THEY WILL ALL LEAVE, first my brother-in-law, who is frank about his tastes, and then the others, borne away on several tides of pretext—the bathroom, pots on the stove, the freshening of drinks—from which none return. Now it’s just me watching, lying belly down on the bed where I used to sleep with my wife.
And why shouldn’t they? The video we are watching goes from bad to worse. The opening credits are in wedding-invitation engraver’s script superimposed over a fusty silver vase of roses, motionless, just off center against a yellowish background as a prissy Boccherini quartet plays. At last, the interminable crawl of names ends—you’d never know this was a small-budget movie—and there is dark and then rain, and as the light rises over a derelict Victorian street, the gong used to introduce movies produced by the Rank Organisation sounds, followed by the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare. Voices—we feel the old nitrate stock, the dusty and scratched optical soundtrack, shuddering through the projector—fade in and out. Another voice speaks: “I understand you have rooms to let.” Even if you aren’t a British film aficionado—and it would be helpful if you were, because this is a film about films—you will likely know it’s Alec Guinness by the way the intonation of “rooms” dips and ripples out, lubricious and baritone. If you were an obsessive aficionado, you’d know that the line comes from The Ladykillers and that the Boccherini quartet is the running musical theme of that film. And if you were merely, impossibly, observant you would have noticed that over the course of the credits the roses had imperceptibly shed their petals and wilted.
The camera begins to track forward, slowly. Everything is slow, geological, accommodating movement less to history than geography. The street of row houses we are transiting has been mouldering a long time. Music comes up, and Nat King Cole is singing “Stardust”: “Love is now the stardust of yesterday / The music of the years gone by.” Languorously, the camera swings right. There’s a door, open to the elements. And the camera moves through it and beyond, into a devastated hallway, stairs ascending in front of us. No one and nothing is behind us, above us, or below. No one is at home or ever has been, because we are in one time and all the other times are gone, not past but vanished.
But now there are people—there’s been a dissolve or a cut that we didn’t see—lives, objects, motions welling up from somewhere deep, from the rubble and rubbish of this decomposing street. The colors brighten, if only a little. We are in the past, not a sepia past but a tawny one, poor but happy, with so much less and so much more than any of us possess today, because we cannot, however hard we try, have it back.
There will be more, something like a story, but one less formed by time and event than space, the apprehension of singular, discrete things, less moments than images, as though there were a place called Saturday in the vicinity of 1954 near the River Mersey where once there stood an infinite number of Liverpools. But we are here, in this one. You can move in any direction except forward or back.
Now there is a boy, about nine years old, and this film is about him—around him, in him, through him—and he sits on the stoop of the house we’d first seen abandoned and he shines a flashlight into the night sky, aimlessly. The beam isn’t pointed at anything: it’s light, rising, and somewhere unimaginable it strikes something and fractures into shards or simply evaporates. Or perhaps it really continues into space, infinitely. The boy speaks: “Mam, the teacher says it goes on forever.” Regardless, the beam is aimless because that is how this place works: it has no intentions, no arc that rises or climaxes. The boy will look out a window and he will see things not so much happen as slide by laterally, as in a fresco by Masaccio or Giotto, all the things that can or may be seen in this place called Saturday.
The boy’s mother is at another window, standing over the sink, doing dishes, singing to herself. It’s probably an old song or a new one—new to this Saturday anyway—from an MGM musical. It’s sad or wistful or peppy, but in any case it gives her peace. This is what people do here when they aren’t talking or watching movies: they’re singing to themselves, making a lullaby in which to swaddle this day.
The boy appears before her, imploring. “Mam, can I go to the pictures? If you gave me eleven pence I’d have a shilling.” It is the arithmetic of his heart’s desire. She teases him and hands him some coins. He goes to the theater—now it’s raining again; it’s a curtain draping the theater—and inside, he is home and we are home, inside a film, inside this Saturday. After the movie lets out and the boy returns home to his mother and his window, it’s somehow Guy Fawkes Night and then it’s a school day—not a day of the week, but a school day—and the boy is at his desk in the classroom. Everything goes black all around him—the other students and their desks—and the boy daydreams a ship plowing through huge swells, rocking and falling.
