Criterion Corner: Discussing Terence Davies with Criterion's Michael Koresky

It's hard to think of a more inviting film than Terence Davies' "The Long Day Closes", which begins with a shot that tracks through a hauntingly vacant street in 1950s Liverpool and leads us directly into the void-like foyer of the filmmaker's childhood home as he remembers it and has reconstructed it on screen. Davies' moving autobiographical tapestry of scenes from his youth is less of a linear narrative than it is a slipstream of moments and memories, at once both heartbreakingly intimate and compellingly universal. And yet, despite how candid and confessional Davies' filmmaking is, "The Long Day Closes" – like anything so possessed by the singular spirit of its maker – can feel impenetrable. Davies' meditation is immaculately guided, and there are beautiful rewards waiting inside for those willing to submit to the film's free-associative trajectory, but it can still be extraordinarily helpful to get directions from someone who knows the lay of the land.

With that in mind, I thought that we might try something a bit different with our coverage of The Criterion Collection's absolutely gorgeous dual-format DVD / Blu-ray edition of "The Long Day Closes", which was released earlier this week. Rather than the usual review, in which I would have expressed my overwhelming but relatively unfamiliar love for Davies' masterpiece, I thought it might be more illuminating to reach out to the biggest Davies expert I know.

One of the very first things I ever learned about Michael Koresky was that he quite literally wrote the book on Terence Davies. The first time that I met Michael, a co-founder of the essential quarterly film journal Reverse Shot (which he still edits) and the head writer for The Criterion Collection, he had just returned from the U.K. where he had been interviewing Davies for his forthcoming book, Terence Davies, which will be published Fall 2014 in the Contemporary Directors Series from the University of Illinois Press. Michael's work, which he tells me is "Focused on Davies's films as paradoxes (aesthetically, thematically, politically, and philosophically—and is therefore divided into four sections) as a way of recouping him as a queer auteur, since queer scholarship has often left him out in the cold", will be the first book-length text ever published in the U.S. about Davies' films, which should give you a good idea as to how overlooked he's been by contemporary criticism.

Understandably, Criterion's release of "The Long Day Closes" holds a special and personal meaning for Michael, whose indispensable primer on Davies is included in the booklet that's tucked inside the DVD / Blu-ray. I sent Michael some questions with the intent of leveraging his unique love for the film as a means of better understanding my own, and his gracious answers were every bit as eye-opening and helpful as I could have hoped.

Can you discuss your first encounter with Davies’ work and, if you recall, what if anything most overwhelmingly struck you about it? I’d imagine that your relationship with Davies’ work has evolved and deepened over time, but do you remember if that first spark of connection was rooted in the personal or the universal? Was the film a mirror or a window?

It was a mirror, although I didn't yet know that it was. I suppose I had something of an ideal first encounter with Davies's work, in that I was a young—and therefore unformed—yet curious person when it happened. I can't remember the exact age I was, although I assume it was either junior or senior year of high school. My local library in the Massachusetts town I grew up in had a VHS copy of “The Long Day Closes”. Since I devoured all the films that all of the libraries in my general vicinity had, I probably would have rented the film eventually, but when I saw it on the shelf I remembered the title from an episode of “Siskel & Ebert”, on which it had been reviewed. I think between the ages of ten and eighteen I didn't miss an episode of “Siskel & Ebert”, and despite all of the debates their brand of TV criticism still incites I don't think it's ever been fully appreciated just how crucial their show was for my generation of movie-lovers and wannabe critics—I think especially for the air-time they'd give foreign and off-the-beaten-path films. They were usually in the fourth or fifth review slots, and were always the most interesting to me.

Anyway, “The Long Day Closes” was one of those. I can't even remember how enthusiastic they were about the film, but I remember the clip they showed and the way they discussed it: it was the scene early in the film in which the young boy, Bud, is staring out the window at the shirtless brick layer with that look of bemusement, curiosity, desire, and self-hatred all at once. And either Siskel or Ebert was talking about the film being partly about a boy's gradual realization of his own homosexuality. That had struck some sort of chord, clearly; even if I didn't know at the time, when I was age thirteen, that I was gay, I found this a fascinating subject for a film.

