Sometimes there is edification in misery. Drenched in melancholy and nostalgia, the films of Terence Davies neither wallow in the former nor fawn over the latter. Each qualifies the other. Stifling repression unlocks the inner life of the mind – society is imprisoning, pervasive; art is transfiguring, fleeting. But only hand-in-hand does either make any kind of existential sense. For if we were all liberated tomorrow, then we would have no need to retreat. There would be no solace in private rooms, no need to smuggle into song our otherwise inexpressible feelings, no use for movie-house or concert hall escapism – for what is there to be escaped?
Oh the fools who believe that Davies is drunk on nostalgic sentimentality! A few sips, if that, for such a reserved ascetic! And even then, the stomach sickness is acute. Have ye not seen Sunset Song? Honeymoons are hangovers for this gentle cynic! The most rapturous love curdles overnight! Everything that’s worth a damn has an expiration date on it – and Davies tasks himself with beautifying these privileged moments before they go bad (and they will go bad). Art is a coping mechanism, then. A little too clinical a thought? Nay! Art for art’s sake is the real hopeless nihilism – the cinephile snake devouring its own tail. Art for Davies is a means of survival, the last bulwark against worldly corrosion. There’s honest-to-god utility there.
I can’t say this gels entirely with my worldview or experiences or vision of the future – I’m way more optimistic! But that is an optimism born of a certain privilege, a privilege denied to Mr. Davies, the same privilege that allows people like me to throw themselves into artistic consumption at the expense of Actually Living Life. And if Davies’ movies are instructive to me, it’s in endowing art with Real Life Importance, not as a dilettante hobby, not as a vacuous exercise in checklist completism, but something to turn to in trying times for a rarefied experience. You numb yourself to that possibility when you have no day-to-day life experience for the music you listen to or the books you read or the movies you watch to inform or inflect or amplify. If you’re listening to songs about love without searching for the genuine article, if you’re gleaning moral insights from literature without practicing them day to day, if you’re gulping down movies like alcohol – as an intoxicating end in itself – then congratulations! You’ll never know what it means to be really and truly transported by this stuff, you gluttonous shut-in!
I don’t mean to be so harsh. All I know is that I first saw Distant Voices, Still Lives in college, during a deep depression, and its depiction of people sublimating their misery to larger communal rituals, of isolation dissolving into singsong, shot instantly like some chemical into my brain. My sunken heart rose to the surface, my fear of forever friendlessness was forgotten. Because here were people facing the same despair (worse, really, much worse, but it’s all relative and we’re all in the muck together – why split hairs about it?), enjoying what they had in the lovely little ways they knew how. It gave me hope! Real applicable hope! Actionable hope! Not just a pleasant palliative to take my mind off my troubles. Nay, to quote the bard (Harry Nilsson), I was thinking about my troubles, only my thoughts were pierced by the roseate light of Davies’ vision of the world – a world that is emphatically not perfect (on the contrary: cruel, evil, unfeeling, unthinking), but that affords pockets of perfection, of beauty, of love, of feeling, to even its most downtrodden inhabitants. Onward and upward my friends!