Saturday, April 21, 2007

Distant Voices, Still Lives

It's still manic at work (another Saturday spent in the office) so no new reviews, but I did at least get a chance to go and see Terence Davies in conversation after a showing of his 1988 film Distant Voices, Still Lives at the BFI Southbank on Friday night.

My main reason for going was my love of Davies' film The House of Mirth based on the novel by Edith Wharton and released theatrically in 2000. I haven't read the novel, but caught the film late on DVD, mainly because it starred Gillian 'X Files' Anderson, and I'm a fan of hers. It is a stunning piece of work - beautifully shot, and filled with incredible sadness. It's not a 'feel good' movie - which I guess is why so few people went to see it - but it made such an impression on me that I quickly purchased a framed poster of the film for my flat. In many ways it reminded me very much of my first reading of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge novel in my late teens, which left me with an aching sadness when I read it, and delivered a gut-punch I've never had from the silver screen - at least not until House of Mirth came along. It is, in short, a wonderful movie, if not one that will leave you celebrating the milk of human kindness.

I hadn't seen any of Davies' other work until Friday, but most of the magazines have carried short, rave reviews of the 'digitally restored' version of Distant Voices, Still Lives which is about to do the rounds ('digitally restored' my arse! I don't think I've ever seen a film where every single second of film had speckles, dust and other debris all over it, the way this one did!) The reviews rang alarm bells, with a lot of talk of shifting non-linear time periods, no real story arc or hint of a plot etc. The sort of thing that usually has me running a mile.

Despite the poor quality of the film print - which I guess it could be argued helped convince that its setting in the 40's and 50's was authentic - I thought the film was fantastic, and very unique. Although the BFI board member who interviewed the writer/director after the film showing was far too gushing, I have to agree with his commments that Davies truly understands cinema and knows how to make something truly cinematic. Like House of Mirth the film seemed to be steeped in melancholy and nostalgia, but without, as the writer/director himself later put it, the sort of sentimentality which can ruin everything. I was very glad I got a chance to see it.

Terence Davies himself is a rather strange, if very endearing, character. He comes very much from an older generation of gay man, who has never felt confident enough to do anything about his sexuality (he referred to himself as 'celibate'), having 'come to terms' with it at a time when homosexuality was illegal. It wasn't hard to see where the melancholy which seeps from every frame of the few films he's been able to make comes from, although he had a camp, sometimes waspish, manner that made his Q & A very funny, whilst being very self-deprecating.

Joyous music and pub singing plays a strong part in Distant Voices, Still Lives, and it wasn't hard to understand that cinema, and musicals in particular, were Davies' passion when trying to escape a very lonely childhood. With strong opinions on what British film-makers should be doing (clue: NOT doing a bad copy of Hollywood films) Davies was awarded the 61st Fellowship (their highest honour) from the BFI last night.

I had to laugh at his snippy comments about the foolishness of Brits trying to do musicals when we're crap at it ("Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor String Vest" as Davies put it), and there was gossip about why he hasn't made a film for seven years - funding is the problem! It's depressing to hear that when the talented, quintessentially English, director finally had a project ready to go, one of the producer partners pulled out, apparently thinking the universally panned The Potatoe Men (was that what it was called?) was a better bet. Davies also passed on gossip about one of the American actors in the sublime The House of Mirth telling him he HAD to recut it as it was a mess and would kill his (the actor's) career otherwise. Fortunately Davies has the strength of will to intuitively know when something is right, and when actors and their ego's should be ignored, although he admitted to being extremely hurt by the comment. When the American critics started praising it the actor, who wasn't named but my guess is Stoltz or LaPaglia since the director positively gushed about how nice Dan Ackroyd was, apparently had a change of heart. Alas, the rave critical reviews for House of Mirth failed to turn into bums on seats, and I have a horrible feeling the same will be true of the re-release of Distant Voices, Still Lives.

One of the clips shown during the Q & A was from House of Mirth and I was surprised at how much more of an impact it had on the big screen. It's going to be showing in a week or two at the BFI Southbank as part of a Davies retrospective, and I am going to have to see it on the big screen, instead of just rewatching the DVD.

So many anecdotes were told about the lack of money, lack of respect, lack of work that clearly genuinely gifted talent like Davies gets I am just so glad I don't work in the movie industry. It must be totally soul-destroying.

I left the BFI somewhat depressed that one of our best writer/director's should find himself so out of work, but grateful that he has at least managed to give us some real gems. Clips from some of his other work so impressed me that I think I'm going to have to trot down to the BFI again - not just to see The House of Mirth, but to see other gems in this wonderful man's canon of work which are currently showing as part of the retrospective at the BFI.

Given his persuasive arguments that we should be making British (not American) films, I wonder what Davies would have made of the one DVD I've managed to view this week. Starter For Ten is light, rom-com fluff. But it is quintessentially English, even if it does come across at times as rather too heavily influenced by the likes of Richard Curtiss (I'm not a Curtiss fan!). To my surprise, and despite the Curtiss influences, I enjoyed it. There are a good few laughs in it, some great performances, and the music (The Cure, The Buzzcocks, The Smiths - hoorah!) is wonderful. Well worth a rental if you want something light and frothy!


Adrian said...

Thanks very much for writing this up, Ian. I am a massive fan of Terence Davies' work, but, because I live in Edinburgh and have to work on Friday, there was no way that I could make it for the screening and interview, despite really wanting to. I would greatly recommend seeing his other films, especially The Long Day Closes, which is very much in the vein of Distant Voices, Still Lives, except with a little less misery and rather more magic. The Trilogy is also amazing, if *very* bleak, and I also really love The Neon Bible, although if I had to say what was his least wonderful film, I think I would have to say it was that.

I hope you don't mind if I ask you a couple of questions about the interview; feel free to ignore them if you don't have time to answer them (you do seem to be *really* busy). Did he talk about the collapse of his project to film the novel "Sunset Song"? Any information about that project would be gratefully received. Also, I gather he has written a new script, called "Mad About the Boy", a romantic comedy set in the fashion world, if you can believe that. Did he say anything interesting about that script?

Anyway, thanks again for this really interesting post.

Yours with best wishes,

Ian said...

Hi Adrian, I'm pretty sure that "Sunset Song" was the project he was talking about when he said he had almost all the money but at the last minute the "Potatoe Man" producer (from The Film Council is what I THINK he said) pulled out and the project fell through, even though the majority of the money was coming from elsewhere.

I don't recall him saying anything about "Mad About The Boy" but my memory is very iffy these days. He didn't seem to have any projects to talk about.

Interestingly although the interviewer was enthusiastic about "The Neon Bible" Davies himself appeared to agree with you. At one point when he dissed his own film (I can't remember what he said but I remember he was quite dismissive of it when the interviewer was trying to talk it up) the interviewer told him he was being "too harsh". Davies criticisms of his "The Neon Bible" seemed to be that it was too slow and that at the time he was struggling to make a film about something so alien to his own world (America?). He told an anecdote about a shoe/clothes shop run by two brothers (may have been friends, but I think he said brothers) at a small 'town' where they were shooting which had a tin roof, and how the clothes in this shop which was the brothers livelihood were all rotting and the shoes mouldy in this shop and the intense feeling of sadness he felt on discovering this.

Although very dismissive of "The Neon Bible" as his weakest work, Davies did however say that he couldn't have made "House of Mirth" without having made "The Neon Bible" first (and that he regards "House of Mirth" as one of his best pieces of work), and that he learnt a lot from the cinematographer on that film.