Upon the release of his debut feature, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), director Terence Davies immediately established himself as one of Britain’s foremost filmmakers. And while the intervening decades of work have done little to disrupt Davies’s auteur status, his subsequent films and well-documented ideas related to individuality and perspective in cinema have no doubt complicated how audiences view his art. Terence Davies, a new book by Michael Koresky, staff writer and associate editor at The Criterion Collection and cofounder of the online film journal Reverse Shot, interrogates these issues by presenting the director’s four primary means of expression — autobiography, aesthetics, politics, and time — as a series of paradoxes through which his cinema has nonetheless accurately reflected a life of conflicted homosexuality.
These “queering” techniques, as Koresky defines them, are present in every aspect of Davies’s process, and throughout the course of the book the author provides thematic, stylistic, and narrative evidence of the filmmaker’s very unique, very personal approach, one which Davies initially utilized as a way of confronting past traumas and which he has more recently employed as a conduit to realize the works, words, and worlds of others. Proceeding achronologically, in a manner akin to his subject’s prescribed methodology, Koresky is able to map a cumulative history of Davies’s very intimate artistic practice. To hear him tell it, the process of writing the book — the first on Davies ever written by an American author — was every bit as challenging and illuminating as his initial encounters with the director’s work and the critical conjecture which has often clouded popular perception of the filmmaker. As such, Terence Davies is a superlative compliment to Davies’s filmography, as well as an essential rejoinder to years of confusion and misconceptions.
JORDAN CRONK: I’d like to talk about the personal impetus behind the book shortly, but while it’s perhaps somewhat apparent why you would want to write a book on Terence Davies, it’s maybe more appropriate to ask you why a book-length study on Terence Davies is important now?
MICHAEL KORESKY: Well, I feel that any great artist or filmmaker is worthy of serious consideration and serious study. And Terence Davies is amongst the great filmmakers — he’s certainly amongst my favorite filmmakers. And there hasn’t been an American book-length study of Terence Davies. Once I realized that, I also realized that I had to find the right approach, and say the right things, and find a hook, and be able to delve deeply into his oeuvre in a way that didn’t just seem like I was doing a linear critical reading, because he himself is not really a linear filmmaker or linear thinker — he doesn’t really see art that way. So the question then became why do his movies feel the way they do and why do they make me feel the way I do? I think that’s how most critics should look at movies: Why does this movie make me feel this way? And that’s when I came upon this central concept, about these paradoxes.
You acknowledge early on another book written on Terence Davies, I think by an English author?
Yes, by Wendy Everett. It’s the only other English-language study of his films.
Do you have a theory on why there hasn’t been a great deal of long-form writing on Davies’s films? Is it because their elements are in a lot of ways so contradictory?
It’s just a theory, but yes, I do: I think his movies, while I wouldn’t call them difficult compared to other esoteric art cinemas, in terms of what he is able to achieve emotionally, I do think they are pretty difficult. And I think people aren’t entirely sure how to discuss his movies. People don’t even know if they’re happy or sad. And that’s actually kind of a fascinating thing. And I don’t know if that’s a reason why there hasn’t been more serious consideration of his films, because of the strange emotional tenor of them, but I do think it’s one of the reasons why people aren’t sure what to say [about them]. So I thought if I can investigate why he seems to occupy this kind of in-between state, between joy and melancholy, between radical art and traditional social ideas, then I thought I could expand upon those over the course of a longer book, as opposed to a brief essay where I wouldn’t be able to really say much at all.
Can you talk a little about your personal experience with Davies’s films? So much of his filmography deals with notions of youth, memory, and nostalgia. Do you remember your first exposure to his work?
