Friday, March 30, 2012

Distant Voices, Still Lives

Great Britain  (87 mi)  1988  d:  Terence Davies
Distant Voices, Still Lives Trailer - Video Dailymotion (2:54)

The water is wide, I cannot get o'er
And neither have I wings to fly.
O go and get me some little boat,
To carry o'er my true love and I.

A-down in the meadows the other day
A-gath'ring flow'rs both fine and gay
A-gath'ring flowers, both red and blue,
I little thought what love could do.

I put my hand into one soft bush,
Thinking the sweetest flow'r to find.
I prick'd my finger to the bone
And left the sweetest flow'r alone.

I lean'd my back up against some oak,
Thinking it was a trusty tree.
But first he bended then he broke,
So did my love prove false to me.

Where love is planted, O there it grows,
It buds and blossoms like some rose;
It has a sweet and pleasant smell,
No flow'r on earth can it excel.

Must I be bound, O and she go free!
Must I love one thing that does not love me!
Why should I act such a childish part,
And love a girl that will break my heart.

There is a ship sailing on the sea,
She's loaded deep as deep can be,
But not so deep as in love I am;
I care not if I sink or swim.

O love is handsome and love is fine,
And love is charming when it is true;
As it grows older it groweth colder
And fades away like the morning dew.

B.Britten & P.Pears - O Waly, Waly - YouTube in a historic live performance (3:46)

Despite being listed in 2007 as the third greatest film in British history in Time Out’s 100 Best British Films, listed after #2, A THIRD MAN (1949) and #1, DON’T LOOK NOW (1973), or listed as the 9th greatest film worldwide in the past 25 years in Sight and Sound’s 2002 poll of selected British critics, BFI | Sight & Sound | Modern Times, the British newspaper The Guardian calls the film "Britain's forgotten cinematic masterpiece.”  Set in the 1940’s post-war working class community in Liverpool, shot in washed out sepia tones, the film resembles the experience of glancing through an old family photograph album or scrapbook, offering a glimpse of faded memories.  Using a Joycean stream-of-conscious style and novelistic detail, this is an experimental, non-narrative film that works as an interactive memory play, because as the audience views what’s onscreen, simultaneously they may be lost in rhapsodic thoughts of their own.  While this is a distinct period piece that is actually two films, shot using the same actors two years apart, it begins with family portraits that come to life, moving freely between various time periods, as characters go back and forth between adulthood and childhood.  One focal point is a small photograph of the director’s real life father (who died when he was six) which hangs on the wall, often centered between carefully composed tableaux of portrait-like shots of the family facing the camera, a presence that remains even after they walk away.  Peter Postlethwaite plays the abusive wife-and-child-beating father, shown to have a dour mood, a fierce temper and quickly changeable moods, yet his impact is enormous even as he dies early in the opening segment.  His family is haunted by his absence, somehow tarnished by his wretched and miserable existence, but still a force to be reckoned with that hangs over the rest of the film like a specter of gloom. 

Opening with audio cues, Distant Voices, Still Lives on Vimeo (4:39), voices are heard before the characters appear, which typifies the unusual structure of the film, as shot dissolves move from memory to memory, largely consisting of events being recalled by different family members, creating a mysterious living theater where memories come to life, often set to song, like Ella Fitzgerald singing “Taking a Chance on Love” “Distant Voices, Still Lives” « Distant Voices YouTube (2:18).  Freda Dowie plays the long suffering mother, Angela Walsh the more reflective older sister Eileen, Lorraine Ashbourne the embittered younger sister Maisie (“He was a bastard and I bleedin’ hated him”), while Dean Williams plays brother Tony.  While the film is autobiographical, there is no one in the film who represents the filmmaker, who in real life is the youngest child of ten children.  Whatever story there is consists of a funeral, three weddings, a baptism, and an extended scene in a pub where one after another different characters break out in song, like the light and breezy  “Brown Skin Girl” Visual quote from Terence Davies' Distant Voices Still Lives - YouTube (1:40), but also Eileen singing the heartbreakingly poignant “I Wanna Be Around” “Distant Voices, Still Lives” « Distant Voices YouTube (2:27).  Characters simply blurt out songs as they would thoughts or sentences, where this unique and distinguished style reflects a continuing inner dialogue with the audience.  Davies also uses other carefully chosen pieces of music, such as Hymn to the virgin - Benjamin Britten - YouTube  (3:33), Harold Darke’s rendition of what has become a British Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” Kings College Choir, Cambridge - In the bleak ... YouTube (4:14), and the soprano section (Rebecca Evans sings soprano here, while it is Susan Bullock on the film recording) of the final movement of Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 3 (Pastoral) Finale - IV Lento YouTube (11:20).

A darker and more difficult work than The Long Day Closes (1992), much of this recalls James Joyce short story The Dead, especially the meticulous, novelistic detail of specific events being recalled by someone much later in life, where a similar effect is the startling naturalness of the memories, which evolve over time, as people may mature and find a way to live with the ghosts of the past.  Much of it taking place so close after the war, the entire nation was similarly traumatized by the same events, finding it difficult to rebuild their lives on anything resembling stable footing.  Davies signature move is to juxtapose moments of happiness followed immediately by incidents of brutality, where this jarring effect has a way of drawing attention to the interior worlds of the people who magically come alive onscreen.  Perhaps the most stunning is a scene of the father tenderly tip-toeing into the children’s room, sleeping three in a bed, on Christmas Eve, quietly hanging their stockings before becoming consumed with rage at the next day’s Christmas dinner.  Told as a series of vignettes all strung together, where movies and radio are captivating the nation, beautifully expressed here with the escapist romanticism of umbrellas in the rain while hearing “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” “Distant Voices, Still Lives” « Distant Voices YouTube (1:55), which contrasts vividly with the stark reality of a nation in ruins, where the men in particular are brutish and revoltingly short-sighted, where their shortcomings reflect a dysfunctional spirit even as they sit together and sing communally in the local pub, all displaying basic survivor’s instincts at their best as they try to maintain their resolve while collectively keeping their wits about them.  A poetic evocation of courage and transcendence with an utterly celestial finale, this film celebrates the humanity often thought lost when enduring horrible tragedy, something of an homage to a nation that refused to accept the humiliation of defeat, where the scars of the past become a redemptive and transformative agent of recovery. 

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