I was completely mistaken about Distant Voices, Still Lives. I put it off like some duty. And passed all that time without its spirit of love and memory.
Opinions about movies can change, deepen even. But I can’t much revise these thoughts because they draw on what it was to see the film for the first time: that it was serious, sad, as gorgeous as it was shattering, but also that no effort whatsoever was required. There is great pleasure in this movie about sadness — sadness is a kind of patrimony here — and that has as much to do with Davies’ generosity with his family’s memories as it does with the stuff of melancholy itself.
There is a difference between the sad and the dour (or the monotone) and, sadness being a pretty encompassing mood, the mood even covers a scatter of happy moments. Little bits of bright. Like with a good dancer, you are gripped, loosely but completely.
The first half, Distant Voices, was the first film and (whether by design or fortune I don’t know) it was joined two years later by its postwar half, Still Lives. The fear does not go down.
We begin with the Father’s funeral. Pete Postlethwaite, frightening and pitiable, leaves his mark in only has a few scattered memories. But if the film must be about one thing, it isn’t domestic violence (as its own American trailer insists) rather how permanently bruised the family is — left loveless and down — to find this cruelty in a man they wanted for loving. And one of the many surprises about this film is that the Father is himself shocked by the feeling of disappointment that surrounds his cruelty, like he was powerless to his own effect. It's an emptiness more desolate than the walls in their home — bare save for a framed photograph of Father and a horse he cared for.
And then there is music. Father’s memory can’t be escaped; it is kept alive in cold husbands and in Mother’s continuing and backbreaking work around the house. It is also dealt with in song, which is shared, and which lifts even and especially when down. This is Liverpool before The Beatles, before records, and the cast sings everything live. We hear Ella Fitzgerald, Hoagy Carmichael, Galway Bay, and also Vaughan Williams, Britten, Peter Pears. As much as it holds the family together it holds the film.
If we’re to focus on technique, let’s look at the movement of perspective. The camera lives on tracks for most of the film but it is held steady during scenes; it drifts from one character’s perspective to another. So, beyond what’s happening, the mark of it on a character’s feelings. Just as the three siblings don’t agree on their father, a scene can be coloured by whomever’s eyes we see it through. That’s the province of novels and dangerous waters for a film. And yet, in voice over, camera angles, music, and a ‘float’ from character to character, we have the close third person. Many films about families are told from one character’s (usually an outsider’s) vantage. Distant Voices, Still Lives avoids that. What you’re left with is memory.
Whatever the pain of lovelessness on the family, Davies seems to be seeing past it. There was something to be frightened about, but then there was life too — and he never forgot it. After all, they sang through the blitz and they sang through the still after it. Distant Voices, Still Lives has endured. What of that spirit?