So, years later when I saw the tape at the library, I remembered that review and brought the film home in my weekly stack of four movies. Needless to say the film wasn't entirely what I expected, and I remember being titillated, bored, and enraptured in equal measure. I knew this movie moved in a different way from anything else I had seen, and that it was coming from a specific voice, one unlike any I had heard before. Not so long after all this, as a freshman in college, I saw “Distant Voices, Still Lives”, thanks to professor Richard Allen, who showed it—alongside such seminal films as “Rear Window”,The Birds”, andThe Rules of the Game”in our first-semester Language of Film seminar, and I recognized the name and put two and two together.

Would you say that “The Long Day Closes” makes for a good first Davies film for people new to his work? If so, what would you recommend they watch next? Does “Distant Voices, Still Live” illuminate “The Long Day Closes” in a way that “Time and the City” or “The Deep Blue Sea” might not? 

Since The Long Day Closes was my first Davies film, I'd have to say that yes, it's a great first one to watch! That said, watching the “Trilogy” and “Distant Voices, Still Lives” first  undoubtedly provide context for and deepen the experience of the film dramatically. But you don't necessarily need that context to enjoy the film, or to be struck by the visual and aural splendor of the film. I agree that once the film starts after the credit sequence, you're immediately drawn in. He brings you right into an explicitly movie world; those strains of "Stardust" on the soundtrack are as richly cinematic sounding as anything by Max Steiner or Dmitri Tiomkin.

If you get a taste for Davies's peculiarly gorgeous style, then you'll surely want more. I'd go back and find Trilogy and Distant Voices, Still Lives, and you'll get a feel for him as an artist excavating his past. But then I'd go straight to “The House of Mirth”, which proves—tenfold—that he is not only skilled at making films about himself and Liverpool. I really think “Mirth” is one of the great literary adaptations, enormously sophisticated in its faithfulness to Edith Wharton (with a truly extraordinary script by Davies himself) while at the same time showing that Davies's aesthetic can be applied to a completely opposite milieu, in this case turn of the century New York City. The film has the grave narrative inexorability of the finest work by Mizoguchi

Watching “The Long Day Closes”, I’m struck by its Fitzgerald-esque quality of being at once both within and without. It’s as you wrote in the booklet essay of the Criterion release: “We’re essentially seeing the world through the eyes of a child alive to its sensations, yet whose astonishment is bridled by the wisdom of a middle-aged man aware of its disappointments.”

I see this visualized when Bud looks at the workers outside of his window, and his point-of-view is intercut with a head-on perspective, a slight but telling wrinkle on traditional film grammar. Is this “within but without” approach a defining element of Davies’ work as a whole? Would it be fair to say that such a perspective is not just a means in “The Long Day Closes”, but also the film’s central subject? 

For sure. "Within but without" is an efficient way of putting Davies's entire project, actually. This can be felt throughout all his films, which feel desperately intimate but studied and removed at the same time, whether they're his more autobiographically motivated films or his adaptations of other material. This gives them an unbearably fragile quality. In his childhood films, this sense is especially poignant. He's gazing back, and he remembers everything with remarkable detail, but he never lets us forget that these events are taking place within a frame and behind glass.

I’m struck by the film’s vacuum-like sound sound design, particularly in regards to how the scenes in Bud’s house feel as though they were shot in a void. It’s complemented by the lighting, which is so focused, those shots of Bud on the stairs surrounded by oblivion... it reminds me of a computer game, rendering only what you can see at any given time, as if the world beyond the frame simply doesn’t exist.

I guess that’s a fitting way to approach the artifice that defines Davies’ aesthetic approach... and how “The Long Day Closes” is as much about the unreality of the movies as anything else.

Well, Davies's films are very forthrightly, self-reflexively films, although that never dilutes their emotional impact. I think it's clear from “The Long Day Closes”, especially, that the cinema was enormously important to Davies, as a big, bright, bedazzled Technicolor escape from the drabness and emotional difficulties of his childhood in postwar Liverpool. So there's a self-conscious unreality, yes, especially in those shots—such as the Christmas vision, the front-door silhouette with the “Meet Me in St. Louis” soundtrack—that are arranged as tableaux.

Davies claims that he sees his own childhood very vividly...that he remembers the color and smell and texture of every item and surface, and the tone and detail of every sound with undimmed precision. Despite this, he doesn't try to arrange them for the viewer in documentary style; rather he places these memories within the realm of cinema. This allows him also to idealize those memories as much as recreate them. None of his films are strictly autobiographical even though they are based on his life. He always leaves room for dreams and nightmares.

