Glad to be unhappy

Pub date February 19, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


Terence Davies is coming to town. For anyone who loves the cinema, this is news of paramount importance — and MGM-level musical magnitude. Davies is one of the greatest directors of the final quarter of the 20th century. He’s created at least two acknowledged classics, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The House of Mirth (2000), and I count his 1992 rendering of a movie-mad childhood, The Long Day Closes, as one of my all-time favorite films. In a single shot that passes across the floors of a family apartment, Davies captures the magic of nature mingling with artifice (a waterfall of raindrops, reflected from a window, passing over the leaf pattern of a carpet), then conveys the passage of time with a potency that never fails to bring a tear to my unsentimental eye.

Time, free-flowing through mental mazes of negative space that Manny Farber would have to admire, is at the center of Davies’s autobiographical work. He connects music with memory in a manner that yields greater returns each time one returns to his movies. At the Pacific Film Archive, he’ll appear at screenings of The Terence Davies Trilogy (1984), Distant Voices, The Long Day Closes, and The Neon Bible (1995) and lead an audience through a shot-by-shot discussion of Distant Voices. In anticipation of this visit, I recently spoke with him on the phone.

SFBG It’s disheartening to read about the various funding problems you’ve been encountering over the past eight years.

TERENCE DAVIES We don’t have a cinema in this country — we just have an extension of television. You’ve got 25-year-olds who don’t know anything and think cinema started with [Quentin] Tarantino. We’re just little England. We’ve become virtually another state of America. In 20 years’ time, if we don’t watch it, we’ll be just like Hawaii, but without the decent weather.

SFBG Within British cinema, your films don’t fit into the contrasts that place David Lean–like literary adaptations or the documentary base of directors like Lindsay Anderson against more flamboyant directors such as Nicholas Roeg, Ken Russell, and Joseph Losey. You have elements of all of the above: your work is autobiographical and learned, but it has also has a flamboyance I relate to, though it isn’t outrageous.

TD I suppose my influences were very simple: the British comedies from the period when I was growing up and American melodramas and musicals. I remember being taken by my two older sisters to see Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing [1955] or All That Heaven Allows [1955] and going by myself to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers [1954] or The Pajama Game [1957] and any comedy that attracted Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim.

My films are an amalgam of those things and of the fact that I was brought up Catholic. I was very devout until I was 22. What a waste that was!

Also, I was influenced by classical music, particularly [Jean] Sibelius and [Dmitry] Shostakovich and my beloved [Anton] Bruckner. And poetry. [My family] got our first television in 1961, and about two years later, over the course of four nights, Alec Guinness read [T.S. Eliot’s] entire Four Quartets from memory.

SFBG Your current documentary project, Of Time and the City, is about your hometown of Liverpool. I came across an interview from the era of Distant Voices, Still Lives in which you talk about its utter transformation and deterioration. That interview dates from almost 20 years ago. Have the changes continued?

TD Yes, inevitably. At the time I left, Liverpool was very down at heel. I left it at its worst. It’s getting better now, but there’s still an awful lot to be done. The evocation of war that Humphrey Jennings did in Listen to Britain [1942] I’m trying to do for Liverpool. I wanted to try and capture what it was like when I was growing up. Even I was shocked at some of the footage of the slums, which were some of the worst in Europe. I grew up in one, and when you grow up in one you don’t realize it, because everyone else is in the same boat. But seeing footage of it now, it’s absolutely appalling. When you think that in 1953 this massive amount of money was spent on the coronation of the present queen, it’s just obscene. They get away with it — it’s quite extraordinary. I’m very much a republican; I’m not a monarchist. When you juxtapose the coronation with the footage that we’ve found, it’s shocking.

SFBG Solitude and rich sensory experience are qualities at the core of your movies. Those qualities take on specific aspects in cinema — your use of darkness in relation to light is connected to, and even a few times directly about, the experience of being in a dark movie theater.

TD You have to see the films in the cinema. It’s lovely to see, say, Letter from an Unknown Woman [1948] on the telly, but if you see it projected, it’s even more ravishing. The only way to see a film is in the cinema — nowhere else.

SFBG I first saw my favorite of your films, The Long Day Closes, at the Castro Theatre here in San Francisco.

TD The Castro is a beautiful theater. But I remember that when I was there, two men were walking down the aisle and one asked, "What did you see last night?" The other said he’d seen the [Terence Davies] Trilogy. The first asked, "What did you think?" And the other said, "Not very good."

SFBG There’s no accounting for taste.

TD Another man said to me, "These films make Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis," which I thought was a wonderful insult — practically a compliment. Isn’t that fabulous?


Feb. 20–27, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-5249