As a film viewer, I am unfamiliar with the work of British filmmaker Terence Davies. I’ve seen only one of his seven films, The Long Day Closes from 1992, thanks to a release from The Criterion Collection earlier this year. On the strength of that film, I’d love to see the rest of his work, but right now that’s difficult to do in the United States where his films are relatively hard to come by. Despite the fact that I usually seeks books on filmmakers I’m already familiar with, I was still very excited to see Terence Davies (2014) included in The University of Illinois’ series on Contemporary Film Directors because it was written by Michael Koresky, who has quickly become one of my favorite writers on film.
In 2003, along with Jeff Reichert, Koresky co-founded the online film magazine Reverse Shot, which recently became affiliated with the Museum of the Moving Image and is currently as vibrant as ever with a symposium on the work of Martin Scorsese (see here). Koresky also works for The Criterion Collection as a staff writer and associate editor. I came to recognize his work because he often writes the essays that accompany the company’s Eclipse Series releases (some of you may know that, with David Blakeslee, I talk about the films in the Eclipse Series once a month on the podcast The Eclipse Viewer). The Eclipse Series covers a wide variety of films from different directors, regions, time periods, styles, etc. Often when I approach a new set, I am being introduced to something completely new. Koresky’s essays that ground me and help me approach obscure but important films that might otherwise be rather inaccessible.
But it’s not just because his essays are often the initial stepping stone; Koresky is a fantastic writer. He recently told me in an interview that he loves to read, sometimes more than watching the films, because he loves the written word. This respect for writing no doubt contributes to his own stylistic strengths. He is able to contextualize the films and tell a story through them, but also he is able to present a disciplined passion that makes me genuinely reflective and excited. His essays are invigorating lessons about film but also about ways to approach and appreciate film. It’s for this last reason that I was most anxious to read his first book-length work on one of his favorite directors, even though I myself still need to make the trip through Davies’ filmography.
And, indeed, Terence Davies is a phenomenal book, even for someone uninitiated. Koresky isn’t just analyzing the technical and narrative aspects of Davies’ work (though he does that well); he has organized the book by compelling themes, and this books is an exploration of those themes on a universal level as much as it is an exploration of a filmography. The themes are, generally, memory, the passage of time, family, guilt, architecture, all spread through sections entitled “The Fiction of Autobiography,” “The Elation of Melancholy,” “The Radical Tradition,” and “The Fixity of Forward Motion.” If you know my favorite books, you’ll see it’s obvious why I found this book so compelling. I loved reading about how a conflicted director used his medium to explore these areas.
Davies’ films are often highly influenced by his own memories of his childhood in Liverpool. He was raised Catholic, and experienced crippling guilt when he realized he was homosexual. His films touch on this guilt, though not in a way that many might think. Koresky uses the term “queer” to discuss Davies’ homosexuality but also, and more importantly to the study, to discuss how Davies’ work “deviates from the formal and cultural concerns of his cinematic contemporaries.” Indeed, Davies’ approach could be uncomfortable to many who wish for a more redemptive, politically useful approach to homosexuality, but Davies has said that “being gay has ruined my life.” He lives alone, claims to be celibate, and he devotes everything to his work. Work that is, largely, unappreciated, and Koresky notes one main reason:
It needs to be emphasized that a main reason for Davies not yet being confirmed as an important queer auteur is that his films and his persona are hopelessly out of step with a scholarship and politics of queerness that is largely driven by notions of empowerment and pride.
It’s a shame, really . . . I say, having seen only one of his films (but, honestly, it’s fantastic); Koresky says it better:
Yet rarely has a gay feature filmmaker so completely and insistently plumbed the depths of his own embattled psyche while placing it in a concrete sociopolitical framework.
In Terence Davies, Koresky begins with a nice introduction that highlights some of Davies’ haunting film moments, moments that introduce Davies’ exploration of his childhood in Liverpool. I took particular delight in passages that explored the relationship between Davies’ work on memory and loss and T.S. Eliot’s own work in these areas in The Four Quartets, which Davies claims has had the most influence on his work (“I read them once a month, because I just love them,” he tells Koresky in the interview that closes this book).
Koresky then digs deeply into Davies’ biography, in the nicely titled section “The Fiction of Autobiography.” Not locked down by a chronological approach to Davies’ filmmaking, he starts this section off by looking at one of Davies’ most recent projects, a documentary (which Koresky notes is still a work of the imagination) called Of Time and the City, a film meant to be a celebration of Liverpool but that is still very personal (according to Koresky, again, as I have not seen it; but Koresky’s argument is convincing and intriguing). This section continues to discuss Davies’ output as not so much a social history as an “unabashedly subjective memory piece.” And, thus, we are ushered into Davies’ childhood, where the institutions of the church and school had such a deep impact on this subjective memory.
Next, in a subsection entitled “Dark Desires,” Koresky addresses straight-on what he considers “[p]erhaps the most immobilizing of Davies’s traumas, and the most defining [. . . :] his sexuality.” Homosexuality was a theme in Davies’s debut short film (a still of which is above), and Koresky looks at how Davies continues to return throughout his career. In this section, Koresky also notes Davies’s initial experience with Basil Dearden’s 1961 film Victim, one of the, if not the, first film to really address a theme of homosexuality head-on, which we covered in an Eclipse Viewer podcast in July. Fascinatingly, Koresky continues to explore these themes in Davies’ adaptations of John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, two seemingly uncharacteristic films on which, nevertheless, Davies places his auteur stamp.
After the section on autobiography, Koresky delves into more of Davies’s stamps in a section on melancholy, one on sound and music, and one on Davies’s resistance to change the he himself promotes. The book ends with Koresky’s interview with Davies.
As I mentioned above, this is a book that allows even an uninitiated access to the workings and works of an auteur. It’s certainly a must for those of you who are already fans of Terence Davies, but I’d recommend those of you with even a passing interest in film give this a go. As he does with his essays for The Eclipse Series, Koresky has provided an introduction, or ramp, if you will, to a relatively hidden gem.