Directed by Terence Davies
In a drab, almost desolate Liverpool flat, a melancholy voice creeps through doorways and empty rooms. The voice sings a sad song, wizened by long years of a difficult life. In this opening shot of Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives, we hear the soul of mid-century working class Britain laid bare. Davies bravely lets the camera hold on a empty room, thereby letting the off-screen song engulf us. In this moment, we learn one of the fundamental truths about the characters in this priceless gem of British cinema: the voices define the character. Roger Ebert once wisely quoted, “We laugh so that we may not cry.” In this film, the characters sing so that they don’t fade away.
Distant Voices, Still Lives is a unique creature in the pantheon of British cinema. First, it is a hybrid of two shorter films, Distant Voices and Still Lives, which were filmed two years apart from each other. Second, it is an autobiography without a subject. Director Terence Davies based the films on his own upbringing in Liverpool during the 40s and 50s. We know that the events in the film were reflective of his experiences growing up. The characters are based off his family. But, there doesn’t seem to be a character representative of Davies. The effect is such that we are a ghost floating through this Liverpool family’s life.
Third, the film does not opt for a linear narrative. Instead, the film is more of a collection of brief vignettes. Seemingly disjointed, Davies seems to choose his scenes at random. A shot where the mother is cleaning an upstairs window cuts to her being savagely beaten by her husband. And yet, there is an overall sense of a persistent narrative structure. Davies seems to evoke the form of human memory itself. An incredible essay on the film by Ric Burke sums up the narrative form best:
Distant Voices, Still Lives plays out in the same fashion that memories are triggered by sights, sounds and smells; certain things, locations and noises that transport you back to a certain place and time in your life, which is then easily married into another memory of a differing time yet still sweep into one another with ease. In using this technique Davies' moving account dispels with some of the more traditional narrative devices, yet through the skill of threading images and music, the suture of themes, colours and characters, there remains a cohesion, a story and a beautiful rendition of life in working class Liverpool.
In addition to the narrative structure, the cinematography matches the action by utilizing a “Bleach-By-Pass printing process” which desaturates the color, eliminates primary palette tones, and fills the screen with browns and grays. Truly, by the end of the day, Distant Voices, Still Lives creates a perfect representation of one man’s memory.
Fourth, and finally, the film is uncharacteristically introverted and personal for British cinema. I discovered some interesting quotes by Francois Truffaut and Satyajit Ray that both seemed to stress that the British are “temperamentally incapable of holding movie cameras.” Now, there have been plenty of groundbreaking and influential British directors. But what they seem to be implying is that the British are incapable of achieving an introspective cinema that examines the core of the British experience. In that respect, Distant Voices, Still Lives is the exception that breaks the rule. The entire film is an aching mediation on British family life. It demonstrates such piercing and devastating insight that it seems to be channeling Ingmar Bergman.
As mentioned before, the film is divided into two different parts. Distant Voices follows the early life of Davies’ family. It is dominated by a cruel father played by Pete Postlethwaite. An unpredictable man, Davies juxtaposes sweet moments of him tearfully filling his children’s stockings on Christmas morning with him throwing his wife down the stairs after brutally beating her. He represents a kind of patriarchal archetype for the neighborhood. Indeed, we witness other men acting cruelly to their wives. In one scene, a woman reveals how she had been attacked by her husband. Unfortunately, she choose to reveal such information in a crowded bar. She is reprimanded by the men who happen to overhear, as if she broke an unwritten rule.
It is here that the songs become so important. After being scared into submission by their father, the women of the family have no other way to express themselves but to sing. Popular American and British songs are evoked by the cast. The songs express the emotions and feelings that the characters cannot. They also serve to comment on the action in the film. Nowhere is this more evident than a devastating scene of domestic violence played to the tune of Ella Fitzgerald’s Taking a Chance on Love. One of the taglines for the film’s movie posters was “In memory, everything happens to music.” Nowhere is this truer than for the film’s central family. Music is life. It is pain, sorrow, joy, escape, and salvation.
The events of Distant Voices all lead to the father’s death. In a sickly state, we watch as one by one his family rejects him for the years of abuse. It’s almost enough to help us forget what a monster he was. Almost. But soon the film transitions to Still Lives which follows the children after they have grown up. The world is a bit brighter and more inviting. The children are beginning to get married. But there is a sinister undercurrent beneath it all as we are led to suspect that the girls may be headed towards the exact same kind of relationships as their parents’. The film suggests a never-ending cycle of abuse, love, and abuse that transcends the generations.
Distant Voices, Still Lives is a true treasure of British cinema. Yet, few have seen it outside of film festivals. Why is this? Filled with the melancholy of memory and a beauty and insight rarely seen in British cinema, one would assume that it would be more popular. Hopefully we can break the cycle of ignorance surrounding this film. It deserves to be seen and treasured. It deserves to escape the same fate of its unfortunate characters: that of neglect, suppression, and abuse. Only then can the healing truly begin.
Ric Burke Essay:
http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/01/16/distant.html http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film2/DVDReviews32/distant_voices_still_lives.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distant_Voices,_Still_Lives