics unpacked long-mothballed superlatives. And back in Brit­ain, Davies himself, a 44-year-old newcomer to fame, is bemused at the response-as if he thought he'd just made a personal, heartfelt movie and was now being told his film was a na­tional treasure.

It is. The movie is a mirror held up to a country, a family, and a time – and to the emotions of a joyful and horri­fying childhood. It is Davies' portrait, moving but never misted by sentimen­tality, of his own warring parents and his oldest brother and two oldest sis­ters. (Davies was the youngest of ten children born to a poor Liverpool fam­ily.)

What makes it a modern film, and not a tissue of self-mythologizing preten­sion like Hope and Glory, is its textual and formal complexity. For all the bells it's bound to set ringing among people ready to invoke the D. H. Lawrence (or Bill Douglas) tradition of crucified provincial childhood, the film's status is as meta-cinema in the manner of An­drei Tarkovsky. It's a film about mem­ory – but it's also a film about making a film about memory. Davies stuffs the movie with deliberately exposed bits of grammar and homage. You're aware of the artifices of film lighting. (The chia­roscuro in early scenes is out of German Expressionism via How Green Was My Valley.) You're aware that each crane shot is a crane shot. You're aware that a camera, tracking from a wedding re­ception hall into a gulf of darkness then into a candlelit church then into more darkness and then along a terraced street, is a geography-defying coup de cinema. And you're aware of the re­curring door-frame motif, Searchers-style, distancing and contextualizing the memory of family or friends.

But none of this awareness of style and technique vitiates the film's emo­tional impact. One reason is that its ma­terial is not dead but overpoweringly alive. For Davies, the past is not a for­eign country in the sighing, elegiac sense coined in The Go-Between – and transmitted to the recent spate of Em­pire reveries. For Davies, if the past is a foreign country, it's guerrilla terri­tory: not a sedate outpost of our exis­tential empire but a Vietnam of the mind. There, emotions are not lan­guidly picked over with a calf-gloved hand; they come out of the shadows, raw and ungloved, and pick you over.

This Sturm and Drang approach to the cinema of autobiography was prefigured in Bill Douglas' trilogy: My Ain Folk (the first two parts) and My Way Home. But Douglas' way with memory was bleak, ironic and hieratic. His films were pictures from The Fam­ily Album You Never See, graphic with remembered rage or grief, but still then rather than now. The black-and-white photography further sealed his mem­ories into the past.

Davies' past is now. And it has a uni­versal resonance because it has a fear­less specificity. Ten minutes into the film you realize how unnerving its orig­inality is. Scenes are not there to illus­trate points. There is no "message" in the jagged tableaux of memory Davies is throwing at us like pieces of broken glass. A boy smashes a window and screams and swears into the unanswering interior.

Next shot, he is standing dead still and bloody-handed, talking quietly to his dad. One moment we are with the family after Dad's death. The next we are with them years before. There are no syntactical signposts to guide us. The ripple-dissolve is dead, the mute, brute cut is the new grammar.

The characters are likewise mosaics pieced together out of rupture and con­tradiction. Dad (Pete Postlethwaite) is stoical and long-suffering. Dad is a rag­ing bully who beats his wife and chil­dren. Dad is a kindhearted chap who puts out a stocking on Christmas Eve. Dad is a maniac who pulls the table­cloth and crockery off the table for no reason and screams at Mum to come and tidy. Dad lies gray-faced and white-sheeted in hospital. Dad is sud­denly back at the front door, black-faced and brooding. Dad is loved and venerated. Dad is loathed and feared.

Most films – or books or plays – about childhood lay a patina of adult understanding over the incomprehen­sion of the child's mind. Life couldn't be made sense of then, but thank God it can be made sense of now. But Davies' movie isn't like that. It suggests not only that the child can't understand what is happening around him (even the near-grown-up children depicted in the movie), but that the adult look­ing back cannot understand what hap­pened to him either. That indeed there is no understanding. There is only a sense that the family is by turns an inexhaustibly rich microcosm and an unbearably grim parody of all the ideas and emotions, hopes and quests, by which we live.

Chief quest is for love. Distant Voices, Part 1 of the diptych movie, lasting 45 minutes, gives us the three children's struggle for love inside and outside the family.

