Distant Voices, Still Lives
While film is unequivocally a temporal medium and only statistically a narrative one, a filmmaker might insist on the former as a given and the latter as an obligation. Yet vital to many of the best films is the need to be faithful to the demands of the ontological underpinning of the form while also recognising the need to offer a story. We may see this as the first of Terence Davies' realisations when making his debut feature Distant Voices, Still Lives, and that he added another two. What Davies wished to do was acknowledge the post-war working class in Liverpool without at all feeling obliged to delineate their lives on the terms expected: that he needed to find a way into the material that would remove the categorical causality necessary to the soap opera in which these lives have become increasingly explored. Thirdly, he wanted to look at the intricate and elliptical nature of memory, and see it both as a diegetic question concerning the characters, and a non-diegetic one concerning the viewer.
We can start with the second of these first; the easiest of the three to explain and explore perhaps. A term like authentic working-class experience can be too readily adopted by political figures wishing to exploit a perceived demographic. But one way of viewing this is to wonder whether the filmmaker wishes to find the specifics of an experience or its homogenisation. When a director shows us a flat cap or a pigeon fancier, a block of flats with washing hanging on the line, or cars on bricks, or flat windows boarded up, there is a good chance that what they are showing us is inauthentically general rather than authentically singular. This can prove disjunctively troublesome sometimes as we find in Alan Clark's Rita, Sue and Bob Too, with a very skilful and socially engaged filmmaker (the director of Scum, Made in Britain and The Firm), working semi-comedically with an actual location and based on a writer from the area in which he filmed: Andrea Dunbar and the Buttershaw Estate. The locals disowned the film and we can see why without negating completely Clarke's work. It opens with the drunken dad in daylight exiting a local pub and staggering home in a lengthy tracking shot that shows him passing boarded-up flats before coming across his daughter, and starts shouting and swearing at her. But Clark's work is partly about the collapse of the working class, a despondent burgeoning underclass without jobs or prospects yet with just enough cash for a carry-out of beer and fags. The film's humour is directed at the characters but its anger seems directed beyond them, at a world where spivs and chancers are the ones likely to get on and get out and bugger the rest. Margaret Thatcher's famous remark about there being no such thing as society may have been selectively quoted but few would deny that her government's policies exacerbated the working-class decomposition. How could it not when unemployment was at 1.4m and "it picked up speed after the Conservatives took power in 1979, rapidly rising to over three million out of work in 1983." (BBC) Working class industries were of course in retreat too, with coalmines, steel works and shipyards closing down under her leadership, while crime rose. "Four decades after Margaret Thatcher swept to power, research has found that in areas where the coal, steel, ship and railway industries were hit during the 1980s, young people were much more likely to find themselves in trouble with the police." (Guardian) We shouldn't assume that because a filmmaker shows despair he is thus showing us cliche, and that working-class lives less brutally presented are subsequently more authentic. It depends on the film, the nuances of class and the time in which it is set.
Distant Voices, Still Lives is set mainly in Liverpool in the post-war years, as Britain moved out of austerity and Harold McMillan could tell voters they had never had it so good. This might be deemed the slums according to Davies in a Film Comment interview, but the film also shows us low-key prosperity. If we take the older sister as an example, during the film Eileen (Angela Walsh) wears in the region of nine outfits, albeit often at weddings, christenings and funerals. Nevertheless here is a woman with a wardrobe: a woman with a range of dresses, coats, hats, gloves and jewellery. Equally, when we see the characters in the pub there is little sense that people can't afford to buy a round, and the family at the film's centre lives in a solidly built two-up two-down terraced house, no matter if it's so small that the three kids share a bed. However, it isn't whether a film shows collective aspiration or collective desperation; more how it renders the image it offers, how it invokes a moment evocatively. In an early scene, the father (Pete Postlethwaite) tiptoes into the children's bedroom and arranges the Christmas stocking; at another, we see what cakes have been made for Christmas. We see a chocolate log, a Christmas cake, mince pies and cream. In another scene we witness the other daughter Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne) in the basement, gathering coal. It is a functional house with a functional family (despite the enormously dysfunctional father we will go on to discuss). Davies's purpose isn't to show a political problem but to examine a social class, and there may be something ostensibly radical about this approach when so many British films show working-class lives onscreen as a problem even if the filmmakers themselves would no doubt claim that they want to improve working-class conditions. Writing on the film, James Slaymaker, says, "Davies has publicly rejected the categorization of his work by many critics into the genre of British social realist cinema. In a recent interview, he described the work of the "kitchen sink" realists as being "the product of someone from the middle class slumming it. There's never been any film which has really done it." (Bright Lights Film Journal) Alan Clark's brilliant work would be in this 'slumming' tradition and so would Ken Loach's, despite key dissimilarities, and with plenty of differences from the kitchen sink work of the late fifties and early sixties. Loach and Clark were essentially post-industrial examiners of the working class and the kitchen sink realists focused more on individual disappointment. But what Davies does is celebrate the working class by suggesting the importance of things.