At home, that night or perhaps another night (we cannot know) he has a nightmare. His mother comes in and holds him and the camera moves away and hovers over the carpet next to the bed, not for a moment but until it begins to try our patience. Light moves across it, sluggishly. Surely something dramatic is going to happen. Otherwise, where’s the pay-off, the cause and effect narrative insists on? But nothing happens. Light moves across the carpet; time might be passing, dawn seems to come; but no, it’s only a carpet, and the colors and shadows puddle up and shine and are wicked up into the day.
There will be more tracking along hallways, along façades, across serried rows of desks in schoolrooms laid out like hellish formal gardens. There will be churches and crucifixes, children singing the Tantum Ergo, prayers, devotions, whole forests of candles, and processions. I think everything this camera does is a procession—itself processing—following cycles of feasts, extraordinary and ordinary days, all of them holy, the film insists, days that are gone and are and ever shall be without end.
People will leave as I continue to watch, absurdly, eccentrically rapt. They understand that nothing is happening, that this is not going anywhere.
But this—this film—is the story of my life. I lie transfixed on this desolate bed and stare, a moth impastoed to the screen, flattened, drinking down its light.
It’s nothing like me. True, when I was a boy, I was growing up with my mother in a single-parent household, and she would give me a quarter and send me to the movies with my sister and her friends. They make me sit through Tammy and the Bachelor and they will quiver, not quite perceptibly, and imagine themselves older, pretty and in love. From time to time, I will comment, too loudly, on how boring and mushy it is and my sister will die the thousand deaths girls on the edge of adolescence must die if they have a younger brother.
She is coming to sense, if not understand, the fact of men being in the world and what for her follows from it. It’s lost on me: it’s not and never will be for me to know. What I do know is that nothing is happening. Debbie Reynolds sings “Tammy’s in Love.” As if I cared. I would have left five minutes into the film, after the credits, were I not so small.
Terence Davies was born in 1945 in Liverpool to a family that might have been called working class had it not so often been desperately poor. The youngest of ten children, he grew up in Kensington Street in a Victorian row house with no indoor toilet, a single cold-water tap in the kitchen, and electricity only on the ground floor. He attended school and daily mass in his neighborhood parish, Sacred Heart. His father, a sadistic, paranoid tyrant, died an agonizing death by cancer when Terence was five. He was thereafter—despite being bullied and having a growing sense that he was not as other children—deliriously happy, devoted to his family, the Catholic Church, and the movies. The film I have been describing, The Long Day Closes, is his story, a biography, if biography were an adequate term. Perhaps a better word is memoir.
Davies is the most compassionate director I know, if by compassion we mean not nostalgia or sentimentality, but gratitude, the love of things and persons in their singular quiddities, the urgent wish to restore the dead to life, Keats’s negative capability married to caritas, or at least benevolent desire. But it is by no means a happy business, this indwelling with what is necessarily loss and grief; it’s no accident that Orpheus—founder of the lyric mode (and one definition of Davies work is surely “lyric cinema”)—visited Hades, and is best known for trying to bring a shade back up into the light of the living.
Davies is no stranger to pessimism, even loathing. Pushed out of school at sixteen—the common fate of working-class children of his time—he worked as a shipping clerk and bookkeeper. He commuted across the Mersey by ferry every day, hating his job, and did so for the next decade, taking solace in acting in amateur theater productions.
He had understood he was homosexual at the age of fifteen. He had sensed even earlier that the romantic love that was the apotheosis of the films he adored would not be vouchsafed to him except as a spectator. He would, he decided, consecrate himself to loving God instead. As a boy, he had always believed he had a religious vocation. He prayed: not only at mass, but with novenas, rosaries, and the Forty Hours until “my knees bled.” For seven years he begged God to make him heterosexual.
His lapse from the church was sudden and anti-climactic, an offhand epiphany. Davies was at mass and at the instant of the offertory it struck him, as might a shift in the weather, that it was all useless, no more than nonsense, the bishops and priests no more than “men in frocks.” But the loss of his faith “left a deep emotional hole in me—a sense of chaos.” When he was a parish schoolboy, one of the nuns asked all the boys to draw pictures of their souls. Davies drew a lozenge shape, entirely white. The nun remarked that it needed black, that every sin was a mark upon it. He darkened the shape he’d made.