Part 2, Still Lives (30 minutes), is set two years later and was filmed two years later. It has the two sisters mar­ried (one unhappily) and the brother about to be. Dad is dead, and individ­ual memories picture the long central scene of a gathering of friends and fam­ily in the local pub.

Though Davies refuses to make life easy by explaining childhood and its sufferings, the movie is never random in either structure or substance. Pro­gressively in Part 1, we and the char­acters try to fathom the mystery of love. Love as something that can be bought: early scenes tintinnabulate with the clink of coins thrown or swapped between parents and chil­dren. Love as a vertiginous gamble: "Taking a chance on love," croons the soundtrack over a scene of Mum (Freda Dowie) perched on a high win­dowsill cleaning an outside pane. (And the same song continues smoothly into the next scene, of Dad savagely beating Mum.) And love as blind faith or blind devotion: "I want me dad," sobs dad-battered elder sister Eileen (Angela Walsh) at her wedding, crumpling in her brother's arms.

In Part 2, Eileen's search for love, not surprisingly, has developed a split personality: marital disillusion coexists with maudlin, vicarious fantasy. One moment she is leading the pub singalong in a rendering of "I killed nobody but my husband." The next she is sob­bing her heart out at Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, awash at the big screen's version of all the lost emotions she's failed to find in her marriage.

The movie has its own version of this constant seesaw between hope and hopelessness. It never levels out at a sustained mood, and it shows the vol­atility of a world in which despair and happiness can each be a springing-off point for the other. Eileen weeps for Dad at her own wedding. And her brother Tony (Dean Williams) stands alone on the family doorstep, sobbing with grief, at his own wedding party.

Conversely, Davies' camera mimics the process by which joy can grow out of darkness. Three crane shots in the film are unforgettable. In one, the cam­era rises mysteriously, magically to the second floor bedroom window of the family's terraced house at night, and then the shot changes almost unper­ceived into a reverse interior of the window glowing with daylight, as we hear a softly murmured voice-off ("I loved the light nights.") Another shot levitates from a rain-huddled dome of umbrellas to the rooftop poster for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, followed by a low glide (as smooth and numi­nous as the packing-cases shot in Kane) over the sniffling, raptured audience.

But the movie's finest grace note is one that wills a deliberately enigmatic slippage in time. Late in Part 2, the camera turns away from an injured Tony's hospital bedside, rises to gaze out of the rain-streaming window, then re-descends to discover a new group of sympathizers around the bed and a palpably changed emotional tempera­ture. We are aware that hours could have passed, or days, or weeks, in a few seconds of camera life.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is postmodernist cinema just as Paris' Beaubourg building is postmodernist architecture. The visual devices and creative plumb­ing, far from being tucked away, are on open display. So are the aural devices. Most of the 40-odd songs, instead of being seamlessly incorporated or dis­creetly lost as part of the soundtrack, are sung straight at us by the charac­ters – with no accompaniment and no justification in terms of narrative. It's a simple, preposterously bald device, and it works. The characters lay their hearts on the table, and we, grateful and astonished, accept the gesture.

Acloud of white hair topping a bes­pectacled moon face, Davies looks like a child from a Nativity play who's suddenly grown up and is still in shock at the transformation. Though he left school at 15 – Liverpool's Sa­cred Heart Roman Catholic Boys School – school has never quite left him. After a 12-year spell as an accoun­tant, Davies took up a movie camera, and made his first and only film before Distant Voices, Still Lives, Trilogy, an autobiographical triptych in black-and-white. Inspired by horrified memories of a Catholic upbringing, of school bul­lying and guilt-ridden gay encounters, the film led one U.S. critic to com­ment, "It makes Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis."

That may be an understatement. Trilogy's first two parts – Children and Madonna and Child – are squeezed out like drops of pain from Davies' psyche: a grim free-association of hospitals, confessionals, schoolrooms, and hom­osexual one-night stands filmed in pen­itential monochrome. Only in Part 3, the powerful Death and Transfigura­tion, interweaving the life of the young hero (Terry O'Sullivan) with scenes from his own deathbed as an older man (played by Wilfred Brambell), does Davies start to find the blithe conjuring with time and emotion, and with the ironic potency of popular song, devel­oped in Distant Voices, Still Lives.

