Distant Voices, Still Lives
DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES
Director: Terence Davies
Production: British Film Institute, in association with Channel 4/ZDF; Metrocolor; running time: 84 minutes. Released 1988.
Producer: Jennifer Howarth; screenplay: Terence Davies; assistant directors: Andy Powell, Glyn Purcell, Marc Munden, Matthew Evans; photography: William Diver, Patrick Duval; camera operator: Harriet Cox; editor: William Diver; collaborative editors: Geraldine Creed, Toby Benton; sound editor: Alex Mackie; sound recordists: Moya Burns, Colin Nicolson; sound re-recordists: Aad Wirtz, Ian Turner; art directors: Miki van Zwanenberg, Jocelyn James; stunt coordinator: Alf Joint.
Cast: Freda Dowie (Mother); Pete Postlethwaite (Father); Angela Walsh (Eileen); Dean Williams (Tony); Lorraine Ashbourne (Maisie); Sally Davies (Eileen as a child); Nathan Walsh (Tony as a child); Susan Flanagan (Maisie as a child); Michael Starke (Dave); Vincent Maguire (George); Antonia Mallen (Rose); Debi Jones (Micky); Chris Darwin (Red); Marie Jelliman (Jingles); Andrew Schofield (Les); Anny Dyson (Granny); Jean Boht (Aunty Nell); Alan Bird (Baptismal Priest); Pauline Quirke (Doreen); Matthew Long (Mr. Spaull); Frances Dell (Margie); Carl Chase (Uncle Ted); Roy Ford (Wedding Priest).
Awards: International Critics Prize, Cannes Film Festival, 1988.
Friedman, Lester, editor, Fires Were Started: British Cinema andThatcherism, Minneapolis, 1993.
Winston, Wheeler, editor, Re-viewing British Cinema, 1900–1902:Essays and Interviews, Albany, 1994.
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Wilson, David, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1988.
Film Comment (New York), September-October 1988.
Barker, Adam, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), October 1988.
Floyd, Nigel, "A Pebble in the Pool and Ships like Magic," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), October 1988.
Interview with Terence Davies in Time Out (London), 5 October 1988.
Interview with Terence Davies in City Limits (London), 13 October 1988.
Listener (London), 13 October 1988.
"Valladolid," in Film (London), December 1988.
In Film & Kino (Oslo), no. 4A, 1989.
Lochen, K., "Stemmer fra fortiden," in Film & Kino (Oslo), no. 5, 1989.
Cargin, P., "Diver on Distant Voices," in Film (London), January 1989.
Carr, Jay, "Davies' Dark Pool of Memories," in Boston Globe, 13 August 1989.
Billson, A., "The Long and Short of It," in Village Voice (New York), 15 August 1989.
Kerr, P., "Sound Movie," in Village Voice (New York), 15 August 1989.
Turroni, G., "Cuginanze, ovvero territori contigui," in Filmcritica (Rome), November 1989.
Lavery, D., "Functional and Dysfunctional Autobiography: Hopeand Glory and Distant Voices, Still Lives," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), no. 1, 1990.
Iversen, J., "Man kan ikke forklare magi, kan man vel?" in ZFilmtidsskrift (Oslo), no. 4, 1990.
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Lochen, K., "I minnenes rike," in Film & Kino (Oslo), no. 5, 1992.
Joris, L., "Terence Davies: Rode schoenen, Hitchcock and een spion," in Film en Televisie + Video (Brussels), November 1992.
White, A., "Remembrance of Songs Past," in Film Comment (New York), May-June 1993.
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* * *
It is not often that British films win prizes at international film festivals. Truffaut, despite his penchant for Hitchcock, and Satyajit Ray have both remarked that the British are more or less temperamentally incapable of holding movie cameras. A low-budget, BFI-financed account of a working-class childhood in post-war Liverpool hardly seems likely to set the continental critics alight. Nonetheless, Distant Voices, Still Lives received the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Festival, and also shared the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Festival. Perhaps as a result of its European reception, the film was apotheosized by British critics, who, while lavishing extravagant praise, insisted on writing about it as if it were a remake of A Room with a View, as if it were yet another piece of cosy, Edwardian nostalgia: Terence Davies, the "proletarian Proust," had, we were told, "wrenched high art from the lower depths of his deprived Liverpool childhood." His film was like "Coronation Street by Bresson." (It is ironic that a film which recreates an era largely through its popular culture should be treated as a piece of "art house" cinema.)
