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A Single Consciousness: The Cinema of Terence Davies

Editors' Note: Liverpool-born filmmaker Terence Davies has carved out one the most distinctively personal bodies of work in cinema. Mostly avoiding traditional storytelling structures, he favors tales that are driven by memory, fantasy and free-association, and that don't look or move like any films before or since. Michael Koresky, the co-founder of the online film magazine Reverse Shot and the staff writer of the Criterion Collection, has published a  new book with the University of Illinois Press that analyzes Davies' themes and style, simply titled Terence Davies. We are pleased to offer an excerpt here.


Terence Davies’s cinema has defied easy categorization from the very start. In fact, his first official feature can hardly be termed a feature at all.

"The Terence Davies Trilogy," as it was called when released in 1984, is a compilation of three black-and-white shorts shot on 16mm over the course of seven years—"Children" (1976), "Madonna and Child" (1980), and "Death and Transfiguration" (1983)—all of which evince compositional poise and thematic audacity. The most strongly gay-oriented films of Davies’s career, these were made years before there was anything approaching an alternative queer-cinema movement. The trilogy’s importance to Davies’s artistic mission is solidified by his choice to further explore its main character, milieu, theme, and tripartite structure in his only novel, "Hallelujah Now" (1983), which similarly delves into its protagonist’s profound guilt and trauma over his homosexuality in an achronological, stream-of-conscious manner that effectively destabilizes the present.

With his next two films, Davies continued to excavate his past, breaking up time in even more radical ways. "Distant Voices, Still Lives" (1988) and "The Long Day Closes" (1992), companion pieces of a sort, and the works on which the director’s reputation largely lies, are woven tapestries of sounds and images, dreams and desires of a specifically working-class milieu that both evoke and fly in the face of the British school of realism that defined Davies’s national cinema, from John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings’s groundbreaking experiments in documentary in the 1930s and 1940s to the “kitchen-sink dramas” of the 1950s and 1960s to the “heritage” and new-realist films of the 1980s and 1990s, typified by Merchant-Ivory and Mike Leigh, respectively.

While Davies adheres to a certain verisimilitude in his direction of actors in these films, his stylized cinematography and radical, dreamlike editing helps them dispense with the realism audiences would come to expect. In their clear move away from these traditions, "Distant Voices, Still Lives" and "The Long Day Closes" captured the attention and admiration of the British film community; their unorthodox aesthetic techniques were acknowledged as evidence of a singular artistic voice, but at the same time, their autobiographical nature led many critics to pigeonhole Davies as a filmmaker interested strictly in his own past, a charge that would prove increasingly false as his career unfolded.

"Distant Voices, Still Lives" is aesthetically distinguished by two radical choices that set it dramatically apart from other family-memory films of the era (John Boorman’s "Hope and Glory" [1987] is an excellent concurrent example in the United Kingdom; while Ettore Scola’s "The Family" [1987] and Barry Levinson’s "Avalon" [1990] make for more sentimental evocations of similar themes of generational loss from other countries, Italy and the United States, respectively.)

The first is its expressive camera technique, which is made up of many static tableau-like compositions, punctuated by elegant tracking shots, the combination of which creates a dreamlike space that hangs somewhere between the authentic and the artificial. This almost constant negotiation of verisimilitude and constructedness heightens the viewer’s sense that he or she is taking part in the filmmaker’s subjective truth, a version of a reality affected by the magnifications and alterations of memory, whether idealized or deprecated.


The second way Davies’s film represents a radical move away from traditional forms of fictional narrative is in its use of music. The whole of "Distant Voices, Still Lives" is constructed of seemingly disconnected scenes, threaded together by a complex series of voiceovers, popular songs and religious hymns, and, occasionally, synched dialogue that is used to sound-bridge disparate spaces. The most memorable sounds that bring together the film’s many shards as well as create a more thematic harmony, however, are the popular radio tunes or ditties sung on-camera by its many characters. Entire sequences are made up strictly of these songs, whether performed as solos or singalongs, in the family’s parlor or in the neighborhood pub.

Similarly revealing the specters of the director’s haunted childhood via a collage-like conglomeration of memories and pop-cultural references, "The Long Day Closes" brought Davies himself back into the equation. Front and center is Bud, a dour-faced boy on the verge of a puberty all the more traumatic for the explosion of homosexual desire that comes with it; unlike "Distant Voices, Still Lives", in which the past is a malleable compound made up of the perspectives of multiple characters, this film emanates from a single consciousness.

The evolution of Davies’s career up to this point would make one wonder whether fragmented memories were all he was capable of summoning. His next film, though a wild departure in many ways, did not provide easy answers. "The Neon Bible" (1995), adapted from John Kennedy Toole’s slim bildungsroman about a sensitive boy’s coming-of-age in the deep American South, represented a striking change of milieu for Davies, yet many of the director’s already established hallmarks were in full view: taciturn young male protagonist, colorful and more outspoken older relative, the tyrannies of bullies and teachers, the comfort of movies, the birth of religious skepticism. If this alien landscape introduced a new (and probably healthy) awkwardness in Davies’s filmmaking, it also resulted in a singular hybrid of Davies’s poetic British lyricism and stoic American gothic. Davies’s long, steady tracking shots and unbroken single takes register as dissociated and surreal when reconfigured into a Georgia-shot tale that features one character’s dramatic descent into madness and another’s violent, climactic killing.


The Neon Bible met with a cool response from critics and audiences; his next project brought him further from the well-trod territory of the memory film, and fully into the warm embrace of the cinematic community. "The House of Mirth" (2000), his pristine and chilling adaptation of Edith Wharton’s first novel, set in a viperous, upper-class, turn-of-the-century New York City, features his most atypical subject matter thus far. "The House of Mirth" is an undeniable, elegant triumph in terms of storytelling, performance, and imagery. Yet the film’s sheen of decorum masks what is essentially a horror movie, albeit one in which words are swiftly and efficiently used as deadly weapons, and in which the moral righteousness of its tragic heroine accelerates her downfall.

