Memory Stirs in `Long Day Closes'
Filmmaker Terence Davies talks about his childhood, which was both turbulent and blissful
NEW YORK — TERENCE DAVIES talks with intelligence, passion, and wit about music, poetry, and other forms of expression that have deeply influenced his life.
But his greatest love in the world of art - his "raison dtre," as he calls it - is cinema.
He has been making films in his native England since 1973, and his newest work, "The Long Day Closes," promises to boost his reputation higher than ever among moviegoers who share his affection for visual gracefulness and sensitivity - and his disdain for conventional notions of plot and character development.
Like all of Mr. Davies's works, "The Long Day Closes" is autobiographical. Its hero is Davies as a child, discovering the world of beauty and expressivity that he would later explore as an artist.
In its vivid sense of childhood memory and its exquisite use of form, color, and movement, it resembles his previous film, "Distant Voices/Still Lives," which played in American theaters five years ago. That movie was dominated by the terrifying figure of Davies's father, however, who brutalized his family until his untimely death when Davies was seven years old.
By contrast, "The Long Day Closes" is charged with feelings of family togetherness and warmth - even though Davies considers it a rather sad movie in ways, reflecting not only childhood bliss but also the seeds of adult awareness and the inevitable loss of innocence.
"My childhood fell into two parts," Davies told me in a recent interview. "For the first seven years my father was alive, and he was incredibly psychotic.... My mother wasn't allowed to go out, for instance; and I never slept in a bed, but slept with my mother on a small couch."
After this tumultuous period, Davies experienced his father's absence as a great liberation. "We began to live," he recalls. "Those years between 7 and 11 were so happy. I discovered the world every day, running out into the street and saying, `Isn't it wonderful the way it looks today!' It was like being completely released, and I felt so loved by my family, and so completely secure. I thought they were the most wonderful in the world."
The smallest of pleasures took on enormous meaning for Davies during this time. "My mother could only afford butter on the weekend," he says by way of example, "and then just two ounces; but I was always allowed to have a crust with butter on it. Bliss! As you can see, I was very easily pleased. And still am, at 47!"
One of those pleasures - which loomed ever larger as his life continued - was moviegoing. "The first film I saw was `Singing in the Rain,' at 7," he remembers with a smile. "Can you imagine? I didn't know what films were, and then to see that. It made me intoxicated with cinema, particularly American musicals - and anything with Doris Day in it!" Under the influence of such pictures, Davies came to see the United States as "the land of Technicolor and magic," while England was "the land of comedy" with s uch gifted performers as Alistair Sim and Margaret Rutherford.
"The Long Day Closes" is Davies's effort to "take the quintessence of all that, and show paradise - but a paradise that's already been lost," since adult concerns are lying in wait to change childlike feelings and perceptions.
Like his life at that time, the film is "a combination of experiencing that paradise, and the innocence of that paradise, and the not knowing that it is going, although it is going even as it is being experienced. But still, the ecstasy of experiencing that world!"
In other conversations with Davies over the last five years, I have been struck by his extraordinary capacity for remembering the distant past in immediate and sensory terms.
Asked about this gift, Davies compares himself with "people who can speak many languages - they can just do it. I can remember very vividly. But the drawback is that very often the memories are so subjective. I'm also ultrasensitive to atmosphere, to the point where I'll completely misread it at times."
Davies began his career as an aspiring writer and actor. He became a director "quite by accident," when the British Film Institute gave him an unexpected opportunity to try his hand. "I looked through the camera for the first time," he recalls, "and I knew this was what I was put on this earth for. Even if I do it badly, this is why I'm here!"
It is not surprising that film appealed so strongly to Davies, with its ability to conjure up memories by capturing many impressions of sight and sound at the same time.
Yet cinema also leaves out many things - perceptions of touch, taste, and smell - that are integral parts of our most vivid recollections. Davies takes a realistic view of film's assets and limitations.
`I THINK it has the same quality that music has," he says, "since it's able to capture the quintessence of something in a single image, or series of images. Obviously there are problems with any art form. I happen to like cinema, but there are things you can't do, such as the internal monologue, which you can only do in a novel.... Film is most powerful when it captures a truth, whatever that truth might be - dramatic truth is not the same as real truth - and people recognize it.
"It's like listening to music," Davies continues, "and hearing with your inner ear the harmonic that the piece is going to resolve to. You feel replete, because it's what you've wanted. If you recognize a truth, you may not particularly understand it ... but you know what it means in your heart.
"No art form can give a complete picture of anything; you can only create a world which is true for you, but may have resonances for other people.... And in an odd way, the more specific it is for you, the greater the resonance for others."