MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS
Terence Davies’ autobiographical film Distant Voices, Still Lives could well be one of the most significant British pictures ofrecent years, reports Trevor Johnston.
Terence Davies is a man brave enough to expose his most painful experiences on celluloid. Like his earlier Trilogy which focussed on one man’s growing old and facing the tensions between his homosexuality and the Catholic church. Distant Voices. Still Lives. the story of at Liverpool household through the Forties and Fifties. also has its roots in the attempt to come to terms with personal scars. ‘Really. the new film is for my family.’ explains Davies. ‘it‘s meant as a tribute to the kind ofpain they went through. My mother and sisters had a very hard time with my father. He died when l was seven. but a lot of my memories from my childhood consist of the stories they would tell about the terrible things that went on. In time. I suppose I began to feel as ifthey’d actually happened to me. Making the film brought back some ofthose times for all of us.‘
More immediately. Davies was offered the opportunity to face this aspect of his past by the British Film Institute. who gave him their first ever commission on the strength of the 'I'rilogy‘s success at various festivals in the US and Europe. Conceived and shot as a diptych (two short films seamlessly fused together) over a three year gestation period. the finished work comes to Edinburgh laden with praise from Cannes. where it won the International Critics‘ Prize. and for many people. including TIME magazine. was quite simply the best film in the festival.
The extended production period is due entirely to Davies‘ meticulous approach to the film-making process. : ‘When I write the script. every track. every dissolve. every cut is already there; the camera positions and movements are already planned out with the dialogue and music. Ofcourse you find that the material needs some adjustment in the editing process. but up until now. all the major scenes I've attempted have always worked exactly as they were in the script. But that‘s why I spend a year at a time writing.‘
The experience of actually watching the final product serves only to underline Davics‘ seemingly intuitive talent. A complex'narrative structure. concentrating on the father‘s violence in the first part and on the marriages of the next generation in the second. uses complex intercutting that always explicates the thrust of the material. Frequently. the ironic combination of music and visuals carries the meaning. as. for instance. in a pub scene where the daughter‘s rendition of a saccharine ballad Taking A Chance On Love highlights the emotional emptiness of her marital relationship. And there's a transformation from the interior of a packed Fifties cinema to a shot of two men falling through a glass roof that is simply glorious. Such exquisite moments demand an awareness of visual texture possessed by the very few.
While Davies has also coaxed fine performances from his cast. with Peter Postlethwaite making a brooding. vicious patriarch. and Freda Dowie and Lorraine
Distant Voices, Still Lives
Ashbourne sympathetic as the wife and daughter on the end of his beatings. perhaps the foremost strength ofthe film lies in its convincing evocation of a closely-knit working class way of life now perhaps faded forever. ‘With the economic boom of the Sixties, all those families were rehoused. The whole culture was maimed by destroying those communities. Ofcourse times change. and you can't live in aspic. but it used to be the fact that they had nothing really. that did bring people together. Now everyone wants to be bourgeois.‘
Carefully selected locations. including the Liverpool pub just round the corner from the flats where Davies lived for over twenty years. combine with a soundtrack that brings together a wealth ofpopular songs from the period (everything from Roll Out The Barrel to My Yiddisher Momma) and the sounds of the BBC Light Programme. the staple entertainment for millions of homes. to create an authentic evocation of the pre-tclevision era that is sure to stir memories for many people. Yet Davies. not surprisingly really. also remembers the period as the last flourish of l lollywood's golden age. ‘My first recollection is of my sister taking me to see Singing In The Rain. It was like entering into a world of magic. I developed a passion for musicals I still have to this day. As a boy. I used to ask my mother how much my dinner was going to cost. then I‘d get her to give me the money. and I‘d buy a packet of biscuits and go to the cinema.‘
But it would be wrong to expect Distant Voices, Still Lives to be merely a fastidious exercise in period recreation. for the film also powerfully brings home the less palatable side of Fifties life. In particular. Davies has managed to explore sensitively the emotional cost for the women characters of a male dominated society. where it was simply accepted that wives should live almost wholly in the shadows of their husbands. ‘That's just the way it was.‘ the director recalls. ‘the women once they married were expected to give tip all their friends while the men kept theirs.‘ Indeed. the harrowing scenes ofdomestic violence prevent the film from ever viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles. ‘I certainly don‘t look back on them as the good old days. There were good times. and there were some bad times. that‘s all. I sincerely hope the film is in no way nostalgic in the kind ofsentimentalised way we now think ofthe word.‘
The richness of Davies vision. and the cinematic articulateness with which it is expressed mark him out as a film-maker of considerable artistic maturity even at this stage in his career. In recent years Edinburgh has given a significant push to what we not-quite-convincingly call new British cinema. with Film Festival triumphs for the likes of Peter Greenaway. Derek Jarman. and Stephen Frears. The name ofTerence Davies is a more than deserved addition to that list. for with Distant Voices. Still Lives he might just have swiftly established himself as one of the most significant filmic talents currently working in Britain. llis elaborate. humane and moving mosaic ofan ordinary family's experience in the Liverpool of the Forties and Fifties. effortlessly utilises the medium to its fullest potential with its deft cutting and often ecstatic combination ofsound and image. Remarkably. this simple chronicle of quiet domestic courage. shared laughter and tears. pierces the very depths of the viewer‘s own emotional resources. There is the dignity ofa true work ofart here.
Distant Voices. Still Lives screens at Filmhousc. 8.30pm. Fri Aug 19. The film is due to open in London and Edinburgh on Oct 14.
SEJUN SUZUKI RETROSPECTIVE
With such events as 1984‘s liiga. a twenty-five year survey of new wave Japanese cinema. the Film Festival has established itself as a showcase for oriental film-making. and this year sees Edinburgh playing host to a retrospective of work by one ofJapan's most 2 ” distinctive screen talents. ! Seiun Suzuki 3 Kageroza Virtuallyunknown E 2.30pm). In these (illi‘gldc. his nimvc wumri‘ 3 pictures. Suzuki's gleeful sewn sum!“ ()pcruwd "5 i willingness to emplov a'contract director for the . songs. humour and ' Mkkms." 5mg“) extravagant stylistic production-line for the effects to sum-C” me grcuic‘“ part Of his curccr' cliches of the commercial “""mg m“ ml“! t”. a thriller uiVL‘ his work a numerous “am” Plum“ 7 dark. nianic edge that falls and yakum pmbmlm‘ somewhere between Sam However. disdain for
. , Fuller and Tex Avery. genre conventionsmark “(mer running otit Suzuki's films from i through me work “ﬁlm the pufkipumcglifriym 5 atmosphere ofanger and later sum-S [mucus “M disillusionment that
f " ’ ' ’r ] $62110,“ 012)an manifests itself in the sort (I'lm OU‘SL' "1" ‘. ofscrcenportrayalof ._.3()pm) and the following brutality and wxual year‘s Branded To Kill '
.. 1 violence that passes for (F'Imhm'w' “3 Aug' the norminJapan.yet
govern the individual's behaviour.
The Film Festival's second week sees the visit of the director himselfand the screenings of a couple ofhis most highly-rated Sixties efforts. Tokyo Drifter and Branded To Kill. as well as an opportunity to sample the very different pleasuresof his liiglities work. Winner ofthe Golden Bear at Berlin in 1980. Ziegiinerweisen (Filmhousc. Aug 20. 2.30pm ) was only the second movie in a thirteen year hiatus. a break in the film-maker'scareer that was precipitated by a lengthy court action against Nikkatsu over the
withdrawal of Branded To Kill. This later phase in the Suzuki filniography. which also includes 1981‘s Kageroza (Filmhousc. Aug 21. 2.30pm). shows a more reﬂective artist at work. his interests lying in romantic obsession rather than the genre scrambling of a decade or soearlicr. (TrevorJohnston)
The List 19—25 August 1988 31
which is deeply disturbing to western eyes. Savage beatings. bloody massacres. obsessive sexuality and bondage fantasies are the sort of elements that construct the films' narrative excitements. Yet such material has to be viewed in its cultural context. and in Japan the most graphic violence in the cinema. television and newspaper cartoons are regarded merely as a kindof aesthetic play that is entirely separate from the social codes ofcollectivc responsibility which