The first of his three shorts, which comprise the incredible feature now known as “The Terence Davies Trilogy”, is a sheer, if arch, articulation of his childhood misery. But as it moves forward in time, the entire project ends up as a dramatization of his fears for his future, ending in a vision of his own lonely death. Very disturbing, daring stuff. His next film, “Distant Voices, Still Lives”, is based on his past as well, and specifically deals with the horrific abuse of his father, but Davies removes himself from the narrative, creating a portrait of his family without him.

“The Long Day Closes”, which puts him back in the narrative, and focuses on a period of happiness after his father's death, would seem to be the most straightforwardly autobiographical of the three, yet it's clearly also partly a work of fantasy as well, a dream of reality. I can't really think of another film that's captured such a  sense of simultaneous wonder and terror and melancholy in childhood, even though directors as disparate as Carlos Saura, Víctor Erice, Rene Clement, Steven Spielberg, Barry Levinson (with “Avalon”), and John Boorman have certainly touched the edges of what Davies achieves here.

Listening to the commentary track, I was amused both by Davies’ wicked sense of humor and also the apparent perfection of his memory. On first blush, I felt like this was a movie by someone who hazily remembered his childhood, and might have been trying to rediscover something from it. But watching it again, the attention to detail became more apparent to me.

Talking to Davies, did you get a sense of what effect making this movie had on him? If he got what he wanted out of it as a personal artifact? Does he ever watch the film?

He delights in talking about his childhood. And it always comes down to details, both in his home and in his movie world. The color of the lipstick and nail polish his older sisters used to use. The way it felt to see “The Robe” in CinemaScope when it was first released. How much he loved listening to the voice of the radio announcer as he did the shipping forecast. The comic brilliance of Margaret Rutherford and Alec Guinness. The heavenly perfection of Doris Day. And just as much as he lights up when he discusses those things—and he really does, his face explodes into infectious excitement—he hangs his head and his soul seems to dim when he discusses his father and the kinds of torments he enacted on his family, which he insists were much worse than anything he ever put onscreen.

So when you hear all these things and you see how he physically responds to these memories, you realize that his filmmaking is a way of trying to create some sort of stylized document of his senses and impressions. He's not interested in linear storytelling, he says, because that's not how memory works. He wants to create feelings. He also has said that though his films were intended as somewhat therapeutic, he has not exorcized his demons at all.

Erosion, decay... these are obviously among the film’s major themes, and I wonder if you see them manifest structurally at all? There’s a good chance this is entirely in my head, but I feel like the movie becomes increasingly detailed and more abstract as it goes along. Early in the movie we spend 90 seconds looking at a spot on a carpet, and then by the “Tammy” sequence we’re bridging entire worlds.

I’ve watched the film three times now, and each viewing I find myself sort of spacing out 2/3 of the way through... it’s not that I’m less interested in what’s happening, it just feels like my eyes cross and the movie has me looking it at in a different way until  “Tammy”  refocuses me. I wonder if you’ve had a similar experience, or anything like it. 

I know what you mean. I've seen the film many, many, many times now, and I'm always again surprised by how structurally odd it is. I wouldn't go so far as to call it degrading, but it seems like it starts to slip through your fingers about two-thirds of the way through. There's a good fifteen or so minutes there (which is a lot within an 80 minute movie) in which we're just looking at images of stasis.  Bud watching his mother hang laundry. Bud crawling on the fence in front of his house. Bud reaching for a mysterious ceiling door he can't quite grasp. Bud watching his brothers fall in love one by one and leave him behind. It's like all this promise—the happiness afforded by the death of his father, which is never spoken of in the film— is slowly seeping away. The "Tammy" sequence is so virtuosic that it does sort of shuttle the viewer back into consciousness.

For me, Davies is something of a pivotal figure in modern queer cinema, but I think that's perhaps I tend to erroneously conflate his stature as a filmmaker with his import to various different movements. Reading your essay reframed my understanding, as did talking to our Out Take columnist Daniel Walber, who admires Davies' work but finds "The Long Day Closes" regressive. I'm not much of an authority when it comes to queer cinema, but I'd sooner call this film repressive. Maybe I'm just lingering on Davies' sweetly tragic self-analysis. 

