P:O.V. No.6 - The Art of Film Editing

A vast edifice of memories:
the cyclical cinema of Terence Davies

Claus Christensen

"The point is to pick out and join together the bits of sequential fact, knowing, seeing and hearing precisely what lies between them and what kind of chain holds them together. That is cinema." (Andrey Tarkovsky)

When movie director George Sluizer in 1993 did a Hollywood remake of his Dutch thriller Spoorloos, he ran into problems. The American test-audience did not like the flash-back structure of the movie. "Kill the writer who thinks backwards, and kill his wife and kids" one member of the audience wrote on the movie company's questionnaire. Sluizer was of course forced to simplify the narrative structure and the movie lost - according to the director - both in basic suspense and thematic depth.

This is by no means an unusual case. In spite of a number of academic papers on the fragmentation caused by modernity and on the death of the great narratives, the linear narrative developed in the Bildungsroman of the 19th century lives on. Especially in the mainstream movie, which has turned out to be remarkably immune to the innovative non-narrative forms explored by avantgardists like Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1959) and Andrei Tarkovsky (Mirror, 1974) during the 1960s and 1970s. And as the straightforward American cinematic narrative plays a dominant role globally, the linearity is still an essential part of the expectations held by the modern movie audience. It is no doubt possible to find spectators who have never seen a real non-personal flash back as they grew up on a diet of soaps and movies like Bodyguard and Die Hard.

But also among the innovative directors of the last decade, the willingness to break with linearity and explore time as a phenomenon has not been overwhelming. Directors representing the so-called postmodern wave in the 1980s, like Ridley Scott and Jean-Jacques Beineix - both coming from a background in advertising - , were more interested in the visual design of the movie than in the narrative structures, unlike classic modernists like Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais. In the 1990s, the development of European cinema has shown a tendency towards a return to the "good story". The straightforward British social realism has become fashionable again, and the Danish auteur Lars von Trier has characteristically and with considerable commercial success left the labyrinthine narrative structures (The Elements of Crime, 1984, Epidemic, 1987) for a more traditional unified narrative structure and a point of view based on the linear perspective (Breaking the Waves, 1996). The exception to the rule could be found in Quentin Tarantino's mocking way of playing with the linear narrative and its causal logic in movies such as Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997). But with Tarantino, the playing lies mostly in an ironic and self-mocking meta-play and it is thus without the philosophical profoundness which characterizes the experiments carried out by Renais and Tarkovsky.

Therapeutic Cinematic Poetry

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With this cinematic history as a background, the 53 year old British director Terence Davies stands out as particularly interesting. Without abandoning the narrative qualities of cinema as a medium, Davies works with cyclic rather than linear narrative structures. His choice of narrative structure stems directly from the content of the movie. Davies produces movies of remembrance, of memories, but at the same time he tries to catch our fragmented way of remembering - i.e. he tries to find an audio-visual form capable of expressing the very essence of remembrance. This is done by cutting linear historical "facts" into temporally displaced sequences and - through auditive montage - establishing a plurality of temporal planes inside each shot. The past, the present and the future thus constantly interlock, creating a complex temporal room of experience, corresponding to the shifting character of human remembrance.

Terence Davies' main influence seems to be movies of Alain Resnais, such as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year in Marienbad (1961). But contrary to the cool intellectualism of Resnais, exploring the essence of remembrance in an abstract way, Davies' movies are warm and straightforward and driven by a strong personal interest (Davies, p. ix):

The reason I began making films came from a deep need to do so in order to come to terms with my family's history and suffering, to make sense af the past and to explore my own personal terrors, both mental and spiritual, and to examine the destructive nature of Catholicism. Film as an expression af guilt, film as confession (psychotherapy would be much cheaper but a lot less fun).

The important autobiographical element gives an emotional tone to Davies' movies, while at the same time anchoring them in a concrete time and space: the Liverpool of the post-war years.

