Before Lars von Trier attempted to tear down the musical with his inventive but ultimately repugnant Dancer in the Dark, British director Terence Davies managed to make a movie entirely dependent on the power and freedom of music while placing these ideas in the genre most antithetical to their expression: the kitchen-sink drama. Well, two movies, to be specific, as Distant Voices, Still Lives combines two short films made two years apart with separate crews. Von Trier at least let his protagonist indulge in a bit of fantastical revelry before smacking her down with cold reality. By contrast, the carefully arranged tableaux of family members Davies presents allow for no escape, and the flashbacks only ever seem to touch upon even unhappier times.
The first song filters over a static shot of the stairwell of a cozy but intimate home as the mother of the family (Freda Dowie) sings "I Get the Blues When It Rains." As her pure voice wafts over the soundtrack, the camera slowly swivels 180 degrees to focus on the house door, ending in a jump cut from the cloudy day to a sunny morning as a hearse arrives outside the home. Cut to a medium shot of a family arrayed in funereal blacks around a portrait of the deceased patriarch, so still and desaturated that the shot appears to be a photograph from an old family album until people begin to speak. Another cut shows the family in the same room but with wedding clothes, celebrating the betrothal of the oldest daughter, Eileen (Angela Walsh). That thin division between death and the promise of new life speaks to the hopelessness of this first part of Davies' diptych.
Before we can enjoy this happy moment, however, the children begin reminiscing about their childhood, taking us into frightening memories that unfold achronologically as memories always do. Eileen says aloud that she wishes her father could be there to see her wedding, but the other sister, Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), vituperatively states she doesn't, and we flash back to her begging her father (Pete Postlethwaite) to let her go to the dance as he makes her rigorously scrub the floors as if a modern-day Cinderella. At last, the father throws down some coins, then grabs a broom and beats the girl. Some memories spring from the flashbacks themselves, taking us deeper still into this domestic nightmare. One beautifully arranged sequence pans from the present, as Eileen sobs in her husband's arms for her dad, through darkness before traveling back to the past to see Tommy dutifully decorating the house for Christmas and whispering "God bless, kids" as he hangs stockings on the stairwell. Then, at the dinner on Christmas Day, Tommy suddenly leaps to his feet and drags the tablecloth and all the food onto the floor, screaming for his wife to come clean up the mess.
Another director might have used such juxtaposition to point out the victimhood of the women characters, but Davies captures the complexity of domestic abuse. Not even codependency can be used as a quick explanation for why strange feelings of connection linger, and the confused feelings in the survivors (and never has that term seemed more apt when considering the bereaved) bypass the usual dysfunctional family theatrics straight to a deeply identifiable authenticity.
That layered emotion extends to the use of music as well. Never is this more apparent than in the heartbreaking scene wherein the young children ask their mother, cheerfully cleaning windows, why she married their father. With a wistful, slightly wounded voice, she notes that he used to be such a good dancer. As she does this, Ella Fitzgerald's "Taking a Chance on Love" plays in the background. Suddenly, the scene cuts to Tommy viciously beating her and commanding her to stop crying as he does so while the music still plays over the image. Rather than use the song for ironic purposes, Davies digs into its various meanings and interpretations, initially tackling the more romantic and nostalgic side as the mother thinks back to a simpler time when she saw the rakish goodness in her man. Then, the director tackles the material from another angle, revealing that some chances lead to negative outcomes. And as the camera follows the aftermath of that beating, showing the wife's bruised face and arms as she silently resumes cleaning, we are spared even the slightest hint of black comedy from using music ironically. The closest antecedent to Davies' take on musical tunes is Chaplin's Limelight, a film actually quoted here when the son, Tony (Dean Williams), goes AWOL goes AWOL during his army training to confront his father. Thrown in the brig for his insubordination, Tony takes out a harmonica and plays the theme to Limelight, despite the anachronism. Chaplin's musical, as with the rest of his art, was at once grandiose and nuanced and, like Davies' film, autobiographical. Dissatisfied with casting his drunken performer as a dour version of the usual musical star, Chaplin too managed to add layers to his movie.
Both Distant Voices and Still Lives, the latter set about a decade later than the former, use the same locations -- the family house, a nearby pub, a hospital ward, the Catholic parish -- to elicit familiar moods. Outside the house, where the daughters and their friends go to smoke and talk, is a modicum of freedom, even if a yell from the father can send the girls scurrying back inside. At the pub is a sense of catharsis, where family and friends engage in drunken group singing that offers respite from the misery.