What he offers is an object lesson in class, insisting on filming the details that will conjure up a class consciousness not as a deterministically despairing narrative through-line (sometimes evident in Loach's work) but as recognition. It might be the milk bottles, the mother (Freda Dowie) brings in at the beginning of the film; the curtains fluttering as the camera retreats from a bedroom window later on; the tin bucket and the dishcloth the mother uses to wash the floor in the hallway and the windows upstairs, or the coal burning in the fireplace. Many of the things the film shows us aren't exclusive to working-class Liverpool life but Davies insists on embedding them there. He gives almost a heritage like-quality to a class that is usually cinematically disinherited, reduced to a bric-a-brac of broken objects reflecting broken lives. Davies refuses to give objects so categorical a status. He insists not on their class value, as determiners of deprivation, but on their consciousness value, on their ability to conjure up history, with Davies aware that while film can be an astonishing medium of time present that quickly becomes a recording of time past, it can also find, in the past, objects that bring them back into the present.
This often means that film has to lie to seek a greater truth and so the house Davies films isn't to be found in Liverpool but in London. The Victorian abode that Davies would have wished to film was destroyed in 1961 but he found one almost identical in north London, and filmed there. This might suggest Clark's fidelity to truth in Rita, Sue and Bob Too is greater than Davies' here, but what matters to Davies is the house more than the city, which he would later explore so well in the personalised documentary on Liverpool, Of Time and the City. Here Davies wants to explore chiefly domestic space, despite the presence of the pub, the church and the funeral parlour. He echoes Gaston Bachelard's claim that "our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word. If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty." (Poetics of Space) The film isn't about Liverpool but about a house in which Liverpudlians dwell and visit. We always have a sense that wherever the film drifts off to, it will return to the home. The house may have many functions in cinema, from possession (The Amityville Horror) to snobbery (Brideshead Revisited), from architectural nuance (Exhibition) to families in peril (Funny Games), but Davies wants it be a gravitational force that constantly attracts people back. It is a nostalgic film if we think of the original meaning of nostos a homecoming or return. The camera and the characters may find themselves often elsewhere (and Aileen even takes a job far enough away from the city to demand a train ride), but not for long, as if the house is the storeroom of memory and affection, no matter the brutality of the father.