Yes. And appropriately it was when I was around the same age as the main character of The Long Day Closes (1992). The character is Bud, it’s supposed to be Terence Davies as a child — Bud was Davies’s nickname as a child — so it’s very autobiographical. And I had forgotten until recently that it was while I was watching Siskel & Ebert, as I did, back in 1992 — they were reviewing this movie, and they showed clips from it, and I remember this image of this boy looking out a window at this shirtless bricklayer. And one of them — I think it was Siskel — explained that it was a film about a young child coming of age in ’50s Liverpool and slowly realizing that he was gay — that even though the movie wasn’t really about that, it was the underlying theme of the film. And I remember being around that same age and something just struck within me, thinking that was really interesting — like, I had never heard about that before, and that’s fascinating and I’m kind of haunted by that, but I don’t know if I want to see that movie. So then years later [the VHS tape of the film] showed up at my local library, where I got a lot of my movies growing up, and I watched it and was blown away by it. I hadn’t seen anything like it before. And I wasn’t really at that point interested in the sexual aspects of it. I was more interested in the aesthetics. And the last shot of the film, which is just a four-minute shot of the sun going down, was, because I was so young, my first exposure to anything like durational cinema. It opened up a whole new world for me. And then the next instance was my freshman year “Intro to Film” course, taught by Richard Allen at NYU. One week he showed Distant Voices, Still Lives, and I put two and two together and realized this is the same director as The Long Day Closes. And by then I was […] not hooked, but fascinated. Since then, though, it’s just been this ever-growing love affair.
The book, while obviously personal in nature, features many references and citations from other film and art critics, academics, and theorists. How did you go about researching past studies that deal with or are thematically related to Davies’s work?
A lot of the theorists I’m dealing with in larger conceptual ways have nothing to do with Davies. But they helped me elucidate the things I saw in Davies. So in terms of just the regular bibliographic stuff, things that were actually written about Davies’s films, I just did a lot of research: found old articles, everything I could that’s been written on him — kind of the old-fashioned way. I mean, I do have access to a bunch of magazine archives at my job [at Criterion] and I found a lot of stuff through archives online. But in terms of the queer theorists and those who wrote about some of the vaguer concepts, about time in cinema, it was just done on pure instinct. In terms of Deleuze or recent works by Nick Davis or Matthew Tinkcom, those were still pretty much in the Davies wheelhouse, though they don’t really reference him at all. But in terms of the queer theorists, Heather Love and Elizabeth Freeman — Love had been recommended to me, Elizabeth Freeman I found on my own. And what they were writing about really applied to Davies in terms of this idea of time not being heteronormative and not being sanctioned by heteronormative functions. Reading them really helped me understand why it is that his films just don’t feel right — or don’t feel like this or that. And that in-betweenness is what I say is queer. And realizing that helped me place his film in a queer context. Because often his films, though they deal with gay themes, a lot of queer cinema critics don’t talk about him because he doesn’t talk about homosexuality with the usual rhetoric of pride. So he needed to be recouped in way.
You spend a great deal of the first portion of the book discussing T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, which you identity via Davies’s own acknowledgment as probably the most prominent influence on his art. When and how did this series of poems reveal itself to you as, if not a jumping off point, then as a major thematic bridge between Davies’s personal mentality and his artistic personality?
Well, he talks about them so much that there’s no way you can’t talk about them. I can’t take any credit for finding some amazing connection between The Four Quartets and his movies, because he talks about it constantly. He did a Reverse Shot video interview in which he pulled The Four Quartets out of his back pocket. He said, “I carry these with me everywhere I go.” He just needs to have them with him — they’re like his Bible. So it wasn’t any sort of amazing discovery on my part.
I think you even mention in the book that he has said that his first four movies can be thought of as a riff on The Four Quartets.
Yeah, he’s said that the Trilogy [a compilation of Davies’s first three short films] — which is important because people tend to take it out of the equation — plus Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, and The Neon Bible (1995) is his version of The Four Quartets. So I knew I had to read these, because they’re so essential to his idea of art in the world. So I read them quite a few times — and I had to because it’s poetry and it’s difficult and you really have to concentrate and focus, since certain sections of it are much harder than others — and the more I read them the more I realized that what I was reading are things that could have been in these movies. And the whole thing [in the poems] about the roses that have the sense of being “looked at,” [the passage about] disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose petals — I never read anywhere that the opening credit sequence of The Long Day Closes was connected to that. So I’m reading this and I look at the screen and I’m looking at a bowl of dusty rose petals, and I’m thinking this is not a coincidence. So while I don’t think I made any sort of brilliant connection, I was certainly making connections. Such as in Of Time and the City (2008), where there’s a whole passage taken from I think the second of the poems that’s about cities, and about houses rising and falling. So yes, the more you look, the more you see. And the more I read the poems, the more I saw Davies in them. And when I interviewed him for the book, I asked him if his perception of those poems has changed over the years, because they’re so much about aging, and there’s some amazing passages about how the idea of accruing knowledge — self-knowledge, knowledge about the world — is a false one, because the older you get the less you know. And he didn’t seem willing to talk about it on those terms, but he was very happy to talk about how he ages along with The Four Quartets.
