Terence Davies –
Past and Passion
Essay by Alexandra Seitz
Terence Davies is born on 10 November 1945 in Kensington, an inner city neighbourhood of Liverpool. In other words, in the North-East of England, where the landscape is somewhat less appealing and the conditions are tougher. The Second World War has only just come to an end, and its horrors can still be felt everywhere.
His family belongs to the working class and counts many members. He grows up in poverty with ten siblings. His father rules his clan with an iron fist, which often strikes a blow. The young boy later describes himself as a devout catholic. One could also say: resentful. He prays "until my knees bled", and is still rejected. By then, his teenage years, Terence has already discovered his homosexuality – not as an easy path that informs his sexual being, but as something forbidden and unspeakable, a serious sin that weighs heavily on the young man's conscience and drives him to the brink of despair. This crisis of faith ultimately, and inevitably, leads to Davies's departure from Catholicism, which should not be understood as being the same as liberation.
Davies, who is open about his sexual orientation, often admits in interviews that he has found it difficult to accept himself as being gay. "I don't like being gay. It has ruined my life." At the same time he is fully aware that the films he made over the course of his lifetime – a slender opus: 11 films in 40 years – could not be conceivable without this painful inner conflict. At the same time, Davies's work also contains an unmistakable sensitivity. Its expressive force is drawn from an instinctive understanding that the author/director has for outsider individuals who battle with a repressive, dismissive society. A deep compassion for futile hopes, far too daring decisions, bitter disappointments, and the ensuing process of rebounding and continuing. Davies is not somebody who gives up easily, if at all. His school education at Catholic institutions, which use corporal punishment and where he is bullied by his fellow students, ends when he turns sixteen. Twelve long and despised years as an accountant follow. Alongside, Davies among other things writes short stories for the radio as well as short dramas, plays in amateur theatre and directs. In 1973, he finally departs, leaving Liverpool to attend the Coventry Drama School, and subsequently the National Film and Television School in Buckinghamshire.
In the years 1974 to 1983 he makes the three medium-length films that make up The Terence Davies Trilogy: Children (1974-76), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1980-83). The films are strongly autobiographical vignettes in black and white, which bring together the experiences and impressions from Davies's Life in the fictional alter ego Robert Tucker. The chronology of the events merely serve as a connecting point for a pictorial meshwork, whose real purpose is less narrative than it is emotional. In other words: the plot of the individual scenes is secondary to their emotional content. An example from Madonna and Child: while Tucker is praying in church as the camera slowly glides across the nave and choral music is playing, he can simultaneously be heard in a voice-over as he telephones a tattoo artist to discuss the possibility of having a tattoo on his scrotum. In this splendidly condensed montage of disparate elements lies the entire suffering of the homosexual experience, whose longing and desire collides with the rejection and criminalisation by the institutions that give rise to social norms. (Until 1967 sexual acts between same-sex partners was punishable by law in England and Wales.) The blasphemy of the encounter between religiosity and described quasi-(homo)sexual acts that is inherent in this scene is transcended by the image of the tormented victim that is common to both motifs: Christ on the cross and Tucker on the phone. In other words: it is hard to deny Davies's self-confidence when it comes to choosing artistic means.
Davies also draws strength from himself. He has left his humble origins behind him and found a way to deal with experiencing violence and guilt complexes. He also finds his own, unique film language. A language that makes no secret of who the person behind it is. It is also important for the audience to understand this in its entire breadth: without the painful burden of his memories, there would be no films by Terence Davies. And by this we don't just mean the autobiographical works that were made at the beginning of his career.
Apart from the trilogy, these include Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). Distant Voices, Still Lives is a ferocious combination of song and violence, through which a familiar social setting is portrayed, which traces the surroundings of Davies's origins as much as it sketches a historically evolved society, including the songs that were sung and the drinks that were enjoyed with them. And even though things are lively, the images deep down reveal Davies's idiosyncratic calm and accuracy. The camera is never in a hurry, its gaze is never fleeting, but – above all – this gaze is never cruel. Soberly registering, yes, but never denouncing. The Long Day Closes continues the project of reflecting his own life conditions into the middle of the 1950s, concentrating on the 11-year-old Bud, his enthusiasm for cinema, his faith and its first major challenges, as well as on his family that has meanwhile been freed from paternal terror.
The critics, who by now have become aware of Davies, attribute a unique style and idiosyncratic aesthetic to him, highlighting his handling of time and memories. Everyone knows that memory is not linear, but it takes the talent, creativity and an artistic courage of a filmmaker like Davies to cinematically represent the process of remembering – and thus a specific state of consciousness – without it becoming completely incomprehensible.
Davies' montage is based on the symphonic, on musical principles as opposed to the supposed logic of a chronology that can only be understood in retrospect. Each of these mosaic stones, which ultimately form the overall picture, are thus of equal value. Given that it represents memories, including what remains of one's own life, every fragment is treated like a precious commodity, and is treated cinematographically with flights, tracking shots, pans and zooms, while being accompanied by eclectically chosen music and well thought-out intellectual references. Davies's slow and elliptical narrative style may be challenging to some, but his pictorially monumental and poetic approach is fascinating, not least because of his unwillingness to compromise.
In his autobiographical works, Davies breaks with the social-realist conventions of British kitchen-sink films, and in his literary adaptations that follow he throws out the stereotypes of Jane Austen-style costume dramas. With The Neon Bible (1995), Davies moves in thematically familiar territory (again he deals with coming-of-age, but this time set in the American South of the 1940s), but for the first time he adapts somebody else's writing (John Kennedy Toole's posthumously published novel of the same name from 1989). While The Neon Bible enjoys comparatively little critical recognition, Davies celebrates a true commercial success with The House of Mirth (2000) – where the X-files star Gillian Anderson impressively demonstrates that she has other talents. But once again, many years pass before Davies's next film: The Deep Blue Sea (2011), based on a play by Terence Rattigan that premiered in 1952. Here, Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston demonstrate star potential in the central roles as two passionate lovers, who headlessly defy the conventions of British class society. Between The House of Mirth and The Deep Blue Sea, Davies works on Sunset Song, which he finally manages to complete in 2015. In addition, in 2008, he completes his only documentary work, the film essay Of Time and the City, which is dedicated to Liverpool, and is a swan song full of grief, anger and love.
Davies' latest work – A Quiet Passion (2016), which is shown in the Bildrausch competition programme – represents a new departure. This time, Davies's script is not based on a literary source, but on the life of a literary figure: the American poet Emily Dickinson, who spent her entire life (1830-1886) in worldly and social isolation in Amherst, Massachusetts, and who never enjoyed the recognition she deserved during her lifetime.
Possibly a soul-mate? Either way, the film is a wonderful opportunity for Terence Davies to once again make a historical figure the subject of her own story and let her speak directly to us. And once again, memory is ever-present.