In this sense, the film may resemble a soap opera or a TV drama, and while some are better than others they often function off a causality Distant Voices, Still Lives resists. Several of the actors became well-known, or were already well-known, for television, including Michael Starke and Andrew Schofield. Topographically, too, the film can resemble a soap in its interest in the house and pub. But while many a soap moves between the pub, corner shop and various houses, as the story must keep moving along often based on gossip and confrontation, Davies insists on an intimacy closer to Bachelard. If the soap is a melodramatics of space, Davies is very vividly a poetics of space, one where the house is a dwelling that leads to a sort of cinematic dwelling as meditation. Though biographically Davies has spoken of the film covering part of his family only, this needn't be seen as a partial biography but as a particular type of cinematic consciousness that leaves the filmmaker as an absent character within the material but felt cinematically. When Gilles Deleuze notes some images that are no longer subjective or objective; "we are caught in a correlation between a perception-image and a camera-consciousness which transforms it (the question of knowing whether the image was objective or subjective is no longer raised)" (Cinema 1: The Movement-Image) it seems to reflect Davies' ambition. In its most prosaic manifestation, an objective shot will show us a building for example and cut to its interior; a subjective shot will show us a building and cut to a person looking across at it. But what if the shot of the building suggests a subjectivity that is then absent; if the camera gives us the impression that it is present as an observer rather than simply as a recording device? At the beginning of Distant Voices, Still Lives, there is a lengthy extended shot of the hallway and the stairs, before the camera slowly zooms in and pans to the right and towards a light switch as it turns round and shows us a reverse angle as we now see the closed front door. There is no point of view evident in such a shot but there is neither an objective sense that the camera is following the action. The film indicates a presence greater than the telling and this is vitally what allows Davies to escape the format that insists working-class lives be presented in a particular way - and leads us to our second point.
By proposing the film isn't told objectively but with an absent subjectivity, Davies can find a distinctive relationship with causality. One way this could have been done was through voiceover. But while this might have created a different causality than the chronological, it may still have proved too assertive for Davies's needs. A voiceover could have told us this was Liverpool in the post-war years, that his family suffered under an abusive father but that the family was close, held together by a loving mother as the story then offers key moments in this life contextualised by a meditative narration. It would be a variation of what Davies offers in Of Time and the City, as he uses his own voice to explore the city through archival footage. It is far from a conventional voice-of-God narration but Distant Voices Still Lives doesn't even offer that, seeking instead the hesitancy of the vignette, as if all memory is extracted from both the freest of associations and the most embedded of memories. In Of Time and the City, Davies uses Houseman's famous lines from 'A Shropshire Lad': "That is the land of lost content/I see it shining plain/The happy highways where I went /And cannot come again." It is as if, in Distant Voices, Still Lives, he wants to access these highways in a manner that says it is, cinematically, possible to come again. In the soap opera, these same locales, the pub, the house, the church, aren't at all memorable and that needn't be an insult; more a diagnostic acceptance that the soap opera has no relationship with time it is topographic melodrama, with everyone in each other's lives in a limited geographic space all the better to bring out the spats and tensions. Many are given names according to place: Coronation Street, Emmerdale Farm, Eastenders, Brookside.
Davies wants to represent working-class life as readily as most British soaps have traditionally done, but while he keeps the topography he plays havoc with the temporality while accepting that he wanted within this fragmentation still to tell a story. If the film was made up of fragments, through-lines between these vignettes wouldn't matter. Each episode would be a narrative law unto itself. But while the events from one to another are rarely causal; they are developmental. When for example Eileen's best friend, Micky (Debi Jones), keeps rejecting a suitor early in the film, we find that she is married to him later. And we might wonder if it is a happier marriage than Eileen's, who seems to become more disappointed as time passes. In an early scene, Eileen and her friends are seated around the table admiring the bottle of Channel No. 5 her boyfriend has given her, and in the next scene they are married. But the romance seems to go out of her life as Dave chomps away on his food as they eat, and urinates in the street as they approach home after a night out. Without that earlier scene of them sitting looking at the bottle of Chanel, the later scenes may not have seemed so disappointing.
Yet while Davies wants development he undermines causality, not only by offering sequences that aren't causally connected, but by playing with chronology too. If the film covers the war and chiefly the post-war years through to the end of the fifties, it does so on its own temporal terms as we find the war sequence taking place a third of the way through the film, as the kids are young even though we have already seen them as adults. This needn't be anything original initself plenty films flashback to show characters at an earlier stage of their lives but this isn't motivated by anything in the story beyond a war-time song that others ask the mother to sing. As everyone joins in, the film moves into the past and we watch everybody escaping to an air raid shelter, a scene ending with the father, not for the first time diegetically, but the first time chronologically, getting violent: he slaps Eileen. When we later in time but earlier in the diegesis see Eileen crying on her bother's shoulder saying "I want me dad", we have yet to see his violence towards her and may reassess the scene retrospectively. Near the beginning of the film, Eileen says she wishes her dad were there and the film moves in on Maisie as we see the father beating her before cutting back to Eileen saying the same thing to her brother Tony (Dean Williams): "I don't half wish my dad was here". We might assume she was the favourite who escaped his wrath. After all, as Eileen offers the line, the film closes in on Tony standing next to her and flashes back to Tony breaking a window in the house and yelling at his father to come out and fight, using the same word towards him Maisie has used: a bastard. But there we are a little later in the film noting that Eileen had reason to hate her dad, too, but nevertheless does not.
