Friday, May 18, 2012

The Long Day Closes

The weather in the past is brutal. The rain comes down heavy as buckshot. Umbrellas, by all observable evidence, appear to have not yet been invented, or else are the property of only recluses who never leave home anyway, rain or shine. How else to explain their complete absence from the mid-1950s world of The Long Day Closes, which may be set in Liverpool but appears to have been filmed in a fish tank? Writer-director Terence Davies sees his childhood through a haze of water, the rain casting a shimmering blue pall through the windows of his drab tenement home. There is the peculiar sensation that we are not looking at the weathered streets of a working-class neighbourhood, but rather some aquatic city beneath the ocean, another Atlantis lost to time and the perpetual gnawing rain.

Less a narrative than a nagging preoccupation, the film charts a few recurring themes throughout the childhood of Davies’ stand-in, Bud— his loneliness, his burgeoning homosexuality and tortured Catholicism, and above all else, his relationship with his mother. But rather than reduce his formative experiences into a neat schema, Davies lets each moment hang on its own. Indeed, each image seems to contain the entire film (this is a rare film that just as easily be five seconds long as five hours). Consider the opening shot: a vase of flowers, carefully lit and arrayed into a perfect still life. During the course of the credits, the blossoms wither and fade, crumbling to the table. Nothing happens; everything changes. More than a poignant statement on life, it is the director's warning to viewers: forget your phony dreams of narrative progress. Instead, Davies offers a different form of epiphany in this uncanny sensation that we are standing motionless throughout our whole lives, watching the world move steadily away. He sees the motion in complete stillness.

Somehow this waterlogged work stays afloat, a raft of images lashed together with nothing more than some music and a few old movie quotes. Snatches from film soundtracks—The Ladykillers and The Magnificent Ambersons, for example—drift by on the soundtrack, striking with the shocking clarity of an old tune rescued from memory. These glimpses of familiar cultural artifacts do more than provide some temporal garland, like shiny little baubles of bygone days. They serve as occult talismans, opening the door on the past and inviting it back into the world of the living. In one scene, Bud’s mother quietly sings while holding her son on her lap, both staring calmly into a fire. When she finishes, she declares that her father used to sing that song to her, tears streaming down her face as Bud remains focused on the flame. If he can sense her distress, his placid gaze does not betray it.

The boy does not yet feel the burden of the past weighing down on him, but it’s clear that Davies, looking back, now does. Despite the warmth and even joy found in so many of the film’s scenes, there is a melancholy at the sight of this lost world. Lacking traditional narrative, the film’s hopscotch style, its collage of jumbled memories, only deepens that feeling of loss. There is no sense of place and time because this is neither a place nor a time, but rather a quavering image in Davies’ memory. All that remains are moments, fractured and faded, pasted together with glue and a song. Still, Davies holds on to these memories, even as they wither and crumble at his touch. Do the images fade the more they are handled? Does remembering destroy them? The truth lies somewhere on the bottom of the ocean. But take what mementos you can salvage from the wreckage. Here are a few: The cellar succumbs to rot. Bud’s friends run along, as he watches, unable to follow. A man with cancer walks by. The five types of erosion. Life, someone says, also collaborates in the process of destruction.

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