The book is divided into four sections, four contradictions in formal and thematic terms which together define Davies’s greater aesthetic. Were these, as you define them, queering techniques, always apparent to you, or have they slowly revealed themselves to you as you’ve watched, or even researched, his films over the years?
The way I decided to define them only really came to me when I began to write the book. Like I said earlier, I think there’s this sense, and I think this is true of all serious film criticism, there’s a sense of trying to figure out why a movie make you feels the way that it does. And his films have always been mysterious to me in that way. I don’t always know why I’m feeling all these contradictory emotions while I’m watching his films. Like The Long Day Closes is a movie that has a lot of joy in it, but you leave feeling — not empty but […] hungry? Then the more I watched his other films, I started feeling the same way — I was trying to put words to those feelings. That’s how the book came about. The more I watched them, the more I really thought about them, and I tried to decide the best way of talking about all this. So I wanted to talk about his film in terms of four different categories, but when I started to break those categories down, I realized that all of those categories are informed by paradox. So if you want to talk about his films in terms of his life — so you have the autobiographical element, you have to deal with that because in the Trilogy,and Distant Voices, and The Long Day Closes he’s actually dealing with things that happened to him. But then at the same time, so much in them is completely made up — they’re like fantasies, or like nightmares — he fictionalizes his childhood and then imagines a terrible future. So you have to deal with autobiography, then you have to deal with aesthetics — obviously you have to deal with music and image. He’s such a finely detailed, meticulous filmmaker — every shot, every sound is there from basically the first script. And then you get to talk about the politics, because there’s been a lot of debate over the years about what he’s really trying to say. Why does he have this weird nostalgia for a time that was so oppressive in British society and in his childhood? And then you have to deal with the concepts of time, because all of his movies are about time. He talks about how he’s obsessed with time in cinema. So once I had those four categories set up, I thought more and realized that they’re all somewhere in-between: They’re between autography and fiction; in terms of aesthetics, between melancholy and joy; in terms of the politics, they’re between radical and traditional; and terms of time you have these portraits of figures completely frozen — I mean, Distant Voices, Still Lives, it’s right in the title. So it was all in these conflicting emotions. And I thought the book would be a good way to try and figure out why he makes movies this way, and if they do exist in this realm between two things, it would be a good way to then deal with the queerness, because he’s just outside of normal, just outside quote-unquote normal time and normal lives and normal aesthetics.
I’m particularly interested in a question you propose at one point, that of Davies’s filmography existing “at the point where radicalism and traditionalism intersect.” For example, his use of pre–rock ’n’ roll music on his soundtracks, his interest in family and childhood and the period piece, and, perhaps most intriguingly, his presentation of the queer experience in the stigmatized state of the time, a period of closeted, or at the very least shame-riddled, identity that Davies has never really recovered from. And he presents all this through progressive, very modern formal gestures. Is this one more reason, this idea that his films exist solely in the past tense, that his work has often eluded deep study even as it exists alongside contemporaries such as, say, Derek Jarman?
There’s something off-putting to people, especially in academic circles — which tend to be very liberal environments — when something has the whiff of conservatism or has an old fashioned air about it. And I think these movies very gingerly walk the line between these two modes. You always get the sense that you’re watching something very different cinematically — something radical in a way, the way sound and image are very dissonant, the way a lot of the usual narrative conventions and satisfactions are denied — but at the same time, they have this sense of wanting to return to a time and place [in which] he and a lot of other people were miserably unhappy. And I think that disturbs people. But that’s easy to dismiss one way or the other. Obviously I’m a huge fan of Davies and this book is meant to make people take him seriously, but I also didn’t want to dismiss either side or point of view. There have been some very well written and provocative pieces, especially ones written by Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope, about Davies’s weird traditionalism. But for me that just doesn’t preclude a rigorous wrestling with demons or with questions of social displacement. It’s really not one or the other.
You define it as an ever-present past. Elsewhere you reference Sianne Ngai’s notion of the “non-cathartic state,” which with regards to Davies you define as “films that neither wallow in the past nor completely embrace the promise of the future.” And Davies’s work certainly exists in a kind of liminal state. In your interview with Davies that concludes the book, he talks of his interest in non-linear storytelling, stating that “Because it’s elliptical it has ambiguity, and if we don’t have ambiguity, then there’s no real interest.” As viewers, then, do you think it’s necessary to identify these inherent ambiguities, particularly amidst his initial run of memory films, which don’t have the added audience benefit of source material, in order to completely engage with them? Or are these films that can work strictly on aesthetic terms?
