Something Like an Autobiography 

The Films of Terence Davies, January 15-17 at MoMA

Born in 1945 in working-class Liverpool, Terence Davies went on to make an art form out of his memories — more than one form, really. On the one hand, there are the hushed, shifting tableau of home and quilted textures of song in The Long Day Closes (1993) — cozy yet beguiling sequences as all-absorbing and carefully appointed as the Hollywood productions that sent a fresh-faced Liverpudlian cadging a shilling from Mum “to go to the pictures.” And on the other, there is his wrenching Trilogy (1976-83), three compact shorts that, in late-winter-afternoon black-and-white, churn through school life, young gay torment, filial devotion, bondage and self-imagined future decrepitude.

To accompany Of Time and the City, Davies’s new essay-film about his hometown, MoMA is showing both of these rarely screened works, as well as his riveting 2000 adaptation of The House of Mirth. (Distant Voices, Still Lives, his transitional first feature, is a major omission from the selection, but it’s available on the British Film Institute’s series of Region 2 DVDs.) One production designer has called Davies’s style “memory realism” — not life as it “really” was, but as it lived on, preserved and cherished, in the filmmaker’s mind (or, more truly, heart).

The difference between Davies and the legions of directors who routinely claim something similar in press notes is that he succeeds. Building on a masterfully orchestrated opening, The Long Day Closes folds us into a patchwork of one boy’s experiences — the tactile details of lying awake in bed as it rains, watching adults tipsily join in holiday sing-a-longs, creeping into a dungeon-like basement. With preverbal immediacy, Davies often moves between multiple moments in the past, sometimes with scene-changing camera movements and magically integrating cuts. The complex temporality in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Puppetmaster, contemporary with Long Day, makes an intriguing comparison, as does Raul Ruiz’s hyperbolic Time Regained years later.

In the Trilogy, this simultaneity spans more widely and feels bleaker (often compared to Bill Douglas’s 1970s triad about growing up dirt-poor in postwar Scotland). Davies alter ego Robert Tucker is seen in several phases: enduring  the integrated violence of grade school and isolated adolescence, and then breaking the monotony of a bookkeeping firm with secret shame-inducing forays as a leather-fond gay Catholic. All these moments of anguish, boredom or secret pleasure (the latter often rendered against total darkness) are close-packed with abiding love for his mother,  from youth up through adult cohabitation. Davies attaches forebodingly monumental titles to the films — Children, Madonna and Child, and, perhaps after Strauss, Death and Transfiguration — but the maternal bond and the fear of death (which shadows the desire) are indeed intense in their primal power.

In The House of Mirth (2000), Davies channels that intensity into the strategic, well-tuned repartee of Wharton’s tale. Excruciating in only the best ways, the fall of Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson, classically trained and coiffed with the care of a Vertigo swirl) is something to behold. Anderson, X-filed at the time, was cast partly for her resemblance to John Singer Sargent’s portrait subjects, though Davies does not aim to spirit us away to another age. What captivates is not the milieu, but the machinations that shunt Lily out of it. With any luck — or money — memories of Mirth and the acclaim for the upcoming Of Time and the City will together soon put Davies back to work again.

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