Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 18, March 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Benjamin A. Schneider

 

The Sight and Sound of Music:

Wendy Everett's _Terrence Davies_

 

 

Wendy Everett

_Terrence Davies_

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004

ISBN 0719060621

246 pp.

 

Wendy Everett's detailed and informative book-length study of the films of Terrence Davies reflects an enthusiastic admiration for its subject and for the cinema in general. Recalling classical auteur studies of the 60s and 70s, Everett's text glistens with reverence -- but not without a critical eye. This is the best type of single author study. Clearly, Everett appreciates, if not truly loves, Davies's work, but that appreciation does not hinder her ability to evaluate his work. Still, Everett makes no mistake concerning her subject. She begins: 'Terrence Davies is one of the most important of all contemporary film directors, and his films have the power to fascinate, intrigue and delight spectators of all ages and backgrounds' (1). This somewhat hyperbolic statement does not, fortunately, detract from the refreshing embrace of a body of work she cares for deeply.

 

Everett characterizes Davies as 'neither a straightforward nor an easy director', whose films 'continually subvert conventional categories and expectations' (1). The author argues that this subversion is the primary strength of Davies's work, for his films 'transcend narrow generic definition[s]', indicating 'their startling freshness and originality' (1). This starting point is all at once energetic, enticing, and, for those who know Davies's oeuvre, spot on. Davies's films are all of these things and Everett's introduction brings them out sharply and purposefully.

 

The author structures her book to follow Davies's career chronologically. There are chapters devoted to the _Terrence Davies Trilogy_ and to each of Davies's four feature-length films _Distant Voices, Still Lives_, _The Longs Day Closes_, _The Neon Bible_, and _The House of Mirth_. What stands out in Everett's accounting of Davies's work is her inclusion of T. S. Eliot's _The Four Quartets_ as an inspirational touchstone. Of this, Everett writes, 'any close reading of [Davies'] films reveals not only the extent to which Davies is grappling with the same ideas as Eliot . . . but also that in doing so he is consciously exploring and reworking Eliot's images and formulations' (3). At first glance, this overt connectivity seems forced, but Everett deftly moves through Davies's work without making her chapters too much about Eliot. Instead, she uses Eliot to guide her own thinking about Davies's primary preoccupations: time, space, and music.

 

In her chapter on _The Long Day Closes_ Everett carefully describes Davies's direction as being similar to a composer of music. She writes that in this film 'the director functions as composer, creating through shifting combinations of visual shapes and patterns, and with music, quotation and sound, a multilayered and densely referential visual and aural collage, a form of cinema which itself functions as music' (87). While many films attempt the same project that Everett outlines, the author works carefully through this film, steadily building her argument about Davies's preoccupations with time, space, and music. The author navigates this Deleuzian triptych comfortably, and usefully relies upon a postmodern theory that notes the breakdown of categorical imperatives. Thus, as Everett sees it, Davies's films defy categorization in the way in which they unite the characteristics of film. The temporal and the spatial when joined with the aural (music) distinguish Davies's films as memory texts. Time, space, and music combine to emphasize Faulkner's quip that the past is not even past.

 

Also important in this chapter is Everett's discussion of intertextuality. In Davies's body of work, filmic and cultural points of reference, often popular songs, are meaningful signposts for viewers; they ground the immediate visual with a complicated tapestry of past and present. Everett communicates this well, noting that a particular piece of music in _The Long Day Closes_ can also be heard in _The Magnificent Ambersons_ and Mackendrick's _The Ladykillers_. While Everett does not give a reading of the relationship between _Ambersons_ and _The Long Day Closes_, she effectively exposes the allusions to _Ladykillers_. Both films use music as the impetus for reflection and Everett concludes that Davies is 'not only exploring the potential of music to recall the past, but also paying homage to earlier cinematic use of the same strategy' (97).

