Thursday, August 16, 2007

Overlooked DVD of the month - DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES

DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES is one of the most unique and impressive British films ever made, and yet it is not as well known as greats and epics like THE THIRD MAN or LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. So, here we have a combination Overlooked and Pantheon movie review.

The movie is really two films made two years apart by the British writer-director, Terence Davies. As with all his work, the film is highly autobiographical and documents working-class life in a poor Catholic family in Liverpool in the 1950s. Davies is paying homage to a life that no longer exists, with all its glory and horror. On the surface, its an extremely partriarchal society and men are seen as alien and usually of malign influence. In the first film, DISTANT LIVES, "Father" pays the bills and makes the rules. Teenage sisters have to beg for a night out. A young brother is casually thrown out of the family home. "Father" beats his wife and daughter. And when the elder daughter marries a nice enough young man, it soon becomes clear that she will not be able to socialise with her old friends as she once did. Marriage is the end of friendship. The women are oppressed but have tremendous inner resources: courage, cameraderie, a great sense of humour, and hope, as expressed in popular songs of the day. And, once the father has died, the house becomes truly matriarchal, and we see a warmer colour palette in the second film, STILL LIVES.

The subject matter of the film, the costumes, location, decoration, language and songs are minutely researched and realistic. But everything else feels dreamy. Memories drift in and out of the view-finder in a sort of unconscious stream. We fade in and out from funerals, weddings, nights out and traumatic scenes in the family home. All this memory is triggered in the first film by the eldest daughter's trauma at not having her father at her wedding. In the second film, the framing device is the baptism of the younger daughter's baby.

The look of the film is striking - and perhaps the most important reason why the film hasn't dated. DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES is one of the earliest and most impressive uses of the bleach bypass process, in which colour is taken out of the film stock. The process also gives the director complete control over the colour palette. Terence Davies is also a master at controlling the pace of a film to add to the poetic or dramatic effect. The classic example is a scene where two men fall in slow-motion through glass. It's one of the most achingly beautiful shots in cinema.

DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES played Toronto and Cannes 1988 and won the FIPRESCI Prize at both. It was re-released in the UK earlier this year and is available on DVD with an insightful director's commentary.

Sight and Sound's greatest films of the past 25 years, as voted by a panel of 50 critics: 1 Apocalypse Now; 2 Raging Bull; 3 Fanny and Alexander; 4 GoodFellas; 5 Blue Velvet; 6 Do the Right Thing; 7 Blade Runner; 8. Chungking Express; 9 Distant Voices, Still Lives; 10 Once Upon a Time in America, Yi Yi (A One and a Two...).

1 comment:

  1. its my favourite film of all time and i can't say enough about it. truly magical