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Off to Travel Around the World (In Film)
Last week I had an urge to pack my bags and go somewhere, and then somewhere else and keep on the move until I see the whole world. Unfortunately this dream cannot be realized just yet because I have no money, a job, some responsibilities and perhaps those don’t even matter and I am just too lazy to do it. However, I have usually always enjoyed films about certain things more than actually doing or feeling it for real. So, as an ongoing stop gap, every odd week I will dedicate to watching films from a specific country until I have visited them all. I have decide to pick out 5 films I haven’t seen that interest me or regarded as the countries cinematic treasures. I am going to start this week at home so I can tie in a trip to the theatre to see the digitally restored version of Lawrence of Arabia.
Week 1 - Great Britain
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Dir. David Lean
The Third Man (1949) Dir. Carol Reed
Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) Dir. Terrance Davies
The Arbor (2010) Dir. Clio Barnard
Ratcatcher (1999) Dir. Lynn Ramsey
Distant Voices, Still Lives
While I am especially drawn to father-daughter relationships in books and film, Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives has one scene that continues to resonate as the ultimate image of mother and child—partly due to the unnamed “Mother,” mostly because it relates to the panic of loss instead of the panic of love.
In the scene, Mother is sitting on the sill washing the windows, half of her body inside, half of it outside. Two children stand down the hall from her, watching with amazement. The third is standing outside, downstairs, whispering, “Please don’t fall, please don’t fall.” Repeatedly, like a prayer.
Because memory is the film’s frame, one can’t be sure whose moment this belongs to—the mother, the daughter, Davies—though I suspect it’s the daughter. Her quiet anxiety will blossom into something later in life, likely a louder more vocal love for Mum. An incarnation. A personality trait.
The poetry of the ordinary: Terence Davies and the social art film by Martin Hunt (Screen 40-1, 1999)
Beginning with Children (1976), Terence Davies has written and directed a trilogy of short films - the others being Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983) - and three features - Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), The Long Day Closes (1992), The Neon Bible (1995). With the exception of The Neon Bible, which is adapted from the novel by John Kennedy Toole, all these films are intensely personal, biographical dramas of working-class life in Liverpool during the 1940s and 1950s, drawing heavily upon Davies’s own childhood and that of his family. Clearly this background, together with Davies’s distinctive formalism, lends itself to a reading of the films as essentially personal and idiosyncratic. The argument I wish to pursue here, however, addresses a broader set of issues. The starting point for the development of this argument is Christopher Wilhams’s 1996 essay ‘The social art cinema, a moment in the history of British film and television culture’. In that essay Williams makes two major contributions to the critical debate surrounding British cinema. First, he questions the orthodox critical conflation of ‘social realism’, thereby restoring the possibility of autonomous consideration of the traditions of realism and the social within British filmmaking. Secondly, drawing upon Bordwell’s analysis of the European art film as a distinct mode of film practice, Williams argues for the emergence of the social art film as a new, and specifically British, cinematic form which represents ‘a blending of the British social-diffuse with some of the concerns of the European art film.
Terrence Davies: A Liverpool Life in Film
Terrence Davies’ 2011 release, The Deep Blue Sea, won multiple awards and was nominated for a Golden Globe, further adding to his oeuvre of highly acclaimed work. We investigate this celebrated English filmmaker, looking back at three of his films and their particular relation to his home city of Liverpool.
"Distant Voices, Still Lives" (1988, Terrence Davies)
IMDb Link: The second film in Terence Davies’s autobiographical series is an impressionistic view of a working-class family in 1940s and 1950s Liverpool, based on Davies’s own family.
Distant Voices, Still Lives is one of those films I’ve been meaning to see for years. With its two-part structure, it’s never seemed like a film that’s easy to digest and now having seen it, that’s quite true. With its very experimental approach to storytelling, it’s a family drama put into a blender as the narrative rocks back and forth from when the children were young to the brutal father’s death in the children’s adulthood. While it risks being incoherent and lacking character development, it instead presents shards of pure brittle emotion that cut to the bone right away. It’s powerful to the point of one short vignette making me weep within seconds, but it also has the ability to make me laugh often. The shards are put in order as the character’s memory triggers transitions and happiest moments are met with relevant saddest moments from the character’s lifetimes. It’s an incredible way of filmmaking.
