Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - September 2000
A Corner in Wheat, and
Selected Biograph Shorts
American Dream (1990)
Bitter Rice
Black Orpheus
Gaslight (1944)
42nd Street

All the Lonely People
Wonderland
An Affair of Love
Alice and Martin

Two-Lane Blacktop

It's a Living
Human Resources
Not One Less

 


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DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES
(Terence Davies, 1988).

Actual events only take place once. But our memories of them last a lifetime, and take on a curious form of their own. Terence Davies' film, about a working class family in postwar Liverpool, models itself on the forms of heightened memory, like flashes of light in darkness, and the effect is so poignant and haunting that it hurts.

The first half, "Distant Voices," moves back and forth in time, with the death of the father (Pete Postlethwaite) as the axis of memory. He was a drunken tyrant who battered his wife (sad-eyed Freda Dowie) and terrorized his children with his unpredictable rage. Daughters Eileen (Angela Walsh) and Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), and son Tony (Dean Williams) navigate through this chaos by sticking together. The film's shades of golden light and dark browns are like old photographs. Sometimes Davies puts the family in a straight line across the frame, facing the camera to accentuate the impression of fragile recovered memory. His most striking technique, however - the backbone of the film - is the use of popular song from the late 40s and early 50s to evoke feeling. Singing is a way for the children to keep their sense of life together in the face of suffering, to express hope, sadness, joy, fun, love, longing and grief.

The second half - "Still Lives" - follows the family's fortune after the death of the father. Eileen marries a man who wants to have her all to himself and shut her away from the world. Maisie's match seems happier, but Tony struggles without direction to fill a void inside of him. The contradictions of living in the shadow of family trauma, and yet still loving and cherishing the family, are expressed even more forcefully in songs. Some of the best sequences in the film take place in a pub where the family and in-laws gather to talk and sing. Walsh's beautiful voice is sad and touching, and her bond with her sister and her saucy friend Micky (Debi Jones) become the soul of the movie.

Davies doesn't scapegoat anybody, even the father, whose moments of tenderness deepen the sense of tragedy. This was what it was, the film seems to say, and the best we can do is survive it without losing our hearts. In less than ninety minutes, Distant Voices, Still Lives embodies the memories of a lifetime in snatches of song, glimpses of light.

DUST IN THE WIND
(Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1986).

This subtle and delicately wrought film is one of those gems that reveals layers of emotion and meaning beneath a deceptively simple surface. It concerns a young man and woman, sweethearts since childhood, who live with their families in a rural town in Taiwan. The boy, dissatisfied with the constrictions of his environment, decides to go to Taipei to make a living. The girl follows him. Things don't go as well as they planned, they return, and then the boy tries to make a go of it by himself, with the idea that she will join him later.

Hou has an eye on the details of everyday life. Rather than focus in on his characters, he places them in the context of a larger environment. The way he frames people, often in longshot, conveys the young couple's loneliness while confronted with the demands of the outer world. Their feelings are muted, but the film makes you aware of emotions through the characters' difficulties in managing and expressing them. One of the picture's remarkable qualities is that it conveys a real sense of the stream of time - it even uses the theme of people watching movies, in order to contrast fiction with the events of life, which don't have beginnings and endings the way a film does.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien has gained wide critical acclaim, but almost no distribution in the west. On the evidence of this film alone, I consider him a master. The picture contains a short dream sequence that is startling in its naturalness and simplicity, and at the same time dramatically powerful and believable as a dream. And after so much contained feeling, so much endurance and disappointment, the emotional climax of the story is nothing less than devastating. Dust in the Wind is as close to a perfectly realized work of art I have seen on film.

THE KISS (Jacques Feyder, 1929).

MGM's last silent film was, fittingly, a starring vehicle for one of the silent era's greatest actresses, Greta Garbo. Here she plays a woman who, although unhappily married to a failing businessman, renounces her love for a lawyer (Conrad Nagel) for the sake of propriety. But when she innocently humors the mad crush of a young man (Lew Ayres) she ends up inviting disaster. The story is pure melodrama, and there's nothing in it to make you think very hard, but taken on its own terms it's rather engrossing and well done. The main reason it works is, of course, Garbo herself. After four years in Hollywood she had honed her skills way beyond her earlier "vamp" roles. In The Kiss she never overplays, but projects warmth and feeling and intelligence with the smallest gestures and expressions. Her bemused smile alone, particularly in her scenes with Ayres, combines indulgence, boredom, compassion, and a hopeless longing for something more. To watch her in The Kiss, photographed as always by William H. Daniels, is to understand why she mesmerized audiences in her silent films. A lot of silent era actors tried to gesticulate their roles. Garbo could speak with her eyes.

Feyder, one of the more distinguished French directors, was never comfortable in Hollywood, and would eventually return home disillusioned. This script, with its courtroom finale, is no masterpiece, although it shows a more sophisticated attitude towards infidelity than most American pictures of that time. But Feyder's direction is crisp, the pacing is just right, and Garbo is magnificent. The Kiss might just be the ideal introduction for someone interested in her work.

GUNGA DIN (George Stevens, 1939).

We may think the adventure film has come a long way in the last sixty years, but there isn't much out there that can get your pulse racing like this classic RKO film. The story is a bunch of nonsense about three rough-and-tumble English officers in India (Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) spearheading the fight against a vicious cult called the "Thuggees" who are inciting a mass uprising against British rule. Or something like that. Of course nobody in Hollywood wondered what the hell the English were doing in India,.or if they had a right to be there. The colonial assumptions and stereotypes, right down to the heroic lapdog of a title character played by Sam Jaffe, are so thick you can almost cut them with a knife. So what else is new? If you can get past all that, you're left with a rousing action film in the old style, with some great swashbuckler scenes and an enjoyable, humorous chemistry between the three stars. Grant was originally offered the Fairbanks role, the officer who wants to quit the service and marry Joan Fontaine, but he insisted on playing the rascal instead, and it was definitely the right choice. Stevens has a sure hand, and the whole thing has an immensely enjoyable Saturday afternoon matinee kind of feeling to it. It was something of a gamble for RKO - the most expensive film they ever did - but it was a smash hit and kept that always precarious studio afloat for awhile until the next crisis.

Chris Dashiell