Trilogy, pieced together with grant money over eight years, became Davies' calling card. With these cans of self-mortifying celluloid under his arm, he did today's equivalent of the Grand Tour: i.e., the film festival cir­cuit. Chicago, Locarno, and Oberhau­sen, inter alia, gave him a welcome and also gave him prizes.

He was lucky there was no Vatican Film Festival, I suggested, when we met over a carafe of non-Communion Beaujolais. The only prize he'd have won there, for the movie's horrified anti-Catholicism, is an excommunica­tion order.

Are you still Catholic?

God, no! I gave that up at 22. I suddenly realized then that it was a con. I was a very devout Catholic, I really did believe. But it gave me no succor. And when I realized I was gay, and was getting absolutely guilt-ridden about it and not doing anything, I knew something was deeply wrong. I prayed until my knees were raw and finally went to Mass one Sunday evening, and just before the offertory I thought: It's a lie, it's actually a lie; they're just men in frocks. And I got up and walked out. And I never went back – it was that sudden. It was like the Emperor's New Clothes. And I was so angry. I'm still very angry about it, because it wasted a lot of my emotional time.

Was this just an emotional rejection? Or do you think Catholicism is logically and intellectually flawed as well?

Well, for me it's flawed because it starts from the premise that we're all sinners. I don't accept that. I think original sin is a monstrous idea. I don't believe most people are evil, though some undoubtedly are. The majority of people are basically good, they don't go around killing six million people. But it's all a question of belief or disbelief. If you look at it quite dispassionately, it's as remote, as unmeaning, as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It's that remote to me now, and it's as exotic, as theatrical. The Catholic Church, if nothing else, has a great sense of thea­ter. In a sense it's like watching a film. After two minutes – if you believe, then that's fine. If you don't believe, forget it. No matter how good it might be.

Your Catholic background seems to have left one mark on your movies: they're structured like altarpieces. Why is the new movie in two separate parts?

Well, I feel they complement one another. All the terrible family history is packed into Distant Voices, which is about the nature of time and memory. But in Part 2 – Still Lives – life has reached an even keel. I wanted to make something interesting out of our lives as stasis. The first part throws the second part into relief. And in Part 2 we see the chains that bind this family to­gether beginning to loosen and the family drifting apart. Imperceptibly: they don't realize it. And that's why at the end, one by one, they go into the dark. "Dark, dark, dark, they all go into the dark." A kind of metaphorical death.

How much of the movie is direct au­tobiography?

Well, all the things that happen ac­tually happened. If not to me, to my family. They told these stories when I was very young, so they became part of my memory, almost as though they happened to me because they were so vivid. But some things I remember being part of. The Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing sequence was based on a visit to the cinema one hot Satur­day; my two sisters took me, and every­one was weeping away in the audience. And I wanted to have the irony of the two men falling through the glass roof in the scene we cut to. The idea is that life is much harsher than what you've seen on the screen. And it disorients you, which I think is interesting. You don't know quite where you are. There are other things in the sequence. The umbrellas are a direct homage to Singin' in the Rain. I was determined to have umbrellas with rain on them! And then you go inside and everyone's weeping. And then – suddenly – their brother and Eileen's husband have this huge accident. Out of the blue, you re­alize your hold on life is tenuous.

How closely do you structure the movie when you write the script?

I write down everything as I hear and see it in my mind – every track, pan, dissolve, crane, piece of music. So the script becomes an aide-memoire, which is why I never do a storyboard. But con­tent dictates form, so I'm not conscious of how or why I structure certain things in a certain way. Mahler said, "One does not compose, one is composed." And that's what happens with a film: it will tell its story in the way it wants to be told. And, you know, you want to tell it in the most succinct way, because that's always much more powerful. You learn how long to hold a shot, for in­stance – and how long not to hold one. There's a two-minute take with a static camera in Trilogy, the boy's bus jour­ney with his mother, which I always call my Angora sweater shot; because by the time it's over you could have knitted one. There's a point where a shot dies.

Did you decide ahead of shooting on a specific style for the film, an aesthetic?