Davies seems to ask us to see causality and to resist it, which is why we find development more useful than causation, with the director wishing to build a picture of this family's life like a portrait that takes full advantage of cinema's freedoms over the limitations of photography. John Berger notes that "the camera saves a set of appearances from the otherwise inevitable supersession of further appearances. It holds them unchanging. And before the invention of the camera nothing could do this, except in the mind's eye, the faculty of memory." (Understanding a Photograph) But a photograph is of course a still thing, and cinema a moving image, even if many filmmakers haven't seen cinema through the photographic but through the too hastily cinematographic, as though oblivious to the image's root in the single frame multiplied. If someone assumes that of course film is a narrative medium it too quickly ignores this aspect of fixity. But certain filmmakers appear constantly aware of the stubborn thereness of photography in their cinema, as if aspiring to the condition of slowness and not speed. Critics have written very well about this, including Peter Wollen, Raymond Belllour and also more broadly Paul Virilio (who created the term dromology). Wollen notes that in Wavelength, "an important element of [Michael] Snow's project, it seems, was that of breaking down the distinction between action and object, by paying attention to the bottom end of the scale of mobility rather than the top, the zone of slowness where mobility runs up against inertia." ('Speed and Cinema') Bellour sees that the presence of the photograph in film "has the effect "of uncoupling the spectator from the image...it pulls the spectator out of...this ordinary image of the cinema." ('The Pensive Spectator')
Numerous shots in Distant Voices, Still Lives suggest the photographic portrait. The moment where we see the three grown-up children and their mother when Eileen is about to marry is but one of them. Another is when the four characters are exhausted as they look on after the father has passed away, and a third when Tony gets married near the end. In this last instance, especially, it looks like a photo is getting taken but Davies doesn't seem quite to invoke the photographic portrait that then demands the click of the camera. Nor does he adopt the tableau style that can make the image theatrical, as we find in work by Fassbinder, Werner Schroeter and Raoul Ruiz. He wishes to capture the photographic as malleable, the fixed image that dissolves into time's possibilities. It is as though each image he shows us is porously capable of opening up to any number of memories. To have remained too close to causality would have denied memory a freedom narrative often closes down.
When we see Eileen lying in bed after the scene where she gets slapped as a child, we might initially assume this is her refusing to get up after her father's abuse but, instead, she is in bed with scarlet fever as we enter a discrete vignette concerning Eileen's illness and Tony's banishment from the house. We don't know why he is being banished as he goes off to sleep on his grandmother's couch, but we can see this is his father's decision and not his mother's. When he knocks on the door, the dad answers and says "there's no place for you here". There is then an exchange of glances after the father slams the door, between Tony and his mother, the mum looking down from the upstairs window. She may be crying because of Eileen's illness, but that seems to require more soothing affection, while her feelings towards Tony suggest those of loss, of a wife accepting the cruel ways of her husband and seeing how it estranges her in certain instances from the children. Nothing leads from one scene to the next but there is an awareness of the father's ongoing brutality and the mother's forbearance. Yet the film manages to push through the brutal without arriving at the bathetic. Rather than offering one narrative misery after another, it builds through association a picture of a family with a bullying patriarch. However, it also presents him as a loving father, and shows him moving from the loving to the abusive within twenty-four hours. When he puts the items into the kids' stockings on Christmas Eve as they sleep, he doesn't just appear gentle and loving: he is. Yet the next day over Christmas dinner, with the table set and everyone preparing to eat the various puddings laid out, he goes into a rage. He yanks at the tablecloth and everything ends up on the floor. He yells at his wife who is out of the room to come and clean it up. What has created the anger we have no idea, and the father might not know either. It seems part of a broader psychological issue that the film alludes to when he returns home exhausted and dishevelled and tells Eileen that he has checked himself out of the hospital.