The difference in tone between the two films, however, is vast even as one is informed by the other. Distant Voices, true to its opening moments, is funereal, shot in faded sepia tones that take the family-photo aesthetic and sap any possible hint of golden nostalgia from it. By the time of Still Lives, the father does not hang over the film as much, allowing for a sense of happiness to intrude into the characters' lives. The shots often fade to white in this second half, suggesting a more spiritual presence, and a hopeful one.
By the same token, the sins of the father are passed onto the child, and Still Lives does not drop the ball of depressing domestic violence by showing how abuse begets abuse. The husbands of Eileen, Maisie and their friend Micky all separate the women, to the point that those pub nights become even more needed as it's the only time they get to see each other. The music of the '50s may be lighter, having progressed to the age of economic security following the cynicism of postwar blues, but society has not yet reached the rock revolution, and the gentler pop serves only to mask the tumultuous restart of the cycle.
I confess that, while I will never write off any genre or style wholesale (unless you start getting into esoterica), realism interests me the least of any major form of film structuring. Seeking only to be a reflection of reality strikes me as a waste of the artform, as I can simply turn off the movie and walk outside if I want true reality. But Davies, like the best realists, finds a way to make something genuine while still taking liberties. His tableaux may be bleak and informed by his real life, but by filtering them through memory he can bound about time as he pleases and create elliptical suggestion instead of blunt narrative. We are never all that sure when any scene is, so those repeated locations come to take on the anchoring role time normally plays.
Additionally, some aspects of Davies' direction seem to break from reality entirely. Voices filter through the ether and family members appear in shadow as if ghosts (or demons) flowing in the background of memory. The split-screen of Tony and Eileen's husband falling in slow-motion through the same skylight, Davies' way of communicating that the two suffer industrial accidents around the same time, is pure fantasy. But even something that shows a clear remembrance of detail, such as the shot of Tommy's body lying in a viewing area with pennies over his eyes, has a surreal quality to it. It transcends Catholic tradition, suggesting the father may be headed to Hades, not a Christian afterlife. The direction is so subtle that the real becomes fantastical and the subjective breaks attain an effortless verisimilitude.
The subjectivity of Davies' structure makes the film feel truer to life. No one in this movie stands for anything. Even the father is no simple metaphor or symbol to be worked out the way one obsesses over the hyperrealistic portrait of a widowed homemaker in Jeanne Dielman. As the old cliché goes, this is a film with people, not characters. Even the shadow of World War II that hangs over the flashbacks of Distant Voices is about the way the children handle it instead of the results of the constant Luftwaffe attacks, and our understanding of them deepens with these events. Because we pick up on these characters and the way they see the world, we can see the cycles getting ready to repeat as the young women beg their father to go out dancing, the same way the mother met Tommy. When Tony cries the night of his wedding, one can intuit that he fears becoming his father, knowing that this moment of bliss will not last, and that even the most minor squabble could bring out his dark side.
The film has a thoroughly British sensibility, from idiomatic conversation to obsolete pub drinks ordered each time the cast enters the local tavern. But Davies transcends any confinement: by rejecting Catholicism, he allows his film to find the spirituality of true humanism, in which people are viewed on their own terms and not as players on but one plane of existence. Too, even the Britishness, a means of expunging the cultural ties that also weigh down Davies' darker memories, does not limit the film's power to those who grew up in the ever-gray skies of London. True, a film like this set in America could not afford to be so bleak, even if Davies already contends that he softened what really happened in his life to make it remotely bearable on-screen. But who cannot identify with the family home, the local hideaway or the church that contains as many bad memories as good? All of this joins with the music, bleakly but never cynically used, to trigger and release as many of the audience's hangups as the director's. As the film's tagline says, "In memory, everything happens to music," and Davies understands that is because only music can fully capture the contradicting feelings of life. From misery comes hope, and while hope's only effect may be nothing more than to raise one's tolerance for pain so the universe doubles its efforts to break the psyche, it can still keep us going.
Little seen and outrageously left off DVD in the States (the UK didn't even get it until 2007), Distant Voices, Still Lives is one of the most profoundly moving and daringly conceived projects of the 1980s, and one of the most human and deeply felt movies I have ever seen. Normally, I must turn to Asian cinema to be so thoroughly moved. Davies has not been a prolific filmmaker since, though his 2008 documentary, Of Time and the City, won rave reviews at Cannes. Let us hope that revitalizes him somewhat. On the basis of this film alone, I would consider him to be a master of his art.