If there was an aesthetic, it was that I wanted to show life the way it was back then. It was much more gentle and polite; there was much more of a sense of community. England is very philistine today. Also, I wanted to show real people. The working classes of that time have always been used as comic turns, on the stage or in films like Brief Encounter. Noel Coward couldn't tell the difference between compas­sion and condescension. It's the same in This Happy Breed – chirpy cockneys, you know, chirpy cockney voice: "We've survived the war!" It's about as relevant and as real as the Man in the Moon.

And so I had a specific idea of how I wanted the cast to act. I didn't want them to act, I wanted them to be. And I said to all of them, you must see the Trilogy first and you must not act. You'll get the script a week before shooting. Just read it twice, once for sense and once for character, and then don't read it again. Learn the scenes we're going to shoot only the night be­fore. We'll rehearse for ten minutes be­fore we start, and then we'll do it in under ten takes. Because after ten they get repetitive. And very often we got it in three.

What about the colors in the film? You use a very rich range of browns and earth colors.

I knew I wanted a certain type of color, so we did a test with Kay Laboratories. I wanted tones of red and brown, but not sepia, because you can't watch sepia, it's impossible. So we used a coral filter and took out all the primary colors from the decor and costumes, except the red in the lip­stick. Then we used a bleach bypass process that leaves the silver nitrate in the print and desaturates the color.

Do you look at paintings for inspira­tion?

I know nothing about art. I've never gone and looked at pictures, I have no vocabulary to discuss them. Obviously there are painters I like. I like the Im­pressionists, I like Modigliani, Seurat. I think Turner's paintings of Venice are stunning. But I don't like, for in­stance, Picasso. I can't respond to some triangular woman with her tits on the side of her body. It may be great art, but it doesn't mean anything to me.

Did you shape the visual sequences to the music, or vice versa?

You never cut the picture to the mu­sic. That's the mistake I made with the two-minute shot in Trilogy. If a scene is visually right, then you can use just a snatch of a song and it's enough. For instance with Love Is a Many-Splen-dored Thing we did it without the end­ing chord. That was the editor's idea. And because the phrase is not finished, your inner ear is waiting for the reso­lution. And what I've found – and it's what I did here – is that you can resolve it visually with another shot, and then you resolve it aurally in the shot follow­ing that.

Are you part of the British cinema tradition?

Well, I don't feel part of a British tra­dition, because I don't think there is one. I think every once in a while we produce films in spite of our lack of film tradition, like Powell and Pressburger or the Ealing comedies or Nic Roeg's Bad Timing. But one problem is, we share a common language with the Americans, and they've always made films better than we have. They see film as film, they see the way it works. Our culture is centered on the spoken word, and the theater has always had more prestige. We've produced great theater actors, but we cannot produce good cinema actors. The same with writers. What you get, when your writers come from theater and televi­sion, is a record of the spoken event. And that's not cinema.

Were you influenced by Dennis Potter – by Pennies from Heaven or The Singing Detective – in your use of pop­ular song as a substitute for dialogue?

[Aghast] No. I saw one episode of The Singing Detective and I found it unwatchable. They're records of people talking, and I just get bored with that. The music is not integrated into the plot. The best example of how to use music in a film is Meet Me in St. Louis, because everything arises from that plot. It is so perfect. You have to use that as a touchstone.

I heard you quoted as saying you wanted to be reborn as Doris Day.

Well, I think she's wonderful. Particularly in The Pajama Game. My great passion is Hollywood musicals. That and the symphonic tradition. I can't sing or play an instrument, but I can recognize a symphonic argument, par­ticularly in Mahler, Bruckner, or Shostakovich. And so that really strong idea of how something should be organic, coupled with popular American music, which I was brought up with – that cu­rious combination has been very, very helpful to me. Because the thing one has to steer clear of is sentimentality. You can get away with it in America, for the simple reason that Americans aren't the least bit embarrassed by sen­timentality. The English are terribly embarrassed by it. They think it's vul­gar. Like passion, they think it's vul­gar. What you do is find ways to use a song that negates the sentimentality. There's something wonderful about songs as over-the-top as "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," but you must use them with images that are not over the top: like Mum being beaten up to "Taking a Chance on Love." I knew the scene would work as soon as I wrote it.

Why is passion vulgar in England?

Because we're a very odd nation. There is that innate reserve. I was talk­ing about this to a friend, and she said something I think is true: that the idea of English exoticism has turned in on itself. The reason we're such a philis­tine country now, and a lot of the peo­ple are so horrible and the place is so dirty, is that we're no longer a colonial power and we've turned our colonial­ism in on ourselves.