After his lapse, Davies filled the hole in him with art: theater and movies, of course, but also books, paintings, music, and poetry. In particular, he fastened on to the symphonies of Anton Bruckner and to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. That both Bruckner and the middle-aged Eliot who wrote the Quartets were devout Christians is not lost on him today. He’d heard Alec Guinness read the Eliot on the BBC on his family’s first television set when he was sixteen, and to this day he rereads the poem every month. He discovered Bruckner when he was eighteen and says he hopes the very last thing he hears will be the final movement of the Ninth Symphony which depicts, he believes, Bruckner’s own crisis of faith.
Davies quit his accounting job three years later. At twenty-seven he entered the Coventry School of Drama to study acting professionally and began directing and writing for the stage and, finally, the cinema. In his last year at Coventry he sent a script for a short film titled Children to the British Film Institute in hopes of getting funding for a director, crew, and production expenses. To his surprise, the BFI wrote back, agreeing to fund the movie with the proviso that Davies himself direct as a cost-cutting measure. He had become a director by necessity. Then, on the strength of Children, he was accepted at the National Television and Film School where he made his second film, Madonna and Child, as his graduate thesis. After graduation he made a third short film, Death and Transfiguration, and three of them joined together constituted Trilogy, his first feature.
Over the course of those three projects, Davies developed much of the style and matter that would inform all his work: the child’s internal world seen uncannily, as though from both within and outside; the religious and erotic longings, frustrated, relentless, and impossible to separate. Davies’s painterly manner is also nearly fully developed: compositions on parallel picture planes, long tracking shots that move the viewer into and away from corridors and rooms or horizontally across a succession of living friezes that suggest movement through time as much as space, soundtracks that favor Davies’s eclectic tastes in music over dialogue, allusion and evocation over exposition and narrative.
In 1985 Davies obtained backing from the British Film Institute, Channel 4, and Germany’s ZDF to make Distant Voices, Still Lives, his first feature made in color employing a full professional cast, crew, and studio facilities. It was the harrowing and beautiful story of his family’s life before and after the death of his father. He reduced the number of siblings to three—two sisters and a brother—eliminating himself, although as a five year old he, too, had been a victim of his father’s violence, watching his mother being beaten and, if his father were in a bad mood, himself being “kicked from one end of the house to the other.”Distant Voices, Still Lives won the Critics’ Prize at Cannes and is considered his masterpiece, a tableau of forbearance, devotion to family and church, and the quotidian pleasures of the pub, Friday night dates, the movies, and holidays. People suffer, rejoice, labor, and grow old in a succession of identical days and years, each one particular but woven into the same fabric. It is no more and no less than a world.
Davies made The Long Day Closes four years later, in 1992, reconstituting his family for this film in the form of two brothers, a sister, his mother, plus himself as a preadolescent named Bud. Perhaps it is this last thing—Bud’s placement on the cusp between childhood and the adulthood he can just make out in the distance—that both moves and bothers me, that feels intimate and spectral. It feels too personal, like something I thirst to recover and of which I am, for all that, a little afraid.
Bud is braver than I am. We see him at his prayers, shaping his petitions in an attenuated treble. He says, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I give you my body and blood,” and then, “My Jesus, it is the weight not of the cross but of my sins, which has made thee suffer such pain.” And then he—I—hear the hammer blows, and suddenly He is before us, pinioned to the cross, and the camera tracks the body of Christ 360 degrees around and then the cry—of not only pain but horror—of his world-renting agony, waking us—Bud and me—as though from a dream, from the childlike wish that all this would be magical, without cost. Earlier, Bud had said, “The teacher at school told us every sound goes on forever and ever.” As does this one.
