Starting Over

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Distant Voices, Still Lives

It was my first time seeing this movie - which I saw at the BFI Southbank as we must call it and banish thoughts of NFT from our minds - along with my partner and a friend of his - both previously won fans.

Director Terence Davies 1988 film, Distant Voices, Still Lives, has recently been re-released. In two parts it tells the story of a working-class family living in a terraced house in the Liverpool of the 1940s. In the midst of poverty and deprivation the father is a violent brute subject to outbreaks of depression and rage, while his wife does the best she can to keep the home and family together; both miserable and resigned.

Beryl Bainbridge describes this film as "like turning the pages of a photograph album". It's structured as a series of scenes and small plot-lines overlaid with both popular and classical music, including Benjamin Britten's "Hymn to the Virgin", Sammy Fain's "Love is a Many Splendoured Thing", and Vaughan Williams's "Pastoral Symphony".

The film begins with the soundtrack of the BBC shipping forecast, followed by intermingling scenes of a wedding and a funeral. The father's funeral and daughter's wedding seem to weave seamlessly together, as the family adopt both formal and informal poses and small scenes of action (often violent in nature, whether the father beating his wife, or the children narrowly escaping an air raid). The house is small, dominated by the kitchen table and the fear of the next upsurge of anger. Yet, with hate is also a strong feeling of familial love.
In Distant Voices, the second half of the film, daughter Maisie has just had a baby and the family celebrate the birth in the local pub. As the film continues it is clear that nothing has really changed. While Pete Postlethwaite's Dad is longer in the film or on this earth, he has been replaced by the husbands of his daughters, also brought up in households of violence and demandind obedience.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is both a chilling and beautifully crafted and shot and imaginative film. Its scenes, even of tragedy and violence, are full of lingering beauty and interrupted only by witty and loving banter. Its a classic and worthy of the affection in which it is held.

American Genius

Lynne Tillman's American Genius is a change of pace compared to much of my reading. The novel covers a mere number of days and follows the stream of consciousness, of thoughts and a small number of deeds of its female narrator, residing in a non-specified residence that seems to combine elements of writer's residence and of a clinic for those needing a break from their lives - but is neither. The narrator, Helen, digresses into obsession and compulsion with thoughts on collecting, cats, on chairs, on food, on family and friends, and always on skin and its minor disorders and conditions. Strongly observant of her fellow residents, she both carefully dissects them as well as creating elaborate stories on which their thin characters hang. She herself remains aloof while neurotically introspective.
In this carefully managed and restricted world, Tillman draws a picture of America that relies on her deep introspection and observation, that resists narrative. American Genius is both frustrating (I was desperately waiting for something to happen) and deeply satisfying. Her riffs on the Manson family (specifically Leslie van Houten), textile design, Zulu language, Puritanism and psoriasis form a kind of musical digression as her thoughts veer towards bold statements and then retreat into doubt and dissemblement. American Genius is structured on the barest of narratives, populated with a fascinating array of characters but centred on an isolated, withdrawn and yet engaged central being. Its a work of genius and therefore not always comfortable and a great American novel.