Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present
T.S Eliot, Burnt Norton, Four Quartets
It’s 30 years since Distant Voices, Still Lives, the first full length feature by Liverpool director Terence Davies, was released. An anniversary screening at FACT will be followed by a Q and A with the director. A few days later, Empty Spaces Cinema screens the partner film to Distant Voices – A Long Day Closes. Empty Spaces cinema curator, Laura Brown, looks at the two films that explore memory, a working class Liverpool identity and culture. Films that cemented Davies’ reputation as an almost peerless auteur.
Memory is not linear. When your mind recalls a moment, it does not start at the beginning. Instead, it washes from emotion to emotion. There is a reason why the phrase “rose tinted spectacles” uses that particular flower; early summer and bending to smell a scent. It’s a feeling and not a memory.
None of us are faithful narrators. Consider the way people talk about the 1950s. Many will tell you it was glorious, hardworking, an almost post-war utopia, something we must claw back that has been lost. The first I experienced of the British 1950s though, was through films like Distant Voices, Still Lives, and A Long Day Closes.
There is much to learn from his world. A fifties that, some within the country, hark to as glorious. It’s a reminder that perhaps our memories are not always as honest as we might want them to be. Nostalgia, whether positive or negative, has a warping perspective. It is 30 years since the films were released, but sixty years since that was what the world looked like. Terraces on cobbled streets, sitting on window ledges to clean windows, church on Sunday, down the pub for a singsong on a Friday, the hearth, the home, scrubbed by mother. Today the terraces are flats, tarmac patchwork quilts the cobbles, the churches are crumbling or demolished, the pubs are empty.
Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes – preceded by The Trilogy – are Terence Davies’ “Liverpool films”. For those who have only seen Of Time and the City, that, in some ways, is the coda to this. Liverpool is rebuilding after the war. The city has been badly bombed, badly destroyed, its people rebuild their community, first to provide a foundation, then you suspect they’ll turn to everything else. But these are not political films, or period pieces. Telling the story of a brutal, violent father in Distant Voices, and then the emergence of a sexual awakening and homosexuality in a far less tolerant society in A Long Day Closes, these films are deeply personal to Terence Davies. They are his 1950s
There is an elegiac poetry to the two feature films that is more potent than in The Trilogy
(Children, 1976, Madonna and Child, 1980, Death and Transfiguration, 1983). They weave through memory, snatches of song, of scenes, and moments in time. Like when you walk past an open doorway and a song floods out, it takes you back to you mother’s kitchen, to the smell you’d forgotten your nose had remembered. Your heart tugs you to the past, remembers the emotion. And that twins you to a moment of similar emotion. It is why we cannot trust what even our minds tell us, no matter anyone else.
Terence Davies’ auteurial vision is rooted in these films. They are works of art. Not simply from this sense of riding the wave of feeling from one moment to the next. This structure is so potent, that as you get older you watch slightly differently. Memories change, as you grow. What was once painful becomes wistful. What was happy becomes sad. What seemed confusing, is now chucklingly clear.
The camera dwells and ponders. It is the closest you have to stepping into the mind of another. Hearing what they hear, seeing what they see.
Davies knows he is telling a narrative truth. It might not be exactly what happened, but there is an honesty here. He found it difficult to write Distant Voices, Still Lives. Davies’ father was so violent, “so psychotic” he had to cut it down, to tone down the violence. Pete Postlethwaite didn’t want to take the role at first. Freda Dowie, as his mother was so authentic when they played her voice at his mother’s funeral his family struggled to tell the difference between the two.
Memory is cyclical, Terence Davies says, what matters is the intensity of the moment. And what these two films do is they tie together an emotional logic. He was influenced by Eliot’s The Four Quartets, which also features in Of Time and the City and which Davies rereads each year. They reflect on the nature of time, of memory and mortality. He tells actors, “don’t act, just feel”. Which must mean that for the actors who play the part it becomes so much harder to cast it of. Emotionally led, riding the wave of intense feeling. It is why when you watch the films they make you peer into your own memory.
Distant Voices is possibly the better known of the two, but as I have written and talked to Terence over the years it is A Long Day Closes that is more poignant for me. There is a narrative now that the fifties was this glorious moment, that the country basked in its victory and rightness. The violence of Distant Voices shifts into a different sort in A Long Day Closes. The young boy, Bud, becomes aware of his homosexuality as puberty arrives. This generation, growing up of feeling natural feelings, but being told their sexuality was a crime, a crime against God as much as society. It is cruel, vicious, life changing. For Terence, he felt utterly hopeless, “beyond the love of God”. Coupled with his Catholicism, his homosexuality was almost too much to bear. “No succour came” he has famously said, when he prayed until he knees bled.
The last time I watched both films I had suffered a loss and my childhood, the notion of how you remember childhood, was occupying my mind. Now, as facts and truth become almost weaponised, I think of memory, of how we use what we remember and how vital it is but how unfaithful it can be. How memory can tell a vital story and capture a vital moment, but how others can remember your lowest moment as victory and glory, while it pulsates in the darkest caves of your chest. Time, you see, is like those glasses you wear at the opticians, that flick different lenses and change your perspective every few seconds.
At FACT, the remastered Distant Voices, Still Lives has a special screening, followed by a Q&A with the director (chaired by Laura Brown) on Sunday 2nd September.
On Thursday 6th September Empty Spaces Cinema is screening The Long Day Closes at OUTPUT Gallery.