 

Everett picks up the idea of intertextuality in the chapter that follows, 'Symphony for a New World?', a discussion of Davies's _The Neon Bible_. Davies's film is an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's coming-of-age novel. This 'transition' film, as Everett calls it, comes after Davies's more overtly autobiographical films and represented his first foray into working with someone else's source material. (Davies most recently adapted Edith Wharton's _The House of Mirth_.) In a subsection entitled _Gone with the Wind_, Everett explores the covert links between the two texts. Even though _Gone with the Wind_ does not feature in Toole's novel, or directly in Davies's film, she argues that, 'it does in fact play a major role in the film, providing a dominant subtext that emerges through musical and stylistic quotation' (129). Via allusion, Davies brings to his film a history of the US South. The cultural ripples that _Gone with the Wind_ set in motion do still inform an understanding of that region, and Everett is right to point to its influence. She then relates these cultural references to Davies film more directly and thus reveals the richness of Davies's work when viewed through the intertextual lens. The sequence in which Davies uses 'Tara's Theme' from _Gone with the Wind_ is referentially rich. In addition to the theme, the sequence includes a white sheet, the American Flag, and the Pledge of Allegiance. Everett tells us that the sheet on the clothes line 'carries with it the knowledge of the loss and suffering caused by war' (133), but the white sheet in the America South also directly alludes to the Ku Klux Klan. In addition to the loss of war, Davies juxtaposes the Old South of the white sheet with the Reconstructed South of the Pledge of Allegiance and the American Flag.

 

'Music and Time: A New Dimension' is the book's most compelling chapter. Everett begins that chapter by stating that Davies's use of music on the soundtrack is not only 'innovative and exciting but also that his conception of the nature of film, clearly reflected in the methods that characterize his directing, is of a medium whose affinities are closest to music' (167). Still a comparatively underdeveloped area of film studies, the light that Everett shines on Davies's film music moves this book out of the ordinary realm of single author studies and toward a more theoretical bent. Everett argues that it is 'within this relationship between music and anteriority, particularly the close link between voice and self, or voice and mother, that the phenomenon of the popular song must be situated' (173). Here and elsewhere, Everett acknowledges her indebtedness to psychoanalytic film theory. The author navigates nicely through this territory and gives a useful summation of current thinking on film music. In this same chapter, Everett's conclusions concerning _Distant Voices, Still Lives_ give us a chance to see her theory and practice meet. She writes:

 

'Despite the apparently weak position of the mother, it is she who, through the disruptive mobility of music, triumphs. For it is the nature of music to move through time, to change, to modulate, to escape definition, and in its constant movement we find constantly renewed hope. Of course, that hope is vulnerable perhaps even doomed; silenced by the very reality whose limitations it is responsible for revealing' (180).

 

Thus Everett locates the conflict in Davies's work in the tension between a hope in music's ability to transcend the everyday, often bleak lives of those looking for it to move them, and in music's almost regular failure to actually pull it off. Everett wants us to believe that songs help structure memory, but also perhaps that the song (at its conclusion?) leaves us aware of the limitations of where we were when it began.

 

The section in this chapter on _The Neon Bible_ shows Everett at her best in conveying both the premise of this (the most intriguing) chapter, and a close reading of an individual film. She clearly and smartly links all of the intertextual influences with the elements of time and music. Everett rightly points out how Davies's filmmaking is 'particularly innovative' (187). For while music, especially popular music, is omnipresent in contemporary cinema, we can see through Everett's descriptions how Davies's use of music is integral to his thematic projects. The songs function as more than merely backdrop or as popular culture referents; they are characters in the films. In _The Neon Bible_, Everett points to the song 'Hard Times Come Again No More' as exemplary of Davies's innovation. The song accompanies the image track to provide an expression for the emotional condition of the young main character.

 

Everett concludes this successful book with a chapter devoted to an interview between Davies and the author. Reading the artist's own words concerning his films is somewhat disconcerting on the heels of these fine analyses. Everett need not rely on Davies's thoughts on his films as affirmations, her work stands on its own. That said, Davies is insightful and more lucid than most directors at discussing his own work.

 

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Benjamin A. Schneider, 'The Sight and Sound of Music: Wendy Everett's _Terrence Davies_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 18, March 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n18schneider>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle

 

Join the _Film-Philosophy_ salon, and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here

 

Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England

Contact the Editor (remove Caps before sending)

 

Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage