Friday, April 27, 2007

'In those days, they had time for everything...'

…Or so says a line from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons used by Terence Davies in his masterful film ‘The Long Day Closes’ from 1992. The line strikes me as hugely significant given that the film’s young protagonist Bud values the escapism of the cinema. Today, it’s again become difficult to see the kind of classic films referenced here in repertory (unless you happen to live in London or Paris), and we are constantly being told that we don’t have time for great works of art. Just last week, the Newsnight Review panel, were justly lambasting a new series of 'edited' versions of classic works of literature, with the business mogul responsible for this heinous project stating ‘most people don’t have time to read long novels these days’. Speak for yourself, you overpaid berk! I still read a book every couple of weeks on average. I get so infuriated by marketing types telling me what I can and can’t do, and how much spare time I should have. ‘Time management’ must be one of the most odious phrases in the modern English language.

Davies’ films may be concise by comparison with the great novels of Melville and Tolstoy (both ‘Distant Voices…’ and ‘The Long Day Closes’ clock in at around 85 minutes), but they are challenging for audiences who usually respond only to comfortable cinematic conventions. It is perhaps for this reason that Davies, surely Britain’s greatest living film-maker, cannot now get funding to make another film. This is nothing short of outrageous, especially when big production companies like Working Title can effectively saturate the market with a plethora of banal romcoms.

Like Davies’ earlier masterpiece ‘Distance Voices, Still Lives’, the film is an autobiographical work (this time focussing on the life of a twelve year old boy in 1950s Liverpool), composed of a series of vignettes without straightforward plot or narrative that somehow manage to combine a lingering melancholy with the warm glow of nostalgia. It’s this peculiarly unsentimental juxtaposition of sensations that captures the very essence of human experience – life can be hard, but the simple fact of being alive is, in itself, a cause for awe and inspiration. It is all the more remarkable that Davies achieves this through a uniquely cinematic language, marrying meticulously composed images to a soundtrack of period songs (including Nat King Cole, Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds), radio programmes and movies.

There is little in the way of narrative or dialogue but to argue that the film offers no character development or that we cannot sympathise with the family environment at its core is palpable nonsense (interestingly, it would appear to be mostly American writers who have argued this in what little available writing there is about the film online). The songs the characters sing frequently reveal much about their joys and regrets, albeit in much more subtle and controlled ways than conventional dialogue. Where speech plays a greater role, it frequently provides light relief, and there is great warmth to the characters of Edna and Curly.

It’s easily possible to identify with Bud’s love of cinematic escapism, his mother’s understated, yet unconditional love, his confused religiosity born from a Catholic upbringing, and his wide-eyed observation of the world around him. Very much a companion piece to ‘Distant Voices…’, the film is essentially about memory, and Davies is surely right to assert that memories rarely come with a recognisable chronological framework. Whilst the film covers a clear period of a few months between 1955 and 1956, the timeframe is decidedly non-linear.

Through creating a sustained and coherent mood, Davies creates a portrait of that unique time on the cusp of adolescence that is naturalistic and wholly convincing. Bud’s childhood might be free from the violence and rage of Davies’ earlier film (‘The Long Day Closes’ is set a few years after the death of Davies’ father) but it is far from trouble free. There is the disciplinarian rule of the cane at Bud’s new school, as well as the rigorous mundanity of the teaching (a scene detailing a dictation about erosion is hilarious) and the social Darwinism of the playground. There’s also the fact that Bud’s life away from school is mostly lonely and solipsistic, and the film brings to life his self reliance with real panache and elegance.

Davies has claimed that he aimed to capture ‘the poetry of the ordinary’ with these films, and his greatest achievement in ‘The Long Day Closes’ may be the capturing of a childhood sense of wonder and obsession with detail. There’s a wonderful shot capturing the light changing on a carpet, and as a result the audience sees the regular, ordered aspects of the world through Bud’s inspired, imaginative vision. Another wonderful moment shows Bud and his family in the cinema, with a long tracking shot gradually showing the cinema transforming into a Church, thus neatly highlighting the parallels between the ritualistic aspects of moviegoing and worship. The combination of images as extraordinary as this has a cumulative impact, and the final shot of Bud and his friend gazing out at a darkening sky therefore assumes a genuine grandeur.

Whilst it’s tempting to emphasise the comparative lack of hardship or fear in ‘The Long Day Closes’, the film certainly offers hints of troubles to come. There’s a latent homoeroticism to some of Bud’s observations, and his vivid nightmare indicates a sense of underlying unease. David Thomson has emphasised that the film stops short of the time period that may be the most challenging (although Davies did address the difficulties of his young adulthood in his earlier trilogy of short films), but this is surely exactly what Davies intended. ‘The Long Day Closes’ offers a sense of innocence being eroded that is implied rather than stated, and is all the more effective for this.

The Terence Davies retrospective continues next week at the BFI Southbank.

1 comment:

Anscombe said...

Wonderful post Daniel! I am so pleased someone else appreciates what is so wonderful about this fantastic film. I believe it is due to be released on DVD by the BFI in the near future; but I don't know exactly when.

One thing: do you know that Radio 4 are currently broadcasting, in their classic serial slot, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf's "The Waves", written and directed by Terence Davies? Of course, he should be working in the cinema, not radio. But, from what I have heard of it so far, it is a really magical piece of work.