Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Terence Davies' Land of the Dead

This was written for the German film magazine Cargo. It appeared in Issue #15 (published September 5th, 2012) under the title "Land der Toten: Über Terence Davies und seinen neuen Film 'The Deep Blue Sea.'" What follows is the original English version of the text. 
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Designed in various shades of lamplight, soap scum, and cigarette ash—with contrapuntal dashes of lilac, powder blue, and crabshell red—Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea is one bleak, glum-looking movie. Every interior is underlit, and the actors, their faces grayish-pale, often resemble corpses. In short, the world of The Deep Blue Sea is a dead world—and yet, it's a dead world that moves, breathes, and, above all, sings.

This contradiction is the essence of Davies' style. The eccentric English filmmaker has never made a feature that was set past the 1950s; all but one of his films—The House of Mirth (2000), set in the 1890s—take place in a mid-century limbo, a world drawn partly from childhood memories (Davies was born in 1945) and partly from the literature of the period (The Deep Blue Sea itself is adapted from a 1952 play), haunted by the specter of harsh wartime life, unaware of its own coming obsolescence. It is a period bookended by death: World War II (the events of which are felt—but remain largely unseen—in almost all of Davies' films) on one end, and the disappearance of a certain kind of culture on the other. It goes without saying that the majority of Davies' characters, being adults in the 1940s and 1950s, would be dead by now. Again: a dead world.

Considering Davies' obsession with the popular music, clothing, social mores, and speech patterns of his favorite era, one of the most immediately striking things about The Deep Blue Sea—and all of Davies' films—is how little it resembles the cinema of the period. Sure, there's a certain Anglo-American studio classicism to the film's use of dissolves and visual shorthand, and to the complicated crane shots which open and close the movie—slow, grand movements of the camera that suggest a character emerging from and, later, receding into the London cityscape. Davies' sense of construction, however, is anything but classical. Instead of a scene-based structure that emphasizes development and an action-based narrative, Davies works in chunks of time, drawn-out moments whose purpose isn't immediately clear and which sometimes begin in media res. His method of piecing a movie together, which favors texture over shape, results in occasionally wonky or unclear storytelling—yet it also makes for engrossing, transportive film-viewing.

Commissioned by the estate of Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) on the occasion of the once-trendy English playwright's 100th birthday, The Deep Blue Sea (previously filmed by Anatole Litvak in 1955) centers around Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), a woman who leaves her husband Sir William (stage actor Simon Russell Beale), a respected judge, for the handsome and impulsive RAF pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston).

These two men represent archetypal opposites. The husband has an outward coldness that hides a gentle, pushover nature; the pilot's passion disguises a general lack of ambition and an inability to commit. They are also opposites in terms of class (the husband rich and well-bred, the pilot poor and a tad crude) and age (the husband noticeably older than Hester, the pilot younger), and are played by contrasting physical types: Beale is a soft, bearish man whose face is round and bearded; Hiddleston is lean, with an angular, clean-shaven face.

Both men have their good qualities and their shortcomings, but neither is able to fulfill Hester's needs (the film's title comes from the English expression "between the devil and the deep blue sea," which means to be caught in a situation where neither outcome is desirable). What this sets up is a typical tragic dilemma: the crossroads where both directions lead downhill. It invites a diagrammatic approach—the introduction of the central character, the weighing of the husband and the lover against one another, the gradual movement of the plot toward a climactic moment of realization—which is exactly what Davies doesn't do.

Though the opening credits identify the film, somewhat modestly, as "Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea," Davies' adaptation is a significant reworking of the play, jettisoning much of its first act, adding many new scenes, and, in effect changing its whole central point.

Like the play, the film opens with a suicide attempt by Hester. As she fades into unconsciousness, we are shown Hester's failing marriage and her seduction by Freddie through a montage of tears, glances, and caresses set to the strains of Samuel Barber's "Violin Concerto." This sequence climaxes in a shot of Freddie and Hester naked in bed, the camera queasily swirling above them. Their skin looks chalk-white in the moonlight. Weisz's body is bony and sinewy; every muscle in her tensed calf is visible. It is, ostensibly, a moment of passion—but what registers is the musculature, the paleness, the inevitable doom.

Rattigan's play is essentially a social whodunit that opens with a desperate action and then spends three acts answering one question: "Why?" Davies answers this question within the first ten minutes. As a result, he sacrifices much of the source material's dramatic momentum. What does he gain in return? Ownership of Hester, who becomes the locus of Davies' pet themes. They cling to her like metal shavings to a magnet.