Davies has always been a tricky figure in discussions of queer cinema, because though Davies is of the same generation of fellow gay British art-filmmakers Derek Jarman and Isaac Julien, Davies's films neither promote images of gay positivity nor engage with homosexuality in any militant, explicitly political fashion. In fact, they evince a distinct, if quite complicated, nostalgia for a horrifically repressive era in England, the postwar fifties, when the government was cracking down on what it saw as illicit, amoral homosexual behavior. This is also, incidentally, the era when Davies was prepubescent and thus before he discovered that he was one of those people that were considered aberrant.

So Davies grew up thinking of himself this way, and it's a feeling that has never left him. He has been outspoken, much to the chagrin of many of his devoted fans, about the fact that he dislikes being gay and that he sees it as something of a curse. His novel Hallelujah Now and his first three films in his "Trilogy" are explicitly about the religious dread and fear for his own soul that Catholicism (which he has rejected since his early 20s) instilled in him because of his difference. So because of all this, what we're seeing in his art is a completely honest, truthful depiction of his mental and emotional state, one that doesn't feel the political burden of positive representation and that hasn't been sanitized to make contemporary viewers feel comfortable.

But to exclude him from discussions of important queer auteurs because his world view and sense of self don't square with our moment just doesn't seem right to me. In my book, I go on at length about how he's a valid—even crucial—queer auteur, in aesthetic and philosophical, more than political, ways.

I have to ask you something about the absolutely magnificent dissolves in this movie, which are as perfect and visibly invisible as any I've ever seen.

Davies maps out every cut, shot, music cue, and transitional choice within his first screenplay draft, so everything you see onscreen was planned from the beginning, with very little deviation. His meticulousness can be a problem for some of his collaborators (especially the bigger name actors he's worked with on some of his later films), but obviously it's a joy for us. And yes, those dissolves are magnificent, my favorite being the one that seamlessly unites the movie theater and the carnival. After that now iconic shot of Bud staring out giddily from the movie theater balcony, the light from the projector streaming from behind his head, the camera cranes down from the balcony, and we see an out-of-focus, lit-up carnival ride, the camera continuing its descent in one smooth motion. We're suddenly transitioned to a new space, but the image and the music—Richard Rodgers' "Carousel Waltz"—make it seem like the two worlds are one. Of course the whole film is like this—one continuous pattern of sounds and sensations, all emanating from a single consciousness. It makes my jaw drop every time.

The film might not have been much of a cultural phenomenon in its time, but do you see its influence in contemporary films? Or maybe it merely anticipated so much of them? I see shades of it in everything from “The Tree of Life” to “The Virgin Suicides” to supercut culture as a whole.

It's always tough to cite films as being influential, and to say that this wouldn't have happened if not for this or this.. It's a strange game that critics play, and sometimes it's a shortcut to get around really dealing with a film on its own unique terms. Unless I read that a particular filmmaker said he was influenced by Davies's films, I don't think I can say that his work has led to anything. Certainly not in much British cinema that I can see, but that's partly because Davies was one of the last filmmakers in the UK to get funding for these sorts of deeply personal, idiosyncratic art films. And he can't even get money anymore, as the government has turned its back on him and artists like him.

I do think that visual culture has caught up with Davies's aesthetic, so that his nonlinear, episodic approach to  a personal memory narrative might no longer seem particularly alien to new filmmakers or viewers, although its deliberate, very slow aesthetic is certainly nothing like the radical, free-associative editing being done by Malick right now. Malick seems more about translating traditional linear narratives into minute gestures and body language, a sort of boiling down. Davies prefers to frame moments, isolate them and offer them up for our gaze. They're both impressionistic, I suppose, but they leave me feeling very different.

For me, a good movie can never be depressing. Sad, sure, but never genuinely depressing. There’s something ineffably beautiful in creating a resonant work of art, if only by fostering a solidarity of feeling. Like an Ozu character resigning to how disappointing life can be, to see that idea articulated in such a moving and sincere way deprives it of its tragedy, in a way. In other words, do you find something comforting about “The Long Day Closes”? 

I feel like you've already said it, but the strength of Davies's artistry is what stops the film from being depressing. Even “The Trilogy”, which ends on one of the most despairing notes in all of cinema and features some of the most frightening, profoundly personal images I've ever seen, leaves me strangely exhilarated.  It offers such an incredible sense of self-awareness through art, and I find that inspiring.

"The Long Day Closes" is now available on dual-format DVD & Blu-ray via The Criterion Collection.