We befoul our own nest because we've got nowhere else to do it. I think, too, that the British think passion is a badge of insincerity, that it's some­thing only "they" do, the dagos abroad. It's the same as the 18th cen­tury ideal of the "gifted amateur." To be professional is really rather vulgar. And it is exacerbated by our caste sys­tem, which is as rigid as anything in India or Japan.

It sounds as if America is the place for you.

Well, you get welcomed in America, whatever class you come from. I re­member when Trilogy was going to be shown at the New York Film Festival, a girl asked me when I was coming over. I told her, and she said, "Come and stay in my flat, I'll be away then." And it was No. 1, Fifth Avenue, and there were real Matisses on the wall. Extraordinary hospitality.

But the thing I don't like about America is that in Britain you can fail, and fail honorably, but you can't over there. There's a cruel competitive edge. I remember the first time I went to Chicago, I was in a restaurant sitting in one of those half-moon open booths. And I overheard the people in the next booth, who were talking loudly, and I thought they were planning a murder. I was literally on the verge of saying to the waiter, "Look, I think you'd better call the police." By the time my food came, it transpired that they were opening a graphics office in the next state. I find the cutthroat attitude quite awful.

What films have influenced you?

I can't say that particular films have influenced me. There are films that I've been absolutely knocked out by. When I was 18, I saw Bicycle Thief. And then there was Rocco and His Brothers. Of course they were revelatory at 18, one had never seen anything like them. And then one discovered Berg­man and Kurosawa and Ozu, Les Quatre Cent Coups and things like that. But I can't really say, "Oh, well I saw Donald O'Connor in Francis the Talk­ing Mule and it changed my life." [laughter]

The reason I love American musi­cals, though I don't know how much they influence me, is, one, that I thought America was like that. I thought, when I go I know I'm going to find a place where they all burst into song and dance! Just like that. And I know if I go there often enough, I'll find it.

The other thing is, they gave me the most enormous pleasure I've ever had. When I play the soundtracks now, I can remember where I saw them. It re-creates my childhood. Every time I watch Singin' in the Rain I cry. Because I re­member being taken to see it as a child and seeing this perfect world. Because that's what the Hollywood musical cre­ated. When you grew up in a Liverpool slum and you saw these films, that's what you thought America was like. Everyone was rich, everyone was beau­tiful. There was no want, no poverty; it was always summer. That's very po­tent. It's as potent as religion. In fact, for me it's very much become a reli­gion.

Is Distant Voices, Still Lives the last autobiographical film?

I want to make one more piece of au­tobiography. It'll be a 90-minute film, in one part, and it'll be about the three years that precede the Trilogy. So the story will come full circle. It'll be about the children who've not been ex­plored, my younger brothers and sis­ters. It's the three years between the time my father died and when I left pri­mary school, Those three years were just ecstatically happy.

Since you're gay and you're not going to have a family of your own, are these films, in a way, your children?

Yes, I think these are my children. I've got nothing else.

Do you think that's sad?

Yes, I do, I think it's pathetic. It's far better to actually have a family of your own. Because at the end of the day most people don't give a toss whether it's a beautifully made piece of cinema. They don't care. So you can pour your soul into something, and yes, some people care, but most people don't. It'd be very nice just to be doing Rambo 27, because you'd make a lot of money and materially you'd have a very nice life. But (a), I haven't got the talent and (b), I haven't got the inclination. I'm very puritanical; I want the films to be good films, cinematically. But at the end of the day does anyone care? I re­member reading an article about the scherzo in Mahler's Sixth Symphony, which is a miracle of the sonata form. But think of all the people in the world who've never heard of Mahler and don't even want to.

When people see Distant Voices, Still Lives, what sort of feeling do you want them to leave with?

I've no idea. I was constantly asked at film school, "What is your audi­ence?" I say, "I don't know." I make the films because I need to make them. I know that what I want from film is what I want from music: to be emo­tionally moved and intellectually stim­ulated. And I think all great art does that. Which is why one constantly re­turns to the late string quartets of Shostakovich, the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, to Citizen Kane. You go back and you rediscover something every time. And that's a joy.







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.