Distant Voices, Still Lives

Distant Voices, Still Lives ★★★½

70/100

Second viewing, last seen during its original U.S. theatrical release. At age 21, with just four years of low-grade cinephilia under my belt, I was woefully unprepared for something this expressionistic; the absence of any clear narrative drove me up the wall back then, and of course there were as yet no other Davies features to contextualize this one. (Still haven't seen the trilogy of early shorts.) Three decades later, I vaguely remembered a 50-50 mix of group sing-alongs and domestic violence—basically a movie that constantly alternated between The Deep Blue Sea's "Molly Malone" air-raid sequence and those parts of Sunset Song that trigger my allergy to stories about helpless victims. Which is sorta kinda broadly accurate, I suppose, but abjectly fails to convey the way that Davies reimagines cinema (particularly in the "Distant Lives" half*) as a mosaic of splintered memory shards.

Quick personal anecdote. (It has a point, I promise.) When I was a kid in the '70s, my family used to vacation at Lake Tahoe every summer. We'd usually spend one afternoon rafting down the Truckee River. One of those years, somebody dropped an oar into the river, and my mother attempted to retrieve it; she had one hand on a tree branch that was hanging overhead, in an effort to keep the raft in place, and was reaching for the oar with her other hand. Alas, the current was too strong, and suddenly the raft lurched forward...without my mother, who was left hanging from the tree branch by one hand. I was maybe, I dunno, seven years old? Young enough to freak out, anyway. Off we drifted down the river, and for all I knew Mom was gonna die.

Here's the interesting thing: That's literally all that I remember. Nothing else specific from that trip—my most vivid memories are of later excursions, when I was a bit older and preferred going downriver solo in a large innertube—and I don't even recall how we got Mom back on the raft, though I know that we must have. Everything but those traumatic few seconds of seeing her dangling over the rapids from the tree branch is gone. But that image is so vivid that it could have happened yesterday.

Davies constructs his entire film around this phenomenon (though, again, it's more aggressively fragmentary in the initial Dad-dominated half). We see Mom sitting on the windowsill to wash the windows' outside panes, and her younger daughter watching from below, muttering "Please don't fall"; the moment has no narrative function, doesn't recur, is presumably just something that Davies never forgot (or perhaps it was relayed to him by a sister who never forgot). Not everything is strictly autobiographical, to be sure—Davies had nine siblings, and his father died when he was only six—but this is the rare movie that genuinely understands how the hippocampus works, privileging the ecstatic (all those sing-alongs) and the terrifying. I'm guessing that 1989 Me found it unsatisfying that Dad's outbursts often have no apparent cause, erupting from nowhere...but that's exactly how a small child would remember them, and the lack of any context makes his abuse feel less like pure miserabilism (because it's just one element among many, and always fleeting). On top of which, Davies here favors strikingly symmetrical compositions—parts of this look like kitchen-sink Wes Anderson, or maybe Roy Andersson with naturalistic makeup and set design. It's like a formalist, manic-depressive Radio Days, and for the entirety of "Distant Voices" I thought I was gonna swing all the way from "No thanks" to "Masterpiece!"

"Still Lives" didn't wow me nearly as much. Another comparison springs to mind: The Tree of Life, which I adore early on when it's a jumble of free-floating images set to music but find less thrilling (though still mostly absorbing) as a family narrative gradually emerges. There isn't a story per se in this film's back half, but it does shift into chronological order (mostly) and start focusing on a succession of major life events: weddings, births, baptisms, etc. Also, Davies' singular approach for "Distant Voices" doesn't really allow for traditional character development—not a problem in that section, but it means that we don't have a strong sense of the three siblings once they move front and center. (I feel like I know Eileen's friends better than I do Eileen, Maisie or Tony, though that might just be because Debi Jones, as Micky, comes across like a young British Vivian Vance.) There are fewer distinctive flourishes like the early shot in which we hear the kids coming down the stairs for breakfast while looking at an empty staircase, and the life-goes-on ending feels a bit anticlimactic. All in all, though, I appreciated this orders of magnitude more than I did in 1989, and am happy to no longer think of it—even with a "too long ago to be certain" asterisk—as my least favorite Davies.

* ANAL-RETENTIVE TITLE CORNER: Unique case here, with the first half of the title appearing at the outset and the second half showing up mid-film, as if two lengthy shorts—"Distant Voices" and "Still Lives"—have been spliced together. [LATER: Apparently that is in fact the case.] I think at one point, many years ago, I used Distant Voices/Still Lives, and just now considered switching to a pipe: Distant Voices | Still Lives. That seems most accurate, really, but consistency would then demand that I call Joe's 2004 feature Tropical Malady | A Spirit's Path. Plus the original one-sheet employs a comma in its fine print, and that's generally my default when there's any ambiguity onscreen. So a comma it is.