Unlike Rattigan, Davies keeps exclusively to Hester's perspective: her situation as an outsider within her upper-class home (where she is treated coldly by her husband and mother-in-law) and later with Freddie's drink-all-night lower-class crowd; her profound loneliness; her brief glimpses of connection—social, sexual—with other people; her everyday hardships. Classical filmmaking (and stage drama) posits a character as the sum total of their actions—their present and their possible futures. In Davies' cinema, a character is the sum total of their experiences and memories—the past to which they are constantly returning.

That Davies' Hester emerges as a fully-formed character despite spending most of the film smoking, crying, staring out of windows, and not committing suicide is a testament to the director's technique. The context of certain scenes may be murky, but it doesn't really matter, because Davies is a master of "throwaway" moments; he puts more thematic weight into a shot of his characters wading through a rowdy pub crowd than most filmmakers can put into a showstopping monologue. Even when the shape of the film seems obscure, its texture is vividly felt.

Isolation and togetherness, the small man and the big crowd, the immediate moment and the lost world, cultural solidarity and social repression—the main images / themes of Davies' work (all present and accounted for in The Deep Blue Sea) appear contradictory, but are in fact interdependent. At the center of Davies' filmmaking is the experience of the outcast—of pining for the place where everybody seems to belong but you.

There's a biographical basis for this: an openly gay, proudly working class cultural conservative still angry about the popularity of the Beatles (hopefully, no one will ever tell him about the existence of rap; it might kill him), Davies belongs in neither the modern world, nor the post-war England that haunts his films. Yet it is that fleeting sensation of belonging—embodied in The Deep Blue Sea's pièce de résistance, a single-take flashback scene of Londoners huddled in the Underground, singing the folk song "Molly Malone" together during a bombing raid—that he returns to again and again. A staple of his films, these group singalongs capture a moment in time when, despite hardships, all seems right with the world—and also serve to reinforce his protagonists' inescapable loneliness. Yes, these bright moments happen, but they are fleeting. Afterward, they are consigned to the dead world of memory.

Davies rarely uses close-ups; instead, he favors medium and wide shots than firmly place the characters in a specific time and a specific place. It is a mise-en-scene of remembering, one which attempts to preserve all the minor details of a moment: an umbrella stand by the door, the patterns of wallpaper and upholstery, the arrangement of bric-a-brac on a shelf, the glow of a dim lamp, the frayed leather of an old sofa, the ambiance of a bar, the way cigarette smoke drifted across a room. In Davies' hands, cinema becomes seance; the fragments of a bygone era are conjured up, and then recede back into the darkness.

It is an era with which Davies has what could charitably be called a "difficult relationship." Much of his work has drawn from his childhood and youth: Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983) are semi-autobiographical, as are his first two features, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992); his essay-film Of Time and the City (2008) is overtly a work of memoir. While these films—as well as his first US-set film, The Neon Bible (1995)—are informed by a deep-seated nostalgia for everyday life in the first half of the 20th century, they are also unsparing in their depiction of its pettiness and brutality. Society allows people to feel as though they are part of something bigger than themselves, but it also periodically reminds them of their smallness.

This insight is as true of any modern culture as it is of The Deep Blue Sea's dead England. As firmly rooted as Davies' worldview is in this phantom past, it speaks to the present—and the future (don't forget: this world will someday seem as distant and foreign as The Deep Blue Sea's London). Davies' films aren't just ghost pageantry; those tiny pictorial details, those passive-aggressive turns of phrase, those moments of culturally-normative viciousness that seem unacceptable by modern standards amount to a view of society—and an individual's experience in it—that goes deeper than the period. Davies may be concerned with the way things were, but his films point to how they'll always be.

1 comment:

grasprelease said...

Your writing is spectacular, detailed, unpretentious [and this not meant as condescension], and fleet. As much time as I have spent watching movies over the past few years, I have really missed out, not following your writing. I hope you keep the blog going as a centralized amalgamator/hub/depot for your output in various places...that is invaluable, since my time is strapped. I want to stop missing your pieces.

Very late congrats on the expanded access and subversive challenge of the AT THE MOVIES gig. I mean no slight when I say, "You deserve it!"

BTW, maybe you have done this like 1M times, but have you ever shared a short list of essential essays/collections/books of writing on film that you would recommend to anyone wanting to take their cinephilia deeper? I am not necessarily asking about your genre/practice influences, specifically, though I wouldn't mind that angle, either. Please tell me if I have missed this; I tried some Googling, but I am both lazy and careless. (No aspirations to writing on film; there are plenty like me already writing on film. For pay!)

You are the Masta Blasta