The trilogy of short-films Children, Madonna and Child and Death and Transfiguration (1976/80/83) and the full-length movies Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) are all based on Terence Davies' and his siblings' memories of growing up in a poor working class family. The memories deal with both fear and oppression (the authoritarian school system, Catholic ascetism, and a tyrannical, violent and unpredictable father), as well as love and heavenly joy (magic moments in the cinema, passionate gatherings with community singing and the close contact with a mother, whose unlimited generosity keeps the family together, and who keeps her dignity in spite of the father's humiliations). The trivial and ordinary melts together with the tragic and sublime moments in a cinematic art which is at the same time private and universal, therapeutic and poetic, experimental and popular.[1]

A Vietnam of the Mind

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In mainstream movies, memories typically take the form of clear, linearly organized flash backs, showing the past in a mellow light of nostalgia and romanticism. This can be seen in e.g. Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988), where the protagonist Salvatore, moved by the death of his childhood friend, recreates the past as a lost Paradise in a way which can only be described as self-mythologizing. Salvatore's happy childhood centered around the village's magical cinema is contrasted to the present, characterized by sadness and the disappearance of one cinema after the other. The temporal planes are clearly kept apart by transitions which clearly mark the movement from present to past and vice versa. His remembrance, which takes up the major part of the movie, is constructed as a series of chronological scenes, which in itself functions as cinematic present with no marked position of either narrator or the narrative construction. It is a transparent cinematic expression, and as a whole these scenes create a neatly made causal and logical narration, which "objectively" leads to and confirms Salvatore's present melancholic state of mind. The past is beautiful and romantic, but far too distant to be reached.

The movies of Terence Davies are very different. Firstly, remembrance does not move in logical or chronological lines. Davies bases his work on a subjective expererience of time and tries to describe the special space of remembrance in cinematic terms. The person remembering is placed in a sort of in-between, being in neither a "here-and-now" nor totally in a "then", but instead in this indeterminate in-between. Secondly, Davies' memories are strikingly alive and complex with no trace whatsoever of the patina of nostalgia and the grown up's understanding which is so characteristic of Cinema Paradiso. Thirdly, the person remembering in Davies' movies is not the master of his own memories. Remembrance is not "like a mirror in which one projects a feeling of happiness" (Nielsen, p. 36). Remembrance is a battlefield, on which the past is constantly waiting to ambush you. As Harlan Kennedy, the movie journalist, puts it:

For Davies, the past is not a foreign country in the sighing, elegiac sense [...] and transmitted to the recent spate of Empire reveries. For Davies, if the past is a foreign country, it's guerilla territory: not a sedate outpost of our existential empire but a Vietnam of the mind. There, emotions are not languidly picked over with a calf-gloved hand; they come out of the shadows, raw and ungloved, and pick you over (Kennedy, p. 14).

This Vietnam of the Mind is nowhere better shown than in Distant Voices, Still Lives, which ranks as Davies' most complex and probably best movie, and which I shall be making some comments on in the following. As the title suggests, the film is divided into two parts, and in the first part, Distant Voices, Davies clearly breaks with linearity to create "a pattern of timeless moments", as he himself puts it (p. 74).

The Camera Remembering

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The beginning of Distant Voices works, contrary to what I have just said, as a trademark of classic social realism. The film opens with an establishing shot of a British row of working class houses in rain and thunder, sometime in the 1950s (Fig. 1). A BBC radio announcer is heard giving the traditional weather forecast for sailors: "Fair Isle, Cromarty, Forties...". A middle-aged woman opens the front door, picks up the milk bottles and closes the door (Fig. 2). Cut to the hall and staircase seen from the front door.

The woman stops by the foot of the stairs calling out to her children with an extremely soft voice: "It's seven o'clock, you three!" (Fig. 3). The mother enters the kitchen while the camera remains, showing the empty hall. The BBC radio announcer is heard again, and the mother calls out again, this time a bit more firmly: "Eileen! Tony! Maisie! You'd better get your skates on!"

It is a morning like every other morning. But just as we expect to see the almost grown-up children Eileen, Tony and Maisie come down the stairs, we only hear the sound of their feet on the empty staircase (Fig. 4).

