Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies, 1992)

This is my unforgivably late Blind Spots entry for last November. December's pick, Feuillade's Judex, will likely not receive a write-up until next month. However, this month's scheduled Blind Spots piece will appear on time.

The Long Day Closes opens like a classic movie, with the credits appearing before the picture instead of after and playing over a styled image. In this case, it is a still life of some flowers off to the left as credits appear in flowing cursive in the right two-thirds of the screen. When the movie proper begins, it is to the 20th Century Fox fanfare blared over a brick wall with a plaque announcing the film’s setting on Kensington Street. The juxtaposition deftly pre-summarizes the film, in which the still life recreations of postwar Liverpool are enlivened by the joys of cinema that not only give its child protagonist some kind of escape in a dreary community but are internalized and re-emitted to make that world livable.

The boy in question is Bud, an unassuming chap whom Davies regularly places directly in the center of the frame, surrounding him with symmetrical arrangements of people and objects. The dank, dirty brick walls of this industrial port town lend the film shades of neo-realism, but as with the more brutally forthright Distant Voices, Still Lives, such mise-en-scène adds a lyrical, formal quality to what might have been kitchen-sink aesthetics. The falsity of the image is blatant, but that also informs so much of the film’s deeply felt approach to memory.

Where so many films use a child’s perspective as an “out” for narrative and thematic responsibility, an excuse for perpetuating immature and facile understandings of the complexity of life by rooting them in immature characters, Davies’ semi-autobiographical reminiscence actually attempts to root the film’s aesthetic qualities in that same perspective. Instead reveling in “realistic” visions of horror and struggle while sidestepping their more complex implications, Davies reflects Bud’s cinematic escape fantasies into even the most straightforward frame. Flourishes of camera movement and vividly classical lighting setups serve not only as glimpses into a child’s compartmentalization of the traumas of restrictive British life but as signifiers of the subjective nature of memory, which exaggerates both the fond and not-so-fond events of one’s life.

As the movie lacks any real narrative, what sticks in the mind most are the moments in themselves. The imposing vastness of the Catholic church where Bud is dragged is made terrifyingly small in an intense sequence where the imposed guilt of Catholicism manifests itself via the Christ carved into the church’s crucifix becomes flesh once more before Bud’s terrified eyes. (As a vision of the lingering immediacy of Catholic dogma on the malleable mind and spirit of a child, this section recalls a similar sequence made more recently in the “God” episode of Louie.) At school, Bud finds ways to tune out bullying peers and abusive teachers, such as in one beautiful scene where Davies spotlights the boy (in center-frame, natch) and fades out the rest of the class into near-darkness as Bud daydreams a great ship rolling on the waves of the sea. Davies cuts to this ship, then back to Bud as ocean spray dots his face, dissolving the sudden leap in space and time in such a way that the stately compositions become as thrilling as the most acrobatic camerawork seen elsewhere. Of course, there are also moments that linger in the memory for their extreme banality, such as a static medium-long shot of boys lining up for a lice check, the sort of thing that not even the wildest imagination could make fantastical.

The word “impressionable” tends to be used only in a negative context, as in susceptible to whatever ills a socially conservative (or liberal) activist sees in pop culture. Yet Davies’ presents Bud’s impressionability to the films he sees with fondness and nostalgia. The beam that isolates Bud in the aforementioned classroom shot is soon matched by the projector beam flicking above his balcony seat at the theater, and it is important to note that, until the last shot of the film, Davies never privileges the audience with what Bud watches when he goes to the movies. Instead, the sounds of familiar music and dialogue filter through the audio track as Bud, like any cinephile, cannot help but think of his favorite movies in everyday life. For all the film’s stylistic beauty, nothing captures its approach to the movies and memory like a shot of a young couple whose conversation is replaced by dialogue from Meet Me in St. Louis, their spied-upon young love taking on decidedly cinematic overtones as their bashful, natural chat becomes florid romance capped by an opaque stained glass door closing on them, silhouetting their faces as they move in to each other. In a flash, real life and Minnelli are one and the same, and the joys of both are deepened in new and exciting ways.

1 comment:

  1. Nice evocation of many of the film's finest moments. I too saw this for the first time, luckily enough at a screening with Davies present. My favorite memory if the night is how rapturously he recited lyrics from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, moaning in ecstasy as punctuation when he finished. A true lover of movies, and few have managed to fuse the darkness of life with a swooning romantic sensibility so effectively.