Is Terrence Davies the greatest living director that no one talks about? There, got your attention. This past weekend, demurely tucked away amidst the current pre-Alexanderplatz Fassbinder hoopla and the post-Imamura blow out of New York film culture, was one of the finest films of the past twenty (or whatever arbitrary number you care to add…thirty? forty?) years, Davies’s The Long Day Closes. A continuation of sorts of Davies’s acclaimed, and still non-DVD’d, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1987), which recounted the director’s traumatic remembrances of his abusive father as a period songbook of sorts, The Long Day Closes focuses exclusively on the relationship between mother and son, not quite dramatized as a series of images and whispers.
Just when you thought you’d seen all this stuff before (dramas of working-class postwar Liverpool, concerning little boys who escape from reality to the cathedral-like confines of the cinema…), Davies transforms rote movie-honed pathos into something that nearly bursts with invention and integrity. Nostalgia, undeniably. Family, cinema, music, holidays, snowfalls, school bullies? For sure. Yet it isn’t some simple “trip into the past”—it may be closer in tone to Woody Allen’s Radio Days than something like Cinema Paradiso, yet it’s more liminal and less distanced than either. The Long Day Closes is immersive, a plunge into the lingering terrors of prepubescent sexuality and the mysterious ways in which memory is concerned more with indefinable rushes of feeling than events. Threadbare as the narrative seems, Davies packs more experience in this film’s short 90 minutes than most directors do with epics of belt-widening girth.
There are seemingly no traditional transitions in the film; from scene to scene, using elegant dissolves or gorgeously distilled graphic matches, it flows from one moment to the next with intuitive nonchalance. There are no scenes, just perceptions; traces and moods rather than defining happenstance. Psychological makeup isn’t established, it’s already a given: at the film’s outset the director’s young surrogate (Leigh McCormack) is seen curiously scoping out a bit of shirtless male musculature from his window with a mix of shame and wonder, the same two emotions he will feel when sneaking peeks at those other mysteries of childhood—cinema, the church. Davies brilliantly uses McCormack as his vessel: he’s not “pensive,” not a passive observer of his family and friends so much as a slowly forming moral being; the child’s pursed lips and eagle stare don’t convey “innocence” (as in other, thuddingly banal portraits of children escaping into dreams, such as, I have to say it, Pan’s Labyrinth) but rather an actual absorbent intellect. Imagine that: kids with the capability of judgment! Davies lets his actor’s face convey this, relegating his dialogue to simple asides and repetitions, like his occasionally asking his mum for movie money.
And such lovingly infrequent dialogue—the most memorable in the film being lines from other films draped across the soundtrack, as they echo in the boy’s mind, the most exquisitely rendered being a snatch of exchange between Judy Garland and Tom Drake from Meet Me in St. Louis, played while he spies his older brother romantically commingling with a girlfriend in glass silhouette behind the front door. (There’s also some Magnificent Ambersons thrown in there, with Orson Welles’s honey-acid narration incongruously telling us of George’s comeuppance—another example of a classical family narrative providing counterpoint.) Even more beguiling are the moments in which Davies abstracts the solitude of childhood to minute drifts across patterned rugs or wallpaper, watching and waiting for the light cast by a window to change with the passing of a cloud, or, in the memorably foreboding opening, an extended glide (heavenly but resolutely earthbound) across a rain-swept street and into an alleyway, bereft of people but pregnant with time and memory.
Anyone who’s seen Davies’s The House of Mirth knows that his dreamlike and ethereal approach to memory is simply a mask for the stuff of true flesh and blood. Ultimately, when Mirth’s Lily Bart succumbs to the oppressive realities of the falsely genteel New York social codes that she had previously floated upon without care or consequence, the effect is devastating, as if a hole had opened up in the earth and swallowed her. Similarly, young McCormack is completely enveloped in darkness by film’s end (an escape? Not so fast, Guillermo Del Toro….), though the future here is undefined. Like many a David Lynch character, he wanders into an open doorway and disappears into a vapor, doomed (blessed?) to become a witness to his own memories played up on a silver screen, whose sun is slowly, slowly fading out.