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

The following morning, greetings are also exchanged as voice overs, while the camera holds the shot of the empty hall and staircase. The effect is amazing. The spectator is brutally torn away from the illusion of reality created by the picture, but it is worth noting that this does not happen by blowing apart the identification in a Brechtian Verfremdung. On the contrary, the spectator's primary identification with the camera as the one looking, is expanded into a secondary identification with the camera as the one who is remembering.

Where social realism establishes a naturalistic space and a chronological time in which movement unfolds, Terence Davies departs from the "motor" of action meant to lead the spectator from one picture (the hall) to another (the family gathered around the breakfast table). The narrative logic of movement is replaced by the spiritual space of remembrance, above the mechanical causal relations between "before" and "after". The picture detaches itself from the action, moves outside of time and creates a zone of remembrance in which present and past, real and imaginary are woven together. Past and present coexist, and by contrasting the acoustic presence (footsteps on the staircase) with a visual absence (the empty staircase), Terence Davies opens up the possiblity of reading the film as a mental journey into remembrance. The person remembering is not present in the picture and the concrete past is only visible as fragments. The picture points to itself as a picture - a picture of the time of remembrance and its related thought processes.

Layers of the Past

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In his book Cinema 2: The Time-Image, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze underlines the possibility of cinema to block the senso-motoric process, extend action in purely optical and acoustic situations, and establish complex temporal structures. The opening shot in Distant Voices, where Terence Davies works with non-coordinated layers of the past, is exemplary in that respect.

The shot of the empty hall is set in motion when the voice-over of the mother starts singing I Get the Blues When It's Raining. Slowly the camera moves into the hall, to the staircase where it turns 180 degrees, untill the (now closed) front door is framed (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5

Fig. 6

In a dissolve the front door opens on a sunny summer's day (Fig. 6), and while Jessye Norman sings the death hymn There's a Man Goin' Round Takin' Names on the soundtrack, a hearse containing a coffin pulls up to the front door (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

Fig. 10

Dissolve to a tableau in the living room with the mother flanked by Tony, Eileen and Maisie (Fig. 8). All are dressed in black and look straight into the camera. On the wall behind them hangs a photo of a man. They get up and exit from the picture, and the camera starts moving until the photo on the wall is framed in a close-up (Fig. 9).

The man who turns out to be the deceased father smiles and is holding on to a horse. In the following four shots the mother and her three children leave the house and drive away to the funeral, and then Davies brutally cuts to another living room tableau (Fig. 10). Present are the same persons, only this time they are wearing party clothes - Eileen is getting married. "I wish me Dad was here", Eileen says, but immediately the camera travels towards Maisie who anwers her in voice-over: "I don't. He was a bastard and I bleedin' hated him!" In short subjective flash backs Maisie's and Tony's relationship with their deceased father is portrayed.

As is the case with the rest of Distant Voices, this opening sequence jumps directly from the triviality of everyday rituals to strongly emotional ceremonies, from pure undated past (the mother fetching the milk, the family greetings in the morning) to specific events in their lives (the father's funeral, Eileen's wedding) which can be fitted into a chronological line. There are memories inside memories, pictures inside pictures, and as Terence Davies unfolds layer after layer of the past, remembrance becomes more and more complex. Furthermore the director - through highly formalized compositions and a soundtrack which is often distinctly in control of the pictures - marks an ever present narrative distance to the remembered content (the "then" of remembrance) and thus underlines the actuality of the remembered picture (the "here and now" of remembrance) as yet another layer of time in the movie.

Davies' complex montage of both picture and sound reflects the associative, jumpy character of human remembrance: sounds, pictures and situations float through our consciousness as non-coordinated layers of the past. A past which continually co-exists with the present and which at any time might interrupt it. The photograph of the father (yet another layer of time) symbolically remains on the living room wall behind the family, and in the tableau-like arrangements at Eileen's and - later on - Tony's wedding, the father "squeezes" himself in between the persons.

In spite of his death the father still bullies the family. When Eileen at one time breaks down sobbing, missing her father, the camera begins a long tracking shot back in time (from right to left). The camera moves past a row of touching Christmas rituals (Fig. 11, 12) which can be interpreted as Eileen's conscious attempts at remembering the happy moments with her father. But characteristically the sequence ends with a shot of a finely laid Christmas table with the father and the three children at their places (Fig. 13).