Towards the end, there is an overhead shot that tracks for more than two minutes in once continuous motion: Bud begins to swing himself on a rail that bridges the space over the cellar stairs, and the camera moves beyond him and suddenly we are in the movie theater, the frame bisected by the projector’s beam, scanning the audience. As we reach the front row and the screen, we pass into the nave of Bud’s church, over the congregation that kneels in unison and as the camera reaches the priest he raises the Host skyward. And then we are above the schoolroom, the boys lined up to exit at the end of the day, and we return to the cellar stairs where Bud had been swinging, now empty. The camera has transited what Davies has called “my whole world in one shot.” And throughout, one song has been playing, “Tammy’s in Love.” It ought to be corny, even absurd, but it is somehow and inexplicably precisely right, even profound. This entire passage is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen on film.
When it is finished, Bud is sitting on the doorstep and from a long way away there is a sound like foghorns, like cattle lowing, an infinite moan. Then his mother sings, “If I had my life to live over / I’d still do the same things again.” Davies would tell me he always cried when she sang this.
Now Bud is standing in the chiaroscuro of the cellar and coal begins to rain down through the port in the sidewalk. We hear Orson Welles narrating the last few moments of The Magnificent Ambersons: “And now it came at last. George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance—he’d got it three times filled and running over.”
Then Bud is gone and plaster and dust begin to mist and then clatter down from the ceiling and we hear Miss Havisham from David Lean’s Great Expectations: “On this day of the year, long before you were born, this heap of decay…was brought here. It and I have worn away together. The mice have gnawed at it, and sharper teeth than teeth of mice have gnawed at me.”
The camera rises invisibly from the cellar and we are behind Bud and another boy sitting on the stoop, looking into a whorl of clouds, just as sunset is crossing over into twilight. Bells sound, then foghorns and distant ship whistles. There is a final piece of music as the clouds swell and ebb, and we are done:
The lighted windows dim
Are fading slowly.
The fire that was so trim
Now quivers lowly.
Go to the dreamless bed
Where grief reposes;
Thy book of toil is read,
The long day closes.
And that is all: grieving, beautiful, implacable. It is what I think I want, or—had I been just a little more sinless, possessed of a little more faith—should have had.
I went to Manningtree in Essex to talk to Terence Davies. It was late in February, cold in London and colder still an hour east, on the edge of the North Sea. I arrived a half-hour early at the station and walked along the bank of the River Stour. My ancestors had lived upstream on this river four hundred years ago, tending sheep, perhaps carding wool, even trading in it, and they might have lived in a timbered cottage like one of these in the village I was walking through. A little further fifty or so swans lay along the bank, facing seaward, the wind shrouding down on them. It might very well snow, and there they would be, white on white, swans and snow disappearing into one another.
I reached the address Davies’s manager, John Taylor, had given me. It did not look like a film director’s house—even a director of what once were called art films. Tiny and unprepossessing, it faced onto a village green flanked by a church. I knocked, sure it was the wrong door, that it would be answered by an old woman who would be confused by my presence, the kind of poor old woman I’d seen in Davies’s most recent film, a documentary about Liverpool called Of Time and the City, the kind of woman who says, “It’s a sin to grow old, you know” on the one hand and “God has been good to me” on the other, the kind of woman who could have been Davies’s mother.
But it was indeed John Taylor who opened the door and led me inside. It was as compact as the kind of two-up-two-down terraced house Davies grew up in, tidy, furnished with understated modern furniture, white walls, and gray curtains. Davies was wearing a red sweater, drinking a gin-and-tonic. He offered me one but I declined. I was nervous. He, on the other hand, was warm and hearty, full of stories. He had white hair, glasses, and a swelling, honeyed voice with no trace of the Liverpool scouse accent.
I began to ask questions, almost all awkwardly phrased, obvious, circular, or simply incoherent. I wanted to know how these films were made. Surely, for example, such a visual filmmaker storyboarded every frame of every scene. But no, Davies said: it’s all written out in script form. “I can’t draw.” He’s precise about what he wants and gets irritated when producers and crew haven’t read the script carefully, as happened with the opening scene of The Long Day Closes, a deserted street in a downpour, when they hired a state-of-the-art crane whose only limitation was that it couldn’t function in the rain.
But while exacting, he also puts enormous trust in intuition and happenstance, in his actors’ sense of how to deliver the few lines his nearly dialogue-free scripts contain. And the weather seems always to be with him, or is at least serendipitous: rain falls or the skies open unbidden, the light falls on a carpet in shapes and gradations his script could never have imagined.
