Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Terence Davies' Sound Pictures

Between the Ears, the Saturday evening ‘radiophonic’ programme on BBC radio 3, this week broadcast Intensive Care, Terence Davies’ memoir of his relationship with his mother. The title bears a double meaning, taking in both its common medical usage, as Davies observes his mother decline and progress towards death, and more centrally, the intensive care which she had offered him throughout his life, and which had been a stable and constant centre of love and support for him. It was a love and care which he tried to reciprocate, but always with the feeling that he was somehow letting her down. He is very sensitive to perceived rejection, and harsh words and small cruelties affect him deeply. Such blows are harboured and dwelt upon, seen as signs of a hostile vindictiveness which exists in the world beyond the calm acceptance of his mother’s presence. He relates an encounter with a young drama student, who’s clearly taken a dislike to him and attempted to infect others with her disdain. With a disingenuous preface she spitefully observes, in front of the whole class, ‘I don’t mean to be nasty, but you’re a real mother’s boy, aren’t you?’ Hurt by the hateful and accusatory tone, and the implication of abnormality behind the attack, he replies ‘yes, I love my mother very much’. This radio piece is an expression of that love. It covers ground touched upon in the autobiographical matter of his first two feature length films, Distant Voices and Still Lives and The Long Day Closes; but this is the heart’s blood, the exposure of painful memories undisguised by the distancing devices of art. It is a love letter, a love poem and a love song to the love of his life.

Lost in memories - The Long Day Closes
Davies’ play (for want of a better word) begins with the faint ghost of Kurt Weill’s September Song emerging from a sea of static, as if a wireless is just warming up. This could also represent the fog of clouded memory slowly clearing to reveal a clear and sharp picture. The bleeps and crackles in the background could either be the sound of radio frequencies oscillating as the station wavers in its uncertainly tuned station, or they could be the noises made by intensive care machinery as it labours to preserve a life and electronically record its waning pulse. These bleeps also later register as the sound of sonar signals, measuring out the depths of feelings and emotions which surge beneath the surface, never directly expressed but felt nevertheless. There is the mournful call of whales at one point, too, further suggesting deeps well below the shallows of unreflective consciousness, diving down into the levels in which the reveries of associative memory flash freely by.

Ecstatic carpet
As in Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, as well as the poetic documentary Time and the City, the specificity of memory, of a particular moment recalled, is bound up with music, and especially song. Davies delights in telling us that his mother was born in the same year as Shostakovich (1906), a piece of synchronicity which highlights his ineluctable association of her with music, her life the songs she sings. Classical music and the popular songs from the shows and movies which his family used to sing are the twin poles of the soundtrack to Davies’ memory, and may indeed be used as a means of invocation. Nothing conjures up the flavour and scent of the past like a familiar piece of music which has accompanied you through the years. Music finds a direct path to the emotions and inexpressible sensations connected with time and place which might otherwise have evaporated, gone in the air (to borrow Eric Dolphy’s quote about music). This is exemplified in a pure and almost abstract form in a scene from The Long Day Closes in which the changing pattern of light wavering over the design on a front room carpet is accompanied by the evocative opening bars of George Butterworth’s Banks of Green Willow, perfectly expressing the ache of memory, of a moment of reverie recalled, the timeless drift of a childhood afternoon which seemed like it was a slice of eternity, but which was destined to pass forever out of reach. The music can awaken a trace remembrance of that heightened state, however. I find this scene enormously affecting; it seems to say so much about how memory works, and the strange mix of melancholy and exhilaration which it can simultaneously encompass. As Davies’ says in this play, ‘it is the small things which hold the weight of memory’. Others found this scene merely dull, and couldn’t understand why they were being asked to stare at a piece of carpet.

Comforting song - The Long Day Closes
The songs in Intensive Care have less of the feeling of communal belonging, of the expressive exuberance of the pub or front room singalong which is found in Distant Voices, Still Lives or The Long Day Closes. They are more melancholy, imbued with a lonely, expressionist echo. They are the songs which Davies’ mother sang to herself (here voiced beautifully by Lorraine Ashbourne) once the family gatherings had dwindled into occasional visits. Remembrances of family Christmas get-togethers, with the bustle and warm-hearted chaos which imbued the season with such a sense of magic, fade into Davies’ bitter recollection of the time when it had all been reduced to himself, on holiday from drama college, and his mother, everyone else having retreated into their own family homes. These songs sound like hauntings, and they expose a vein of guilt which runs through Davies’ memories, the sense that he left his mother behind as he went out into the world, and never quite did enough to repay her love. His mother’s singing of ‘If you were the only girl in the world’, its reverb suggesting empty space, expresses the loneliness to which he feared he had left her. She keeps singing the old songs, her voice growing steadily weaker, until finally she stops. ‘I don’t sing anymore’, she says, and this declaration marks some sort of ending, a diminution of spirit.