Suddenly the father gets up and in a fit of rage tears the table cloth from the table, scattering both food and chinaware (Fig. 14).

Fig. 11

Fig. 12

Fig. 13

Fig. 14

Sculpting in Time

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In this context, memories do thus not constitute a nostalgic supermarket in which you can self-consciously go shopping. Memories form an electric field in which wires connect criss-cross, creating unforeseeable and interesting clashes, as can be seen in e.g. Still Lives, where Davies cuts from a medium close-up of Maisie and Eileen crying in the cinema (Fig. 15), while watching the tear jerker Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing, to a high-angle shot looking straight down on a glass roof (Fig. 16). Then Tony and Maisie's husband fall in slow-motion through the roof to the theme from Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing (Figures 17 & 18). The sentimental romance of the cinema glides imperceptibly into the sublime horror of reality.

Fig. 15

Fig. 16

Fig. 17

Fig. 18

But Davies' montage of single pictures, relying heavily on the aesthetics of the family album, also aims at influencing the aesthetics of reception by rendering impossible a conventionally narrative decoding of the movie. His "pattern of timeless moments" aims instead at communicating directly with the emotions of the audience. Just as we are touched when turning the pages of others' family albums, even though we do not know the story behind the pictures. We are touched because we are torn from the present and suddenly feel the presence of time - and thus of Death. This is the sort of pictures director Andrey Tarkovsky has termed "authentically cinematic": "The image becomes authentically cinematic when [...] not only does it live within time, but time also lives within it, even within each separate frame." (Tarkovsky, p. 68).

Like Tarkovsky, Terence Davies erects through his movies "a vast edifice of memories" (Proust). He sculpts time as Tarkovsky would put it. But contrary to the labyrinthine and truly mysterious movies by Tarkovsky and Resnais, in Davies there is always a possibility of retrospectively constructing a fabula, even though this fabula turns out to be rather jumpy and imperfect. Furthermore, Davies works with cyclic structures (and well-defined thematic pivots) which perhaps to an even larger extent than the linear structures are able to invest a movie with a characteristic form:

The film constantly turns back on itself, like the ripples in a pool when a stone is thrown into it. The ripples are memory. But above and beyond this are the enduring constancy of my mother, juxtaposed with the enduring, malign influence of my father. These twin themes permeate the entire film (Davies, p. xi).

In Distant Voices, Eileen's wedding is one of the huge stones from which the ripples of memory spread. The frequent family gatherings also contribute to the feeling of a cyclical movement. And the door as a motif, perhaps inspired by The Searchers and already established in the second shot of the movie, works as a sort of existential leitmotif. Furthermore, there are a number of rhetorical and poetic figures which are repeated with variation, thus making the movie aesthetically coherent. The result is a non-linear montage which in a self-evident way combines the abstract modernist experiments montage with concrete memories of growing up in a British working-class family.

To the director, the film has functioned as an advanced form of self-therapy. To cinema as an art form, Davies' film might show a way out of the schism between cold elitist formalism and popular realism.

Translation: Orla Vigsø.


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Davies, Terence. A Modest Pageant. Six Screenplays with an Introduction. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.

Dessau, Frederik. "Kunsten at huske". Tusind Øjne vol. 14, no. 117, 1989.

Kennedy, Harlan. "Familiar Haunts". Film Comment vol. 24, September-October 1988, pp. 13-18.

Nielsen, Niels Aage. "Tarkovskij: Skulptur i Tiden". Kosmorama 184, vol. 34, summer 1988.

Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1989, orig. pub. 1986.

Tygstrup, Frederik. "Bevægelser i rum og rid". Tusind Øjne vol. 12, no. 103, 1987.

[1] Terence Davies' third and latest full-length movie, The Neon Bible (1995), is based on the novel by John Kennedy Toole. Once again, Davies takes up the theme of the joys and problems of childhood and family life, but this time the film is set in the USA, and for the first time Davies tells a linear story without temporal jumps.

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