Yet I felt I wasn’t learning what I had come here to learn. My questions felt more and more beside the point. In any case, Davies seemed to prefer to talk about other people’s work: the Hollywood films he grew up on in which “everyone had perfect teeth and three bathrooms” or the Ealing Comedies of his youth, for example Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Ladykillers (directed by his mentor, Alexander Mackendrick). I had interviewed film industry people before and they all had a knack of making the point of any story—by however circuitous or tenuous a route—come back to themselves. But not Davies: he recommended one film after another that I must see, none of them with the remotest connection to himself, merely things that he loved. He was, it seemed to him, extraordinarily lucky: he’d gotten to direct Gena Rowlands in the film he made after The Long Day Closes, The Neon Bible; he’d gotten to have lunch in Hollywood with a character actor he remembered seeing in The Robe when he was eight years old. He recounted all of this with ebullient wonder, as if to say, “Me of all people—can you imagine?”
But I wanted more. I want to know from where inside him these things come, and he cannot or will not tell me. I have watched a documentary about the making of The Long Day Closes and it shows Davies shooting the scene in which Bud aims his flashlight into the sky, take after take, Davies sometimes coming over to the boy playing Bud and adjusting his arm or his hand, instructing him where and when to shine the beam. It shows less than nothing, except for the perennial tedium of film sets. What becomes transcendent in the movie itself is nowhere evident, and I doubt it would be clearer were I able to see Davies’s working script, the cutting room, the lab, or any of the other places through which the negative, soundtrack, and prints passed before they came to the theater.
That is—I know, I realize—my agenda, but I had one more: to expose Davies as a Catholic filmmaker, to get him to confess that despite his scathing comments about the church and its theology—“piffle,” “tosh,” “humbug”—that the way he sees the world has been, even more than by the movies, shaped by Catholicism, by a tragic sense of life unfolding in suffering, yet entwined with the assurance that God is present in all his creation, and not least in persons and in what they themselves create. He has said that Catholicism is “a pernicious religion, so full of beauty, so full of guilt.” He sees at least half of what I see.
But he wouldn’t be drawn further: he reiterated that his lapse had afforded him real peace, the first in his adult life. He added that he only wished he’d done it sooner, as all his brothers and sisters had, everyone in his family except for his mother, who had remained devout, to whom he remained devoted. Everything had to do, he said again, with his being gay and the guilt it induced, on account of which he had always been celibate and remains so. I am, thankfully, not condescending enough to say that, given his celibacy, he is in conformation with the church’s teaching regarding what it calls his “disorder,” to suggest he could return to the sacraments. I am not that stupid or cruel.
So if I want to reach the conclusions I have brought with me to Manningtree, I will have to draw them myself. I will have to go back to the films and what I take from them. Later, I thought of the last time we see Bud at his devotions in The Long Day Closes. He prays:
I love thee, Jesus, my love above all things. I repent with my whole heart of having offended thee. Never permit me to separate myself from thee again, that I may love thee always, and then do with me what thou wilt.
That feels like the heart of the matter to me, though I cannot say how or why. At the end of our hour together, Davies saw me to the door. He worried I’d miss my train. He is kind, full of gratitude and affection for the world, wanting only in the most modest and gentlest way to have you see what you must see. He might as well be a saint. But he refuses to be a Christian.
So I am thrown back upon the films, and I watch them again and again. The most recent is Of Time and the City, a documentary about Liverpool, although “documentary” scarcely seems the right word. He had told his editor, Liza Ryan-Carter, that “it has to be cut like fiction.” And since every Davies film is more collage—lyric essay, if you will—than drama or history, the cuts shape the film as much as the scenes. In Of Time and the City, that’s true three times over: in addition to the images—almost entirely archival footage from the forties, fifties, and sixties—the selection and juxtaposition of music is fundamental to the meaning of any shot and so too are words, said and unsaid, in Davies’s narration, itself a collage of reminiscence, poetry, outrage, and rue.