The film is a diptych. Distant Voices was shot in the autumn of 1985. At that time Still Lives, which was shot in 1987, had not even been written. However, the narrative is elliptical. Depicting various key moments—wedding, christening, illness, war—in the life of a Liverpool family, it jumps from tableau to tableau: there is no jarring disjunction between the two halves. If anything, the gap between them helps to give a real sense of time passing and enables characters to age convincingly.
There is an absolute refusal to see the past through rose or sepia tinted glasses. Visually, the film does not so much evoke 1950s working-class Liverpool as excoriate it, presenting the period in a self-consciously sombre fashion. Through a "Bleach-By-Pass printing process" (also used in Michael Radford's 1984) all colours are desaturated; there are no primary colours, and the emphasis is always on the brown, the grey, on giving a dull clarity.
Lurking ominously at the core of the film, a morose and tacitum presence, is the father, played by Pete Postlethwaite. A splenetic, bitter man, given to arbitrary fits of violence, he beats his wife (Freda Dowie) and daughters, and terrorizes the household in a constant attempt to stifle the "feminine" culture—a culture embodied in radio, cinema, and song—that it represents. As much as he is demonized, the wife and mother is idealized: patient, quietly suffering, holding the family together, hers are the values with which Davies identifies. In the book and film of The Last of England, Derek Jarman reveals a similar split in his familial loyalty. He also reacted against a patriarchal father, allying himself with his mother. Bullying dads seem to have had a strong and positive influence on 1980s British filmmakers.
It is not only the father, with whose death the first half of the film is concerned, but men in general that Davies regards with alarm: a curious belching, farting breed who lock away their wives, on the one hand demanding respect and obedience from them, and on the other, depending on them for food and clothing, and guidance home from the pub when they are too drunk to make their own way.
The spectre of the father pervades the film, making it a peculiarly anguished and lugubrious rekindling of childhood. However, in comparison to Terence Davies's earlier Trilogy, filmed in penumbral monochrome and steeped in sexual and religious guilt, isolation, and fear of death, Distant Voices, Still Lives is a positive romp. At least it has music.
Davies has spoken of the importance of music in the film's construction. The film is full of songs: British songs, American songs, songs to be born to, songs to die to, songs to sing in the pub, songs on the radio, songs in the cinema. (Davies elicited the help of broadcasters Denis Norden, Steve Race, and Roy Hudd, among others, in tracing many of these, of which he could often remember only a phrase or a line.) Visual bleakness is counterpointed with an extraordinary aural extravagance: song cements both family and community together, enabling the women and children to endure the brutal vagaries of the men, overcoming the noise of German bombs, diffusing the horror of death.
The music is almost too positive. The central characters, detested father, adored mother, are one dimensional, and the locations, home, pub, street, are all too familiar. Even if Davies is trying not to sentimentalize the period, the constant singalongs in the pub and the community spirit which so easily transcends the brutal men's attempt to dampen it lend the proceedings an air strangely familiar to that of David Lean's This Happy Breed. Davies risks rejoicing in the good old days of rationing and bad housing.
What enables the film to avoid falling into either Noel Cowardly cooing arms or the kitchen sink is its structure. It discards linear narrative, instead progressing from snapshot to snapshot. There is a constant freezing of images—literally making "still lives." The use of overlapping sound to link discrete scenes; the constant tension between image and sound; the way that sound motivates, humanizes, lends colour to the film's visually drab backcloth: these all combine to fracture narrative unity. One is conscious of the camera from the opening shot, a slow track through the door of the house, approaching the staircase opposite and then revolving to confront the door: before we see anyone, we hear the voice, off screen, of the mother: the voices create character, not vice versa. The film, we are told, is autobiographical, but there is no character portrayed with whom we can immediately identify the filmmaker. It is as if he has removed himself from the family: he is detached, and is looking in at his own life. His character is the camera, recording, remembering.
Arthur Miller professed surprise when Death of a Salesman, to him a quintessentially American play, was successfully produced in China. Distant Voices, Still Lives, despite being located in so specific a time and place, has a similar universality of appeal. It taps into British and American cultural memory; in the way it recreates an era through its media habits, its cinema-going and wireless listening, it is akin to Woody Allen's Radio Days. But its themes, marriage, birth, death, memories of the anguishes and pleasures of family life, make it accessible to almost anyone, even to xenophobic continental critics who still find it impossible to link the idea of "cinema" with that of "Britain."
—G. C. Macnab