I think it’s always fine for a viewer to take a film any way they want. I think these movies, for all their ambiguities, are not difficult in an emotional way. It may sound contradictory to what I’ve been saying, because there are all these warring emotions going on in these films. But just in terms of a general sense of the kinds of lives you’re watching, they’re pretty accessible. I think that’s what’s exciting about them, in a way. Certainly in terms of the kinds of art cinema that I love, his movies are ones I feel I can recommend to the casual moviegoer. Whereas I can’t always recommend a Kiarostami film, or Tsai Ming-liang, or Hou Hsiao-hsien — directors I’m particularly fond of who deal with similar things.
Would it then be easier to recommend, say, The Deep Blue Sea (2011) or one of his adaptations before his memory films?
If I was talking to a first-time Davies viewer I might even recommend moving backwards — backwards in time. I know people who for them The Deep Sea Blue was their first Davies film — because it was recent, and it was in theaters, and because he doesn’t make that many films. But I can actually see ending on the Trilogy, even though those are his first three shorts, and his most personal and most upsetting and starkest and unforgiving and bleak — and maybe even with everything he’s done after, the most radical. I think you can get there either way, but I don’t think you need to move chronologically through his films. I think the ambiguities are just things you feel. They’re not academic. I know people who have seen his films on a more casual level and they just enjoy them. The House of Mirth especially is a film you can just take apart and analyze on so many formal levels, but it’s just great storytelling more than anything else.
One of the most informative sections of the book, “The Elation of Melancholy,” deals with the visual and aural properties and influences of Davies’s filmmaking. What was the process of identifying the bygone music cues and painterly influences of his work like? This seems like one of the more potentially intensive academic aspects of researching for a book such as this.
As far as the music, it was really just, “I need to find out what these pieces are, they’re so crucial to the narrative and aesthetic fabric of the movies.” And I knew that he has particular fondness for certain composers and songs and standards. So that was really just identifying them and how he utilized them. The painting was more me, because Davies never identifies particular influences in that way. But for a very long time I watched shots, from The Long Day Closes especially, and I see very Vermeer lighting. And he says he loves Vermeer. So I started thinking of his movies in terms of certain eras of painting and art. In one interview about The House of Mirth, he said he was thinking about John Singer Sargent paintings, so then I started doing research on him, trying to identify which paintings may have influenced him. So that was all my idea, just to see if I could create for the reader some sort of literal connection to a tradition.
It’s not initially acknowledged, but there’s a kind of subheading to the book titled “Bathed in the Fading Light,” which towards the close you reveal as part of a quote by Elizabeth Freeman wherein she defines “queer time,” an idea you state “eloquently illustrates the emotional tenor and political resonance of Davies’s project.” What do you think the political implications of Davies’s cinema are in a modern context? He’s currently completing his newest feature, but again with a gap of many years between projects. Are these films that can continue to not only develop a continuum between social and cinematic eras, but posit inquiries and ideas applicable to today’s queer generation?
That’s a tough question because he’s so not conscious of today. I think one of the implied points of the book is that these ideas do have resonance if we choose to look and if we choose to engage with them. He certainly would never need that, desire that, admit that. He’s not interested in creating a dialogue with the present, necessarily — which is another reason why some people might not be interested in watching his movies or reading about them. But yes, I think it’s very important for people to remember that the struggles of any sort of civil rights movement don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen because of decades of prior struggle. And he might be out of date in that way because he doesn’t embrace his homosexuality. He’s often said that he’s ashamed of it. And therefore people maybe don’t want to deal with him. Because he’s not speaking in this way that we’re used to our artists speaking. But it’s really important to listen to artists like that, and to engage with their art. And to think that it’s — not only is it a recent past, where there was such oppression, but that someone could be so deeply ashamed of who they are. But it’s still happening everywhere. We’re only talking about the Western world. There are people so ashamed of who they are that they deny it their whole lives. So it’s strange to dismiss an artist’s work because it doesn’t square with your view of what art is supposed to be. So yes, I think there’s a lot of resonance and I think we need to engage with those voices. Without making him sound stodgy — I think everything he says is crucial and beautiful. And he’s being honest to himself. He’s being completely true. This is his life. And his art reflects that struggle.