Intensive Care obviously lacks the visual element of Davies’ films, and it is perhaps to compensate for this that there is much poetry read throughout. Davies has a wonderful voice (inexplicably mocked by the reviewers, Mark Kermode excepted, on the BBC Late Review show, who seemed to be in complete ignorance of his work in general) and might perhaps consider a secondary career recording readings of English poetry for audiobooks. Poetry obviously means a great deal to him, and I recall from an interview that he writes it himself. It would be nice to think that this might one day see publication. He remembers how his favourite class at drama school was the weekly poetry reading. We hear the cheeky delight with which he reads John Betjeman’s Hunter Trials, which seems to be something of a party piece. He recited it from memory at the end of a NFT interview which we went to see a few years ago. He also reads WH Auden’s Tell Me The Truth About Love and Tennyson’s Tears, Idle Tears, and part of Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman, amongst others, all of which serve as an expression of what he is talking about or feeling at the time. He reads poems at the funerals of both his brother Tony (Christina Rossetti’s Remember) and his mother (John Byrne Leicester Warren’s A Song of Dust), finding within them the means with which to express the intensity of his feelings. The poetry readings focus on the richness of language, and are perfect for the radio. They both compensate for the lack of images and help to conjure them in the mind. They are the equivalent of the visual poetry of Davies’ films, and similarly combine with music to create their emotional effect. It is perhaps with this in mind that Davies chooses to read a poem directly influenced by listening to a piece of music, Siegfried Sassoon’s Concert Interpretation (Le Sacre du Printemps). This is obviously a good excuse to play the opening stirrings of Stravinsky’s piece, before its violent eruption. This being the poem which Davies’ read out in his entrance exam for drama school, and which he believes to have been the performance which got him in, it also marks a rebirth for him, the coming of spring.

Davies twice refers to having been delivered, saved from ‘the gradual death of book-keeping’, firstly by his acceptance into drama college and later (having lapsed once more into that gradual death) into film school. There is a sense that art is absolutely essential to him, a means through which he can order and define lost moments of happiness (and terror) and thereby capture some of the essence of the lost eden which is steadily receding into the past. Through art he can stave off his tendency towards despair and self-torment (partly by voicing it). It is in film that he discovers the true realisation of what he wants to do. It’s not an easy process, however, and he describes the making of his first film Childhood (the first of what came to be known as the Terence Davies Trilogy), shot from his own script when he was still at drama school, as ‘the worst 18 months of my adult life’. The crew are openly contemptuous of his ideas for what is supposed to be his picture and snobbishly regard him as an amateur with no knowledge of film technique. When he reaches film school, he finally finds a sympathetic and intellectually invigorating environment in which he feels entirely at home. He talks of his fascination for ‘what is implied beyond the frame’ and enthuses about the lectures given, during his visit, by Alexander Mackendrick, who tells the students to ‘not just look, but see’. But always there is the guilt of leaving his mother, and his reminiscences of her become more like snapshots in which he notices her ‘aging at each visit’.

Religious observance - The Long Day Closes
Where Davies has his art, his mother has religion, the Catholicism in which young Terence was raised, but which he has definitively rejected; or, it might be more accurate to say, given its condemnation of homosexuality as ‘evil’, has rejected him. He cheekily remarks, when talking about his sense of happiness at film school, that ‘even though he doesn’t exist, God is good’. The church remains a constant source of comfort and company in his mother’s life, however. The Sacred Heart is ‘two buses and a walk away’, but she always attends. Davies may have rejected religion, but he retains traces of his upbringing in his language and the way in which he divines an absolute essence of goodness or wickedness in people. Whilst some are embodiments of implacable hostile and vindictiveness beyond understanding, he finds in others an inherent benevolence which is the spark of divinity. Ethel, his mother’s neighbour in the sheltered home to which she moves, is ‘the soul of goodness’. His mother, after all, is a very Marian figure to him, the vessel for the suffering and emotional hurt which he feels. She absorbs her own suffering (a succession of pregnancies and physical abuse, as he puts it) without complaint, and is the source of enduring and unconditional love. He is furious at the priest who tries to prevent him from reading a poem at her funeral, and then insists on his reading from Revelation first, but this is a disgust at dogma and those who are its purveyors rather than the religious spirit in general, with which his mother was evidently imbued. This play is his icon of her, an act of devotion and worship.

At rest - Distant Voices, Still Lives
The play ends with his mother’s funeral, with bleak winds blowing in the background, and with Davies’ sense of desolation at being parted from her forever. It is an inevitably downbeat ending (what biography ends otherwise?), and it is certainly true that Davies doesn’t shy away from voicing despair, here and elsewhere. The Trilogy has more than its share of bleak moments, although it is, in the end, enormously affecting rather than depressing. The final scene of Death and Transfiguration, with Wilfred Brambell (what a heroically brave performance) reaching towards the light is an extraordinarily powerful (and religiose) concluding image. The exhilaration and passion which are ever present in his voice belie the self-lacerating comments and tendency to dwell upon the hurts of the past which characterise his work (and his interviews). In the NFT interview which we went to see, he reduced the audience to helpless laughter, just as the film screened beforehand, Distant Voices, Still Lives, had reduced them to tears. No one can hear him enthusing about Singing In The Rain (‘sheer perfection’ as he breathlessly extols) without immediately wanting to go out and see it again (or even better, for the first time). Here, after moments of joy, excitement or simple, ordinary, everyday happiness, we are left with Davies’ elegy to the love of his life. He laments that there will no longer be a ‘you and I’, and the phrase is repeated until the final I is choked off with a sob, an expression of an inconsolable sadness which will never be assuaged, and which memory will only serve to rekindle. The lonely echo of a final song, Me and My Shadow, fades once more into the fog of radio static, or the amplified pulse and hum of mechanically sustained life, and memory – Intensive Care.

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