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
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.