When interviewed about this character based on his father, Davies says that he hated his father and saw him as a tyrant in the film, someone who even in the most sympathetic of scenes, on Christmas Eve, is finally unloving. "Like all tyrants he confuses sentimentality with real emotion. Why doesn't he say that to them when they're awake? He could have done but he didn't." Davies reckons people watching the film say the father is tender here "but you see my interpretation of that scene is that he should be loving towards them when they're awake not when they're asleep." (Vertigo) Davies may be right about his actual father but it seems he is wrong about the fictional one: that viewers in this moment see a man who can love, and it partly why the following scene over Christmas dinner is so shocking.
However, rather than getting caught up in fact over fiction, in what the director says and what the film shows, more interesting perhaps to quote Davies on how these differences between reality and fiction allow for the sort of compressed, distilled aesthetic he achieves, how it lets him access memory without just delineating story. "You can't put everything in. You're trying to condense down from many things to just one thing. In the film he beats her up just once but that has to represent the fact that he did it all the time. In the film there's one accident but in real life the two accidents were separate. My brother was in the army when ammunition boxes fell on him and my brother-in-law fell off scaffolding into the street but two separate accidents aren't interesting. That's poetic licence." (Vertigo)
Davies offers the claim as if this is what films generally do but what if we take poetic license not as a catch-all term but as a variation of artistic licence: dramatic, historical, narrative and poetic? Someone practising dramatic licence might play up the horror, seeing in Davies' comment that "my father threatened my mother in front of me when I was five by saying 'I'm going to chop your head off with an axe" (Vertigo) as an excuse for grand guignol. He didn't include it. A director seeking narrative licence would maybe utilise the axe threat but at a moment that had nothing to do with when in reality the remark was made but at a moment when it could heighten the dramatic tension. When the character for example is in the process of chopping wood, as we see during the WWII sequence here, the axe is presented as no threat. Historical licence has indeed been taken when we realise the house isn't in Liverpool at all but in London a geographic licence meeting an historical one, with the house, and the street demolished, and where the director found a similar property near Highbury Park.
Davies, though, manages to use the term poetic licence quite specifically and closer to the Bacherlardian, showing situations contained by a poetic sensibility rather than propelled forward by the momentum of incident. Yet this still creates an intriguing epistemological problem that might not be pressing as it is in a thriller, in a film where we have to work out the plot, but all the more demanding for its apparent unimportance. It involves memory as well but this isn't the memory of the film, if you like, but of the viewer and thus to the film's third aspect. Davies's fragmentary account leaves us trying to remember clothing and hairstyles, lipstick and earrings, to make sure that we are in one event over another. As the film explores amongst other occasions a Christmas, a christening, a couple of weddings and a funeral, and as Davies insists on a fluidity quite different from Stephen Frears' later, lighter and rather less demanding Four Weddings and a Funeral, which breezes along chronologically, so viewers locate themselves without temporal evolution nor markers announcing dates and events. This doesn't make the film especially difficult but it does mean one pays attention to what characters are wearing rather than settling into the film narratively.
Near the beginning of the film, a hearse passes in slow motion by the open front door, the family is dressed in black, the father is missing, and the family exit the house and get into the hearse. The film then moves in on the mother, Eileen, Tony and Maisie, and this is when Eileen says "I wish my dad was here." Nothing cues us to assume that we have moved on from the funeral except the clothing is bright rather than black, and we might at first wonder if this is a post-funeral moment, before realising it is the day of Eileen's wedding. It is a realisation delayed for several minutes as the film moves into various flashbacks showing the father beating Maisie, Tony breaking the window, and the family visiting the father in the hospital. When it returns to the wedding day, we know the early moment was of the family preparing for the ceremony since the clothes match up. Nothing in the film vocabulary links that earlier moment to the wedding scenes. When after the ceremony, the characters are all in the pub it makes sense that we will assume this is the evening reception. Davies, however, has made us wary of such assumptions and we rely once again on the clothes to make sure that this is indeed the post-wedding celebrations. And we are inclined to think we are still on the wedding day as they return to the house and everyone is still wearing the same clothes though the film has given us various scenes in between that might make us think the film has moved on.
