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Hopes For Paradise: Terrence Davies and The Long Day Closes
Rich Woodall , May 22nd, 2022 14:05

The moving image was a much scarcer commodity in the 1950s than now – never better captured than in Terrence Davies' miraculous The Long Day Closes, finds Rich Woodall

Years ago, my Dad was trying to explain to me how it felt to see Lawrence of Arabia in the cinema back in the 1960s. Remembering those vast horizons, the steepled banks of sand and the sunrise turning the whole sky to rust he told me, “It was the biggest thing I’d ever seen.” What appeared on that screen was something completely out of scale with his own existence – not just a strange landscape, but an entirely alien perspective. Nobody anywhere had ever seen a desert the way David Lean and Freddie Young showed it to them in 1962, infinite in width and depth and yet also somehow captured within a screen on a wall in Hull, Wolverhampton or Liverpool.

This was the early days of the television boom. Most households had one, but it was two channels broadcast in bleary monochrome. The cinema was still where you went to get your images, a radical elsewhere that let you in on an experience utterly removed from the texture of your everyday life. Today, of course, the value of images has been subject to explosive hyperinflation. We all gorge on a constant stream of high-def footage. The cinema can still affect us with its scale and volume, but it takes effort to think of it as anything other than a jumbo-sized smartphone screen. When I think about my Dad’s experience of Lawrence of Arabia, I try to imagine living in a society where moving images were so scarce and precious. The only film I’ve ever seen that gives me a sense of what this might have felt like is Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, which turns 30 this year.

Like Davies’ other early films, The Long Day Closes is a quasi-memoir inspired by the director’s growing up in 1950s Liverpool. The story revolves around Bud, a shy and fragile 12-year-old living on an urban terrace with his mother and three older siblings. This home is a space of tenderness and care, embedded in a close-knit community, although Bud is tortured by his inability to fully participate in the spiritual, romantic and social worlds that revolve around him. As Davies has said of himself, Bud is one of life’s spectators, a daydreamer and a voyeur.

No surprise, then, that Bud is most himself at the movies. In one especially lovely shot, the camera tracks along the front row of a cinema balcony, finally reaching Bud, leaning forward with his chin resting on his hands, a look of pure bliss on his face. But this isn’t so much a film about being at the pictures as wanting to be at the pictures. For most of the film, we follow Bud as he goes (reluctantly) to school and church or kicks around at home, and slowly we see how those couple of hours a week he spends at the cinema are rewiring his brain, reshaping his desires and altering the way he sees the world around him.

This is mostly expressed through exquisite shot composition and camerawork – hallmarks of Davies’ body of work. Sometimes we see through Bud’s eyes, and sometimes we watch him while he watches others, but again and again we’re with him as he stares out windows, through open doors and down empty hallways, searching for frames to organise his everyday experience the way he’s seen it on the screen. Early in the film, as he looks out of an upstairs window, Bud’s eye falls on a shirtless bricklayer, and he feels the first stirring of an urge he doesn’t yet have a name for. There’s something about the spatial logic of the shot that doesn’t quite add up. It feels like the brickie should be at ground level, but he’s filmed head on in the centre of the shot, as he’d appear if Bud were looking straight at him. It’s as if in his mind’s eye Bud is framing the man as he would if he were shooting a movie, transforming him momentarily into a matinee idol. Cinema gives Bud the language he needs to explore desires which every other sphere of his life forces him to repress.

At other points in the film, Davies lays dialogue from other movies – The Ladykillers, Meet Me in St Louis, The Magnificent Ambersons – over his images. In one scene – a personal favourite – Bud retreats to the cellar to weep after his friends go to the pictures without him. Here, amongst clouds of coal dust drifting in the light from above, we hear a snippet of Miss Havisham from David Lean’s Great Expectations. In a moment of delightful bathos, the 12-year-old boy identifies himself with the abjection of Dickens’ eternal bride-to-be, capturing the operatic scale of the hurt one can feel at that age whilst also showing how deep cinema has reached into his consciousness, touching the filament of his most private shame.

Whenever I watch Long Day, afterwards I find myself seeing as Bud sees – searching for glamorous silhouettes among the dull tableaux of my daily life, noticing the steep angle at which light falls through the windows of the narrow terrace where I live. So much of our perception is prosthetic. Technologies like cinema – and therefore also TV, computers, video game consoles, smartphones – teach the eye how to interpret the world. Often this feels like a violent imposition, a hundred thousand tech corporations and ad companies trying to wrench my attention in their direction. Long Day gives me another perspective on this Faustian bargain. In the film’s final shot, we at last see the movie screen from Bud’s point of view. It’s a transcendental moment, showing just how far cinema expanded the experiential horizon of a queer working-class boy back in the 1950s. At this point, I feel like I know exactly what Dad was talking about.

Terence Davies occupies an odd position within the landscape of British cinema. He’s worked almost exclusively within two of its standard genres – kitchen sink and costume drama – but with a sensibility that’s more in line with Tarkovsky or Ozu than Ken Loach or Merchant/Ivory. A radical innovator in film style, he appears almost entirely detached from contemporary culture. There’s a hilarious moment in his 2008 documentary Of Time and the City where he reveals a heretical disgust for rock and roll and the Beatles, describing the latter as resembling “a firm of provincial solicitors”. He then reels off a list of performers of “sedate British pop” who were “screamed away on a tide of Merseybeat” – “Dicky Valentine, Lita Rosa, Alma Cogan”. For Terence Davies, British pop culture ended at the same moment Philip Larkin tells us sexual intercourse began – “between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP”.

You might accuse Davies of being a kind of cultural reactionary, choosing to dwell in a sentimentalised “then” rather than wrestle with the complexities of the now. This critique is not without merit, but on the other hand, his films are fiercely committed to presenting the past in all its bitterness and cruelty. History for Davies is a live, unfinished thing, not a costume reenactment; both the unfulfilled utopian dreams and the tragic defeats of his mid-century working class protagonists face us today with an accusatory force. “We had hoped for paradise,” he intones in Of Time and the City, “we got the anus mundi.” Davies’ movies are the vengeful flipside of the UK culture industry’s ceaseless peddling of a bowdlerised version of this nation’s history.

Following his early clutch of autobiographical films, Davies has wandered somewhat in search of the right material, with varying degrees of success. His last picture A Quiet Passion – an Emily Dickinson biopic starring Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon – was an implausible masterpiece. His new film Benediction also tells the life of a poet, this time Siegfried Sassoon, and it feels like something of a homecoming. Back in his comfort zone of early 20th century Britain, this is Davies’ first chance to make an explicitly queer movie since, arguably, The Long Day Closes itself. Like Bud, I’ll be there on the front row, leaning as far forward as the upholstery will allow.