The visuals are drained of all colour, leaving the picture as aged brown and white which give it a nostalgic value, it’s a clear influence on low-key filmmakers such as Roy Andersson. The camerawork is especially interesting as to what it does and doesn’t show with the camera sometimes lingering in a room while the characters leave, allowing us to eavesdrop on their conversations. It gives us time to observe the rooms and seems to highlight the memories and events that took place which give them an eerie atmosphere. While the cinematography is deliberately dreary, the characters sing traditional and popular songs of the time, this music colouring their lives. It’s really beautiful and unique substitute to personalised dialogue, much of which when it’s there, feels theatrical. The strongest performance is definitely Pete Postlethwaite, who gives an astounding turn as the children’s father.
The first part, Distant Voices, focuses on the three children’s relationship with their father and the second part, Still Lives, focuses on the consequences of their father’s actions. It’s a powerful and profound statement on the relationship between men and women as some repeat history with abusive men and some try to push forward for more equality. Still Lives is more cohesive than Distant Voices, even if there are less events, but the jumping around element of the latter is sorely missed and does render it a little disjointed at first. It all comes together when it becomes apparent that the film tracks the point when one family becomes three different families and how the repercussions of childhood ripple down the generations. One of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. Unforgettable. Terrence Davies will certainly be one to look out for, and I’m sure will influence my own filmmaking too.
DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES
Starring Pete Postlethwaite and a Load of Other Amazing People Who You’ve Never Heard Of
Who’d have thought Woody Allen would ever look like a bombastic madman with a jockstrap full of happiness? Released a year after the neurotic ginger-snap’s own family album Radio Days, Distant Voices sees lost auteur Terrance Davies pick apart his own synapses for memories of 1940s Liverpool, with all the hard-drinking, sing-songs and pent-up emotional nut-cracking that the time and place entails. This is a poverty-lumpen British street just a couple of short decades away from being saved by The Beatles, and as such it’s no walk in the park; essentially misery business all the way through, there’s little light for the family at its core save for the near endless stream of traditional songs that pepper the scenes in the pub and living room gatherings, a constant reminder of the universal hurt and hope that human lungs can spread.
Like Radio Days it’s a fragmentary journey through an old man’s childhood, but unlike Captain Quip Davies relies on a mastery of framing, filters and face-fucking excellence in the field of subtlety to get by. There’s no plot to speak of, but the overbearing lovehate of Pete Postlethwaite’s ‘Father’ falls like a jagged shadow over the rest of the family, the tragedies and small triumphs of one man’s life filtering through every moment of their days and every action and decision they make. All the actors present a perfect performance, the fractured narrative makes you feel you’re trapped in the house with them like a pervert coalman, and the absolute control of Davies’ lens makes the whole thing a genius moving photo album, a lyrical mind-bomb of emotions and social comment that’ll leave you desperate to scrub the defining images out of your head. Candles at Christmas, hay in a loft, the terrifying shatter of plate glass windows and the relentless rain outside the front door; all combine to form a wonderful fever-dream that rewards repeated viewings, sedating and challenging at the same time. It’s tempting to avoid aueurist works like this after a day of work and the shitty wet paint of real life, to leap straight to whatever the Stath or Cage is doing this week on Channel Five and tell the world to go rip it’s Face Off or get Cranked, but suck it up; relax, take one night to watch something different and you’ll get a lifetime’s worth of cinematic gold, a sometimes horrific, sometimes almost holy glimpse into a world you can’t ever know or knew too well to step back from. And that’s what people with more critical credentials call a masterpiece, a work that’s intensely personal, but also terrifyingly universal. In this case they’re probably right.