Distant Voices, Still Lives

Distant Voices, Still Lives

A Metaphysical Movie Musical.

Ella Fitzgerald's rendition of "Taking a Chance on Love" underscores a remarkable sequence in Distant Voices, Still Lives. A group of children watch their mother sit precariously on a window ledge as she scrubs the grimy glass. "Please, Mommy, don't fall," one child begs. In a sudden time shift, the mother is shown being beaten by her husband. Then, bruised and sobbing, she continues her housecleaning chores and her movements keep time with Fitzgerald's singing.

Director-writer Terence Davies lets Fitzgerald's record fill out his characters' unconscious. It expresses in one sweet, melodic phrase all of their highest, most sincere feelings and aspirations, while their rough, risky lives mock their dreams. Davies's counterpoint gives this stark depiction of white English working-class life true poignancy. The unflinching revelation of pain makes a great film out of Davies's concentration on our fascination with popular music.

Distant Voices, Still Lives recalls Davies's own family history in Liverpool in the forties and fifties in a mosaic of vignettes and memory flashes. He envisions dark, realistic despair and bright, pop-culture hope as the essence of modern existence. That's not too lofty a description. Davies realizes the way people grasp their positions in life and wrestle to control their emotions and destinies.

Davies distills autobiography into extreme visual and musical stylization. He shuffles drama, music, and different periods of his decade-long family chronicle— not simply for contrast but for the direct, emotional intensity of hotly remembered grief and fondly recalled joy. These essences of family life rank with the greatest that have ever been created- Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons and O'Neill's Long Days Journey Into Night. He finds a common denominator in the eerie intimacy of family life, in which the structure of domestic relationships becomes transparent and the vulnerability of the individuals is both revealed and shared.

Women carry the songs in this powerfully metaphysical movie musical. There's a feminist basis in Davies's scrapbook-jukebox reminiscence that pays special attention to suffering under cruel patriarchy. Distant Voices, Still Lives is structured around the subtle, circumspect subversions practiced by oppressed groups- women, specifically, but by extension, gays, the working class, and so on. "Innocuous" pop songs and conventional social rituals like public sing-alongs and moviegoing make up the special moments that are seized by the mother and sisters in Davies's recreated family to vent their usually suppressed feelings.

Fitzgerald's "Taking a Chance on Love" is one of the few professional, prerecorded singing performances used by Davies, who finds profundity in the "untrained" singing voices of his characters. This "live" singing gives a different insight than the Herbert Ross-Dennis Potter film Pennies from Heaven, which only— but brilliantly— showed the imprint of pop culture on the subconscious. Davies reflects on pop culture more critically. The distance he maintains from the glossy, slick escapism of professional pop fantasy objectifies its powerful sway and marks it as placebo.

Unlike Ross and Potter, Davies is mindful of the sociological fact of pop communication. His demonstrations of this are amazing: a group of dissatisfied white housewives sing "Brown Skin Girl, Stay Home and Mind Baby (I killed nobody but me husband)"; a Catholic woman toasts her mother singing "My Yiddishe Mama." Davies shows the uses that can be made of pop from disparate cultures. Seen this way, pop-music communication is an explicitly political phenomenon. But Davies never neglects the emotional basis; it comes through powerfully in the scene where Angela Walsh as the youngest sister defies her marital subjugation in a full-throated performance of "I Want to Be Around to Pick Up the Pieces (when she breaks your heart like you broke mine)/' It's the most psychologically vivid, emotionally vibrant movie scene this year. Through the humane effort of singing, this film conveys great purity of feeling.

Davies's musical numbers are a culture and several generations away from my own experience, yet they have a raw potency like AfricanAmerican storefront gospel. This is the only movie musical I know to capture the basic cultural function of song without swamping it in excessive production furbelows. The astringency of Davies's method-the dogged presentation of one solemn episode after another- makes this film a tough watch. Many of the greatest filmmakers have lacked a gift for buoyancy (Ozu, Dreyer, Visconti, Bresson), yet Davies accomplishes what the best movie art seeks to do. Each formally conceived sequence expresses an idea in an image: A child shown singing to herself in a doorway suspends the character— a whole life— in time; the late-night leave-taking of the family from the local pub surrounds them all with mortality; a son's pitiful view of his mother's toil and his subsequent wedding day, on which he grieves for his father, summarize his inheri- tance. The resonance of these images and ideas ties together the terror of family life and the isolation of aesthetic experience in a way that is truthful and overwhelming.

Distant Voices, Still Lives takes place pre-rock 'n' roll, so the pop music-mass audience relationship it details is different. It's debatable that so much misery would thrive in an era of aggressive protest music, but the fact remains, the majority of pop experience always comprises romantic fantasy. Davies pays tribute to pop's power while shaking up, diversifying its meanings. Two years ago Todd Haynes's Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story subverted pop vapidity by dramatizing real-life tragedy in absurd pop form (he used Barbie dolls as characters). Haynes's trivializ- ing technique was deceptive— he caught the irony of Karen Carpenter's art and life with merciless cunning. Davies's sense of pop life has a little more heart, yet it's too disturbing to mistake for Vincente Minnelli jollity. If he never makes another film as strong as this one, Davies ranks in the vanguard of radical pop sensibility.