By the time he made The House of Mirth, Davies was so known for these experiments in memory that, as he said, “I wanted to prove that I could write a linear narrative in which you seed things that pay off.” Not only is the film’s narrative told in a linear fashion, it moves forward with a scary inexorability, one scene following another with brutally gradual momentum. As in Davies’s childhood films, there seems to be an almost constant fear (of being rejected, of being found out) simmering beneath "The House of Mirth".


Whereas "The House of Mirth" is a remarkably faithful adaptation of Wharton’s book, in which most noticeable alterations (the amalgamation of two supporting characters for dramatic economy, the excising of a small climactic scene) were ultimately slight, "The Deep Blue Sea" is a dramatic rethinking of Terence Rattigan’s play, maintaining its basic structural through-line but using it as a foundation for experiments in cinematic time and memory. That "The Deep Blue Sea" diverges so much from the original Rattigan text is particularly surprising in light of the fact that the project was developed with funding from the Sir Terence Rattigan Charitable Trust on the occasion of the playwright’s centenary.

Yet with carte blanche from producers to take liberties in his adaptation (“The Rattigan Trust told me after I’d done a tentative first draft, ‘Be radical!’ So I was,” he told Geoff Andrew in Sight & Sound), Davies made a film that could be called a re-imagining of the source text. "The Deep Blue Sea" is thus wholly unorthodox as a tribute, yet in its fidelity to both Rattigan’s spirit and to Davies’s integrity (the director found much in the original play either implausible or uncinematic), it is perhaps the most expressive and cohesive film based on a Rattigan play. Furthermore, Davies’s artistic sensibilities accentuate the implicit queerness in the original work; when paired with 'The House of Mirth'’s Lily, 'The Deep Blue Sea'’s Hester seems all the more fascinating as a source of queer identification.

Before he made "The Deep Blue Sea," Davies embarked on a film that is singular in his oeuvre while at the same time furthers many ideas present in his other works. "Of Time and the City" (2008), Davies’s single nonfiction film as well as his only one partially shot and edited on digital video, was made as part of a micro-budget initiative called Digital Departures. Commissioned as a work of historical documentary for the city of Liverpool (the initiative was partly backed by the Liverpool Culture Company), Davies’s film, unsurprisingly, turned out to be something far more personal—and critical—than a simple tribute; instead he created a patchwork of intimate revelations and reminiscences that are crosshatched with a wider historical and sociopolitical interrogation of Liverpool, from the 1950s of his childhood to the city as it stands in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Davies’s take on Liverpool is subjective—it’s an untenable place of the mind that exists even more vividly in his recollections than in the preexisting stock footage that makes up most of the film’s visuals. "Of Time and the City" is bracing in its rejection of several common documentary practices, eschewing impersonal third-person narration in favor of Davies’s own poignant tones (alternately honeyed and barbed-tongued) and refusing to contextualize or identify much of what we see via onscreen text or more direct voice-over. Thus even Davies’s seemingly simple pocket-sized tribute to the hometown of his lost childhood becomes a highly complex, unorthodox work of nonfiction, in which one man’s experience of his city’s changing landscape is inextricable from the shame he felt over his own sexual coming-of-age or the joy he receives from recalling certain songs or movies—in other words, Davies’s sense memory here becomes the memory of Liverpool.

Davies’s relatively small output for such a long career is not by choice (for contrast, look at another filmmaker who’s worked in the same basic stretch of years as Davies, the more commercial filmmaker Neil Jordan, who managed to direct seventeen features between 1982 and 2012). Funding for Davies’s films has been difficult to raise, and the director has been notoriously outspoken on the subject, never shying away from denouncing the state of the contemporary British film industry following the government’s destruction of the British Film Institute Production Board (“Now if a young filmmaker wants to use cinema as a form of expression and an art form, where do they go? How do they get it off the ground?” he asked in a 2006 interview with The Guardian) and bemoaning his outsider status within it.

The eight years between "The House of Mirth" and "Of Time and the City" constituted Davies’s most prolonged, sharply felt absence from the film scene, even though "Mirth"’s major critical and commercial success seemed to indicate that new doors would open for him. Instead, one project after another fell through, including a romantic comedy titled "Mad about the Boy" and adaptations of the books "Sunset Song" by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (which Davies hoped would be heading into preproduction at the time of this writing) and "He Who Hesitates" by Ed McBain. Unlike "The Trilogy," "Distant Voices, Still Lives," "The Long Day Closes," "The Neon Bible," and "The House of Mirth," all of which were projects he shepherded from the outset, "The Deep Blue Sea" and "Of Time and the City" were suggested to him by others. This ultimately doesn’t make them any less personal, but it does give us a sense of the difficulties Davies has had in getting his own projects made and how important it has been in the current state of the industry, so focused on the box-office bottom line, for him to take advantage of such opportunities.

That Davies continues to have these sorts of struggles is perhaps in keeping with an artist who prevails despite, or indeed because of, emotional setbacks. “Without all that suffering, there wouldn’t have been any films,” he said in a 1992 interview. The beauty that emerges from such pain reveals a method of re-appropriating the past that we might call “queer” in the way it reconstitutes shards of Davies’s cultural and familial detritus into new forms. That his art is empowering in its expression of sexual and social difference and at the same time stuck in a mode one could associate with victimization helps define the central contradictions that fuel Davies’s cinema. 


From Terence Davies by Michael Koresky. Copyright 2014 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.


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