The narration is perhaps the most powerful constituent of the film, and both Davies’s passion and his acting background show through: his voice swaddles, mourns, savors, and excoriates. He is overtly vituperative on three subjects: the royal family (“the Betty Windsor show”), the Beatles (“the death of the popular song”), and the Catholic Church, and he spares no opportunity to hiss and sneer about the last of these. It’s hard listening for a Catholic, the fury of his rancor on the one hand and his cringe-making, sometimes lame jokes about the church on the other. His detestation feels obsessive-compulsive, at once gleeful and faintly paranoiac.
But it is not so much bitter, I think, as grieving, as though no one had ever promised him so much and then let him down so badly—not even his bully of a father—and yet will not leave him in peace. His boyhood faith, naïve and unboundaried, was, as he says, “an unrequited love.” Liverpool, like Miss Havisham’s “heap of decay,” is the tomb in which that love is interred, and Of Time and the City—perhaps more than any of his films—is an archeology of Davies’s private ruins, the Pompeii of his dead God and household altars. It is not, I think, the church that Davies hates so much as time. It is the object of his own personal theodicy, as though when we say God permits suffering, what we mean is that he permits time, and there is, except in Eliot’s “still point,” no difference between time and death.
Davies’s narration of Of Time and the City begins with some lines from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad:
Into my heart on air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Afterwards, in his own words, Davies says, “The Liverpool that I loved, where have you gone without me?”
And then prayer, the boy he was and the forsaken man he has become: “Jesus mercy, Mary help, love me to safety”; “You who damn but give no comfort, why do I plead, why do you not respond?” Images slide by, choppy black and white, the lurid Kodachrome of home movies: women at their washing, children playing ring-a-ring-a-roses, cascades of terraced houses, docks and ships, ballrooms, and movie marquees, thousands of working-class holiday-makers on ferries, heading to the beach, and Davies’s own reverie, “the journey home, tired, cocoa and toast, and happiness unlimited.”
And then the end time: desolated plains of rubble, and rising from them, high-rise apartment blocks and the spiny Martian space-pod of Liverpool’s new cathedral. The remainder of the film is elegy, even tragedy, but, I think, Christian tragedy. Davies reads from Four Quartets as we watch the port seem to empty out, all the ships sailed away:
Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.
Mahler’s Second Symphony, Resurrection, plays, and we hear Davies’s own words: “We are being gathered in at gloaming. Is it sleep or is it death?” And finally Four Quartets’ “All will be well,” and, at last, Davies again:
Good night, ladies.
Good night, sweet ladies.
I would like to have this much faith, if by faith we mean the promise that we are always and everywhere saying not “goodbye” but “goodnight,” if we mean something like Eliot’s line, “Neither flesh nor fleshless; / Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.”
My interview with Davies in Manningtree was not quite the debacle I imagined. Halfway along, he’d given me coffee, he was tending to the last of his gin-and-tonic, and now he was exhorting me to watch Kind Hearts and Coronets. I had a moment of bravery, or perhaps only the need to explain myself a little, and I broached the matter of people’s impatience (let’s be blunt: their boredom) with the films of his that I loved. I said—meaning to be polite, to disassociate myself from the philistinism of others—“They say nothing happens.”
“Ah, yes,” Davies said. “That’s true. And so everything happens.” The world, so I might have understood, was made and is being made from nothing. And all shall be well.
Just before I left for my train, I asked what he was working on. This is always an indeterminate question with filmmakers since every project is almost always in “development,” “turnaround,” “under option,” or some other state shy of the real.
“A biographical film,” he says. “About Emily Dickinson.” And he recites, from memory (for what else has he, what else have any of us?):
I reason, we could die:
The best vitality
Cannot excel decay;
But what of that?
I reason that in heaven
Somehow, it will be even,
Some new equation given;
But what of that?
In The Long Day Closes, Bud says it twice, once to his mother, once to his friend as they sit on the stoop watching the night sky together: “Our teacher told us it goes on forever.” He means light. To his friend he says, “Some of those stars are dead. The light from them started out when Jesus was alive. Our teacher said.” If this is right, there is no death, not for light, perhaps not for films, which are no more or less than light and sound. And maybe that is all any of us consist of. So we go on, and just now we dwell and labor among these guttering stars in what we call the present, in this preface to memory. It is my life, but also anyone’s life. We all leave and all return, almost forever.