However, this is vital to the type of poetic licence Davies seeks: an aesthetic insisting on a mnemonic backwash, a tide of feeling that pulls the film into various elegiac slipstreams. Davies assumes there are truths better pulled out of narrational or chronological context to register their peculiar intensity. These can be precarious or pleasurable, tearful or holy. It can be the mother seated on the upstairs ledge, cleaning the outside of the window; the father grooming a horse at his place of employment; Eileen crying in front of the fire as her husband tells her that now she is married she can forget her friends; or a reverse lateral track as the family pray in front of a virgin Mary surrounded by lit candles. These moments can madden us in their isolation partly because we may wish to know where they fit into the chronology. When we see Eileen crying at the fireplace is this days after her marriage, weeks or months? She seems cowed by her husband but then, in a later scene at the pub, she stands up to him very firmly while a friend of hers is clearly intimated and afraid of her own partner. We might assume Eileen learns to stand up to her husband but we may also wonder whether standing up is quite the word. She looks like a woman who has regretted the decision, as if aware while there is little she can do to get out of the marriage, she can at least make sure that she isn't treated within it like her mother was treated in hers. Various scenes in the film propose assertiveness within hopelessness, especially the one where her husband chomps away on his food and she says out loud: "What a future I've got to look forward to."
Yet such a moment might call into question how real the scene happens to be. It comes after we have heard her singing in the pub. The film fades to a milky white and then fades back in, showing us Eileen and hubby eating. The scene continues with an odd surreal moment with a man turning up at the door with a candle in his hand and switching off the main light in the room in which Eileen and her husband are seated. Eileen says this is her Uncle Ted, a man as mentally troubled it seems as her dad but someone who has had no presence in the film thus far. We can work out that he is the uncle hidden away, living in the grandmother's house, where Eileen and the husband are also staying. Has he been advised by the grandmother to turn the lights off to preserve energy and save money? In an earlier scene, Eileen says to her mother that the granny never leaves enough money for the gas. There are reasons then to assume the scene takes place rather than just being a figment of Eileen's resentful consciousness, and why we have made much of the film's ability to get the viewer to access memory more intricately than in most of cinema.
It makes us wonder if film's typical relationship with narrative is a little like traditional poetry's relationship with rhyme: that it helps us remember. Davies may reckon: "We are at the mercy of time, but it's also an abstract idea. In my film I try to create a sense of the randomness of time remembered by moving from emotional moment to emotional moment, instead of depicting, in a linear fashion, what literally happened. (Cineaste) But if we can work out the familial bonds and the friendships explored, it rests on Davies delineating time very carefully indeed. He finds the balance between randomness and coherence, between narrative demand and poetic invocation. It gives situations a tantalising temporality without removing the scenes from the specifics of time and place either. To watch the film with no sense of its narrative progress would be to miss its developing and enveloping sadness; to watch focusing on its casual continuity would be to deny its poetic demand. It is as though the film cannot move forward because it must insistently circle back, trying to find more and more images from the house and its surroundings. For if our house is our corner of the world, this has little to do with wealth or poverty but rests on a refusal to impoverish the imagination. Many see nothing in these childhood spaces, "finding too little to describe in the humble home...." Bachelard says, "so they describe it as it actually is, without really experiencing its primitiveness, a primitiveness which belongs to all, rich and poor alike, if they are willing to dream." (Poetics of Space) Davies is willing to dream indeed, turning the Hollywood dream factory with its usually linear narratives into a dream house that eschews such storytelling assertiveness.
© Tony McKibbin