February 4, 2014
My memories are all knotted up with the movies. At times I fear I remember films more than reality. My first date with my future wife is nothing now but place names (Blue Ribbon Bakery, Film Forum) and an atmosphere of skittish anticipation. None of the words I spoke to her remain in my gray matter, though I recall the college fight song John Barrymore belted out in the B-Musical Hold That Co-Ed, the film which capped our evening. That tune imprinted itself, though not as much as that transformative parting kiss. No film captures the poetic arbitrariness of memory than Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, released last week in a sumptuous Blu-ray transfer from Criterion. Davies weaves together impressions from his mid-1950s Liverpool childhood in suggestive flashes, from the play of light upon a carpet to the audio of some of his favorite moviehouse memories (The Magnificent Ambersons and Meet Me in St. Louis feature prominently). Davies claimed it was the happiest period in his life, set in the years after his father’s death, and before the crippling doubts of adolescence. The Long Day Closes is a rapturous experience, capturing the ebb and flow of sense memory in rich, tactile images, all underscored with the knowledge of their passing. These moments are gone and they will last forever.
Terence Davies began the archaeological dig into his past with the three short films Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983), known collectively as “The Terence Davies Trilogy”. These followed his alter-ego Robert Tucker through victimized childhood, depressed maturity, and lonely death. It continued in Distant Voice, Still Lives, in which Davies removes himself from the screen, instead investigating the aftereffects a violent patriarch has on his mother and three of his siblings. In the Criterion liner notes, Davies tells Michael Koresky (who wrote a forthcoming book on the director for the University of Illinois Press) that, “I couldn’t put in many things that happened, because nobody would have believed it. He was so violent.”
The Long Day Closes captures the slow restitution of a family following his death, though the patriarch is never mentioned. His mother (Marjorie Yates) is layered in the delicate latticework shadows of cinematographer Michael Coulter, blending her into the home, as if its foundation. She is introduced making tea, lilting the melody to “If You Were the Only Girl (In the World)”. It’s a song of escape, continuing, “and I were the only boy/Nothing else would matter in the world today.” Her face is content, almost blissful, imagining such swooning romanticism, a remnant of her youth. Davies uses songs as time machines, conjuring the emotions of their original reception and mourning their loss in the same move. He begins in the opening shot, as Nat King Cole sings Hoagy Carmichael’s ode to evanescent love, “Stardust”, over the image of a decrepit rain-soaked street. In his supple tenor Cole intones, “Love is now the stardust of yesterday/The music of years gone by”, as Davies dollies his camera to a collapsed staircase. Alec Guinness fades onto the soundtrack from The Ladykillers, “I understand you have rooms to let,” before a young boy’s voice yells “Mom!”, and the film proper begins. All that follows will decay, Davies shows, the staircase becoming a wreck, and the song “Stardust” itself will become the stardust of yesterday.
The film becomes a series of fragmentary impressions from Davies’ childhood, music and sense memories connected by camera movement. An observer since childhood, Davies depicts himself as separate from the rest of the family, too young to go out to dances or bars, his evenings spent staring out windows waiting for his siblings to come home. He also awakens to his own homosexuality when admiring a shirtless construction worker across the way. Then his is immediately overwhelmed with shame – further distancing him from society at large. His afternoons are spent in school or the cinema, both avenues for escape. Davies connects all these flickering memories in fluid camera movements, as if remembering in one breath. These worlds are connected through Davies’ graceful camera movements, which traverse space the way his songs travel in time.
In one bravura sequence, the boy is sitting rapt in the balcony of a movie theater, framed inside the cone of the projector’s light. The camera cranes downward, and the movement continues after a dissolve to an amusement park, the ferris wheel lights in place of the projector. The family walks in a military line perpendicular to the camera, agog at the sights, the shape of their lockstep single line formation repeated in the image of air rifle barrels at a carny game. The camera, still tracking rightward, then cuts to the boy in his mother’s arms, as she sings the Irish folk song “She Moved Through the Fair”, about a ghostly lover returning to see her beau. Mother and child sit in front of a flickering light, presumably a fire, as the Mother’s eyes brim with tears. The constant flicker against her tearful face is reminiscent of Major Amberson’s stare into flames in The Magnificent Ambersons. In that scene he was facing death, and in Welles’ voice-over, he was “engaged in the profoundest thinking of his life. He realized that everything that had worried him or delighted him during his lifetime, all his buying and building and trading and banking, that it was all trifling and waste, beside what concerned him now.” Mother is no industrialist, but she is engaging in the same, profound thinking. She tells her son, “my dad used to sing that”, and shudders with remembrances of her own childhood, one Davies is not privileged to see. She is of firmer stock than the Major, and is capable of handling the dissipations and disappearances of time, those which Davies mourns so beautifully..