Long Day Closes, The (1992): Terence Davies’ Masterful Follow-Up to Distant Voices, Still Lives

Terence Davies’s follow-up, The Long Day Closes, is more profound and fully realized than Distant Voices, Still Lives. Of the personal works, it’s Davies’ masterpiece.

In this 1992 text, which is extremely dense, Davies recalls the burgeoning awareness of his own homosexuality and how his discovery of cinema provided him both cathartic escape and ecstatic relief.  In “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” the abusive father dies, and so “The Long Day Closes” picks up the same family during its next four years, relating events that occur until the time Bud (Davies’ screen surrogate) leaves primary school.  The narrative is condensed into one crucial year, 1955-1956, when he was ten-eleven. With the father’s dead, the obvious dramatic tension is gone, but the saga contains a more subtle tension, one that resides in Bud’s emotional development and growing self-consciousness.

The Long Day Closes” is more radical in form.  While physical and emotional pains bled out of the 1988 portrait, here, the events in the life of the filmmaker’s surrogate, Bud (Leigh McCormack), evoke exaltation.  Bud claims it was the most joyous time of his life–“I was sick with happiness.”  “Everything seemed fixed, and it was such a feeling of security that this is how it will be forever, and I really believed that,” Davies said of this period.[i]

In lieu of the father’s threatening violence in the earlier film, from which Davies excluded himself, there’s the tender love from his mother (Marjorie Yates) and the protective affection from his three siblings (Ayse Owens, Nicholas Lamont, and Anthony Watson). Though bathed in love, he still feels isolated, as he is too young to be included in the activities of his older brothers and sisters. Meanwhile, he experiences the first signs of homosexuality, a subject Davies would return to in “Of Time and the City.”

Despite the warm family settings, however, Bud is a painfully solitary boy, who experiences the first stirrings of homosexual desire along with the weight of Catholic guilt.  We get a vivid image of Bud’s burgeoning awareness of homosexuality. From his window, he spots in his neighbor’s yard a hunky bricklayer, and there’s erotic desire in his staring. Upon noticing his look, the shirtless man winks back at him, which scares the boy and makes him feel ashamed.  Bud is just beginning to realize (but not understand yet) his sexual difference, which will induce guilty feelings.  Davies fuses the two elements by casting the same actor to first appear as a muscular bricklayer, and then play the crucified Jesus during one his daydreams.  Later on, a Christmas family dinner is envisioned by Davies as a version of The Last Supper, except that it’s his Mother now who occupies Christ’s seat.

The sound system underscores the emotional contents of the images.  Once again, popular culture, songs and old movies hold sacred place in Bud’s life.  In the opening sequence, the camera glides through a rain-drenched alley while sound snippets are heard, including the bombastic horns of 20th Century Fox’s logo theme, and Alec Guinness’s sinister introductory line from “The Ladykillers.”  An evocative rendition follows of Nat King Cole’s smooth and velvety “Stardust,” with the lyrics “the music of the years gone by.”

As the family necessarily begins to dissolve, Davies brings to the gatherings a nostalgic (but unsentimental) sense of a community, one that struggles with the inescapable passage of time.  The title implies stagnation of oppressed lives, yet the movie is defined by motion and beauty.  This becomes clear with the very beginning, the credits sequence. We observe a seemingly static image, the still life of a bowl of roses slightly illuminated by sunlight, over which the credits roll. But then, gradually, the roses begin to wilt slowly, which is conveyed through extremely subtle, nearly imperceptible dissolves, until the petals scatter all over the table.

The idiosyncratic vision of Bud, a movie-crazed boy, is reflected in the densely layered sound design.  Significantly, the songs are heard but not seen.  The rich score consists of over 30 compositions, some of which only partially sung or heard.  There are songs performed by a single figure, by the characters in groups, as well as aural clips from classic films.[ii]

There are tunes from Orson Welles’ second film, the elegiac 1942 “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and Judy Garland’s song from Minnelli’s 1944 masterful musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis.” The narrative reaches one of its heights with the “Tammy” sequence, in which the connection between the church, the school, and the movies, all forces and sacred places in Bud’s evolving consciousness, is made explicit.  A series of overhead tracking shots linked by dissolves are scored to Debbie Reynolds’s sugary tone from that picture. (The impact would have been totally different had Davies actually shown the perpetually perky Reynolds singing it.

Images of doors (and windows) recur in Davies’ oeuvre, suggesting the dual meaning of portals, capable of taking us into the excited and the unknown, but also capable of closing behind terminated chapters with ominous signs for a darker future. In the opening, set to the tune Nat King Cole’s “Stardust,” the camera drifts down a rain-soaked Kensington Street, where Davies grew up, now demolished and in disrepair.  The camera then enters the open front door of an abandoned row house, showing its battered and drenched staircase. A subtle dissolve indicates that we are in the past, when this boarded-up place is brought back to life with Bud on the stairs.

At the end of the film, Bud passes through a door. The camera stays at a remove as the child enters a portal in his basement, beyond which is a pitch-black void.  We hear sounds of Welles’s melancholy narration from “The Magnificent Ambersons,” the voice of Martita Hunt’s Miss Havisham in David Lean’s “Great Expectations,” and then a voice-over of a school lecture about erosion. All three snippets signify decline, deterioration and decay, the effects of the inevitable passage of time.

Only a pure filmmaker, who’s totally free of commercial constrains, would conclude this movie the way Davies does. The closing image of “The Long Day Closes” is a bold and original three-minute take of a full moon gradually vanishing behind the clouds.

Author Interview with Davies, “The Long Day Closes.” Toronto Film Festival, September 12, 1992.

For excellent analysis of the score, See David Thomson, “Sound and Fury: Terence Davies,” Sight and Sound, April, 2007.

 

Cast

Marjorie Yates–Mother

Leigh McCormack – Bud

Anthony Watson – Kevin

Nicholas Lamont – John

Ayse Owens – Helen

Tina Malone – Edna

Jimmy Wilde – Curly

Robin Polley – Mr. Nicholls

Peter Ivatts – Mr. Bushell

Joy Blakeman – Frances

Denise Thomas – Jean

Patricia Morrison – Amy

Gavin Mawdslay – Billy

Kirk McLaughlin – Laborer and Christ

Marcus Heath – Black Man

 

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