[7 March 2014]
“The young man’s mind was carried away by his growing passion for dreams. One looking at him would not have thought him particularly sharp. With the recollection of little things occupying his mind he closed his eyes and leaned back in the car seat. He stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out of the car window the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.”
When watching Terence Davies‘s most recent film, The Deep Blue Sea, one might easily question the point of 3-D technology. In that film, an adaptation of a classic stage play starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, the question is prompted by a series of elegant crane shots navigating the streets around Hester’s flat, one of which ends the film on an image of post-WWII destruction.
It’s a seemingly found object that appears wondrous and strange, as Davies seems most often concerned with the familiar and even banal. Davies’s second film, The Long Day Closes, has inspired both awe and annoyed walkouts at its extended shot of light playing over a carpet, suggesting the passage of a lazy afternoon and the beginnings of countless daydreams.
There are still more gliding, swooping shots in The Long Day Closes, camera movements that serve to open up the spaces which are most often presented in simple, serene horizontal tracking shots. Most of all, the film is about the construction of new spaces through memory, as in a series of lateral overhead shots connected by dissolves that seem to create one seamless corridor out of the street, the cinema, the church, and the school out of the memories of its young protagonist, Bud, a clear stand-in for the boy Davies once was.
You don’t, of course, have to know anything about the boy or the man Davies to enjoy The Long Day Closes, or to see the qualities that elevate it to one of the greatest films about memory and childhood. A few details are given about Bud’s personality. He is quiet, except in the presence of his sisters. He is shy and often enjoys going to the movies, where he sometimes waits outside for a stranger to pay his way. He is struggling to reconcile emerging homosexual thoughts and desires with his Catholic upbringing. And he is 11 years old and getting older, and what seem now to be the simple facts of his life will soon start to look like problems and obstacles in the way of adult happiness.
Part of what makes The Long Day Closes so difficult to discuss without lapsing into hyperbole is its perplexing singularity: it feels at once as though Davies has made the first feature film and also the last, despite the prominence of moviegoing as a consistent theme and the soundtrack’s peppering of dialogue tracks from other films. The Long Day Closes follows no rules of how a picture in the Western canon should progress. It neither contains a visible three-act structure nor presents an alternative pattern of narrative order; it unfolds at its own pace, moving between the street, the church, the cinema, and the school without imposing anything more than the loose associative connection of memory between these locations.
In a film seemingly designed to be composed only of luminous, immediately memorable shots, one stands out in my mind: a crane shot gliding slowly over a crowd of small families in the streets outside Bud’s home, circled up and holding hands as they sing “Auld Lang Syne” to ring in the new year (Between this film and Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives, the people of Liverpool seem to be perpetually in a state of song, occupants of rich paintings in motion rather than characters with detectable interior lives).
Bud is not immediately visible within this shot. In fact, because he is so much smaller than his older siblings, it takes a moment or two for the eye to register him even after the camera has settled on his family in the foreground of the image, hands intertwined.
Personal as the film is, Bud doesn’t always occupy center stage in his own memories. Some scenes are recollections of a moment in which the fact of his presence remains an afterthought, the sense memory taking precedence over his own actions and presence. This is how Davies draws his audience into the film: by not asking us to follow Bud’s own thoughts closely and by largely eliminating any dramatic arc, he allows his young surrogate to be not only a figurehead for an expedition into his own memories but a guiding presence for the audience’s own reactions to the image.
For The Long Day Closes does not care to make statements on its themes, explicitly or otherwise. The closest Davies comes to a thesis statement is a prankish interpolation of voiceover from the comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets during the overhead shot of Catholic Mass: religion hardly being the film’s central focus.
Nor, as that scene demonstrates, is Davies concerned with giving nuance or the appearance of evenhandedness to his evocation of childhood difficulties and trauma. He doesn’t go out of his way to villainize the stern schoolteacher or headmaster, but neither are they ever presented as anything but monolithic figures of scary authority out to ruin Bud’s mood.
The most striking of Davies’s unvarnished recollections sees Bud’s older crush reappearing as a hallucination of the crucified Christ, shouting suddenly and frightening the boy into a stammering prayer for forgiveness. Bad thought, prayer, bad thought, prayer. This is a child’s understanding of religion—but nothing more sophisticated or bitter than that.
Above all, The Long Day Closes presents Bud’s memories as constantly in motion, both transient and impenetrable, ushering him gently yet firmly onward and outward. In the film’s final, utterly dreamlike scene, he vanishes into an inexplicable, dark void in the cellar, the voice of Orson Welles booming around him as the camera meanders away to look at the rubbish and rubble.
Bud has moved on and the scenes that remain offer no clarity or solutions to the difficulties of encroaching maturity. The comfort that remains after the serene balm of the final shot is really an extratextual one: the little boy from Liverpool who loved movies grew up to make this film. We must imagine Bud happy.
Criterion’s Blu-ray restoration of The Long Day Closes renders all its exquisite sepia compositions as natural and luminous as they appeared in 35mm. A worthy assemblage of extras includes a both reverent and enthusiastic commentary from cinematographer Michael Coulter and Davies himself, the latter particularly keen to give Coulter his due for outstanding manipulations of light and shadow as well as to gush over the dozens of films quoted on the soundtrack.
Davies authority Michael Koresky of Reverse Shot speaks lovingly and thoughtfully of a film and filmmaker he clearly holds dear in his valuable booklet essay. More interviews with crew and an episode of The South Bank Show on which Davies appears to promote the film round out the package, an essential purchase for those who do and for those who have yet to love the cinema of Terence Davies.