Michael Koresky is staff writer and associate editor at The Criterion Collection and cofounder of the online film magazine Reverse Shot. He recently answered some questions about his book in the Contemporary Film Directors Series, Terence Davies.
Q: Davies has been called the most important British filmmaker of his generation. What is not commonly understood about his impact in film?
Michael Koresky: Well, I think it’s largely in the United States that he’s not widely understood or appreciated. For instance, Terence Davies’s three most important, most deeply personal films—The Terence Davies Trilogy, Distant Voices/Still Lives, and The Long Day Closes—have long been unavailable here at all, with only Long Day Closes being released on DVD for the first time, from the Criterion Collection, earlier this year. Because he’s been so underseen, and admired by only a handful of American cinephiles, it might be surprising to note that he is so immensely respected in the United Kingdom. For instance, in a recent poll in the major British film magazine Time Out, incorporating critics, filmmakers, journalists, and actors, Distant Voices/Still Lives was named the third greatest British film of all time! This was below only Don’t Look Now and The Third Man, illustrious company indeed. So his films do speak to people on a profound level. Once seen they are not forgotten, both because they’re so radically structured and shot and because they dare to go to some frighteningly personal depths most other filmmakers or artists of any kind wouldn’t even dare go.
Q: How does Davies’s work thrive on contradictions?
Koresky: In writing this book I tried to figure out just how Davies’s films create a particular and peculiar emotional response in me. What they do is hard to put into words, because they’re not for the most part depressing films per se, even though they’re immensely sad, and I often leave his films feeling strangely elated even though I’ve been subjected to some dark, gloomy content. So I realized that to best try to understand just what it is they accomplish, I had to wrestle with the contradictions at the films’ centers. I ended up structuring the book around these ideas: that they are autobiographical yet fictional, even sometimes dreamlike and fantastical; that they are across-the-board essentially melancholy yet that in their form they produce a sense of artistic, even musical elation; that they traffic in a sort of nostalgia for a time gone by (specifically the 1950s of his Liverpool childhood), but that they also reject that period as heinously conservative and restrictive; and that they are obsessed with the forward march and inexorability of time, yet they are all about stasis, of people caught in emotional and sometimes literal freeze frames. These all seemed to be essential things to investigate about an artist who is himself something of a contradiction: an out gay man who nevertheless refuses to accept his homosexuality as anything other than a negative, for the emotional havoc he claims it has wrought on his life.
Q: Davies seems to draw upon his childhood in his films. Is there a nostalgia factor in his work?
Koresky: Certainly, as noted above, there seems to be a certain nostalgia inherent in his work. And when he talks about his 1950s youth, and especially his sisters and brothers and mother, and neighbors, and holidays, and his sisters’ makeup routines, and the textures and sights and smells of his home, he just lights up like a Christmas tree. Yet because his father—who died when he was seven—was psychotically abusive, he also looks back on these times with terror. This complicated nostalgia has proven to be the most controversial aspect of his films, especially among queer scholars who don’t appreciate anything resembling rose-tinged glasses when it comes to restrictive, homophobic years. But these restrictions are so caught up with Davies’s sense of youthful abandon—before the terrors of puberty set it—that it makes sense he would look at it all with a certain sense of nostalgia. It’s perhaps one of the sadnesses of his life, in fact, and which makes his films so poignant: he longs for the simplicity of a time he knows was difficult and scary.
Q: How does Davies reckon with his identity as a gay man in his films?
Koresky: Over the course of the short films that comprise his trilogy—Childhood, Madonna and Child, Death and Transfiguration—Davies made an alternate-reality autobiography, which began with a close approximation of his childhood in Liverpool, including the death of his abusive father, the tyranny of school bullies, the love of his mother, continued on to show his miserable work as a clerk. In real life, Davies left this job and became, of course, a filmmaker and writer. In the film, he supposes what would have happened if he had no artistic outlet, and he stays in his miserable job for decades, and then in the last part dies alone in a nursing home. All of this is tied to his main character’s and thus his identity as a gay man, which he sees, in an old-fashioned way, as a curse of loneliness. Gay sex is viewed as illicit. Even when a grown man, the character sneaks out in the middle of the night from his mother’s home to engage in sexual activities with men in shadowy bars and bathrooms and corners. The character’s sexual taste runs to the sadomasochistic, also, which further marginalizes him in his own eyes. Gay desire is seen as constantly thwarted and loveless and unsatisfying. It’s what makes Davies an unfashionable figure in queer studies circles. The Long Day Closes is also about gayness, in that it shows a young boy’s sexual awakening, if subtly. Less dark than the Trilogy, but equally sad, it presents a boy’s life from the perspective of a grown man who knows that boy will never marry or fall in love.
Q: For those who are unfamiliar with Davies’s ouevre, what is the film you’d recommend as the first step into appreciating his work?
Koresky: I would always recommend the one-two punch of Distant Voices/Still Lives and The Long Day Closes to begin, since they’re so personal and they express so much of what he tries to put into all his work. Yet I know many people who began with his most recent, The Deep Blue Sea, a Terence Rattigan adaptation, and then worked their way back, and this seems to be fruitful as well. There’s a distinct style that runs through all his films, so that even those that seem so far afield from his own experience, like the American-set The House of Mirth and The Neon Bible, seem to emanate from the same artistic consciousness. Really, you could start anywhere and you’d be equally struck by his immense cinematic brilliance—his pacing, his compositions, his direction of actors. It’s a singular vision.