Miserable to be gay: A Q&A with Terence Davies

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If the film director Terence Davies didn’t qualify as a master in his own medium (albeit one who has made only a handful of features), it would be tempting to compare him at length with musicians who have made a career out of either discovering nostalgic melodic magic in every corner and cranny of England’s cities, such as Saint Etienne, or ones who never pass up an opportunity to lament the passing of a country that once was unique, such as Morrissey. Any fan of those iconic soundsters who doesn’t know the work of Davies should dive into his Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) as soon as possible, and then journey from them into The House of Mirth (2000) to see that Davies is also capable of creating classic films set in other countries. On the occasion of his upcoming appearance at Pacific Film Archive, I recently rang him up for a chat that began by the Pacific Ocean and ended in New York society, touching upon Noel Coward, Edith Sitwell, vile bodies, vain gay men, Char Ladies and Hottentots along the way.

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Still from the Terence Davies Trilogy

Terence Davies: Are you looking at some wonderful view of San Francisco?
SFBG: There’s a freeway, and some industrial buildings slightly blocking my view of the Bay.
TD: I was expecting you to say it was a view of the clear blue Pacific and you could see Japan.
SFBG: If I was on that part of the coastline, the side Hitchcock loves, I’d at least be able to see the ocean below me in a manner that would completely terrify me.

TD: But it’s astonishingly beautiful, isn’t it? God, when I was driven near there, I thought it was so spectacular – quite wonderful. San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s almost European.
SFBG: [Laughs] I wish there were more American cities keeping it company in that regard. Where am I reaching you at the moment?
TD: I live on the Essex coast. I have a little house there. I’m just back from Liverpool where I’m making a documentary, and I’m staying at my PR’s flat, in London, in Chelsea. I gave my own flat up [in London] because it was terribly expensive and not in a very nice part of the city. Now I have a nice little cottage amongst these 18th century houses, which are very pretty. There’s grain, and a meadow, and a Gothic revival church.
SFBG: In coming across articles about your current documentary project, Of Time and the City, it’s disheartening to read about the funding problems you’ve encountered over the past 8 years. In the wake of The House of Mirth, I remember reading that you were thinking of doing an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies –
TD: -- it was an original screenplay, not from the book. I just nicked the title.
SFBG: That’s understandable.
TD: It’s a wonderful title, but we got a very stern letter from his estate.
The thing is, we don’t have a cinema in this country, we just have an extension of television. You’ve got 25-year-olds who don’t know anything and think cinema started with [Quentin] Tarantino, and who won’t work with black-and-white. One 25-year-old who knew absolutely nothing said to me, “Of course, every one of your characters has to have a background story.” I said, “That will make the film 4 hours long.” You give an answer like that and they just go quiet and refuse to speak. We live in a very philistine country, I’m afraid.

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Still from Distant Voices, Still Lives

SFBG: Your films, with the exception of House of Mirth, haven’t been dialogue-based. They’re proof you don’t need dialogue to convey the background of a character.
TD: A lot of people in this country don’t see any difference between cinema and television. All they want is talk and things happening. That’s fun, but it’s not cinema, or indeed drama. The great dramas are about the human comedy. What happens in Chekhov plays? Virtually nothing. Why, after all this time, are we still watching Chekhov? Because he’s telling us a universal truth, in every single play.
Here, we’re just little England. Because we’re not important anymore – the last time we were important was the [Second World] War – we’ve imploded. We’ve become virtually another state of America. In 20 years time, if we don’t watch it, we’ll be just like Hawaii, but without the decent weather.
SFBG: Within the context of British cinema, your films don’t really fit into the traditional contrasts that place David Lean-like literary adaptations, or the documentary basis of directors like Lindsay Anderson, against the more flamboyant directors such as Nicholas Roeg, or Ken Russell, or Joseph Losey. You have elements of all of the above: your work is autobiographical and learned, but it has also has a flamboyance I relate to, though it isn’t outrageous.
TD: I suppose my influences were very simple: the British comedies from the period when I was growing up and American melodramas and musicals. I remember being taken by my two older sisters to see Love is a Many-Splendored Thing [1955] or All That Heaven Allows [1955], and going by myself to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers [1954] or The Pajama Game [1957]. Also, I would go to any comedy that attracted Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim. They were always fabulous.
My films are an amalgam of those things, and of the fact that I was brought up Catholic. I was very devout until I was 22. What a waste that was!
Also, I was influenced by classical music, particularly [Jean] Sibelius and [Dmitry] Shostakovich and my beloved [Anton] Bruckner. And poetry. [My family] got our first television in 1961, and about two years later, over he course of four nights, Alec Guinness read [T.S. Eliot’s] entire Four Quartets from memory. Can you imagine? I didn’t understand them, but I went out and bought them, and I think I read them once a month. All of those disparate things figure as influences. That’s very true of everybody – we’re all made up of disparate influences that are very powerful, usually dating from when we were really young.

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Still from The Long Day Closes

SFBG: One of your future film projects is titled Mad About the Boy. My favorite interpretation of that song might be Dinah Washington’s. It’s scary. She really seems mad about the boy – like she might cut somebody’s throat about the boy. The boy’s throat, in fact.
TD: When Noel Coward wrote it, he wrote three versions, one for a socialite, one for a schoolgirl, and one for a Char Lady, and they’re all quite different. My film’s story is set at a fashion magazine, and the man who owns it and the woman who runs it both decide they are going to put a man on the cover. They find this lad, and he seduces them both, unbeknownst to each other. When they find out, of course they’re horrified, and want to get revenge. But every time they try to wreak their revenge it doesn’t work -- he always lands on his feet. Eventually, they decide that they’ll get together. They marry and live happily ever after.
SFBG: I’ve read your book Hallelujah Now [Penguin UK, 1993], and wanted to ask how you view the relationship between that book and the films that make up the Terence Davies Trilogy [1984]. Also, I wonder about your experiences reading and writing now, in relation to when you wrote that novel.
TD: Hallelujah Now is my first and only novel, because as you would have seen from reading it, it’s not a very good one. It needed to be written. I needed to get it out of me. It was from the same source as the Trilogy. I suppose it was my juvenilia. Like the Trilogy, I think the best part of the book is the last part – the walk to Paradise Gardens. But I’m clearly not a novelist, and I’ll never try again.
The latter part of the Trilogy, Death and Transfiguration, is the best, because I’ve finally found my voice. In the ten years it took to do it, I learned a lot about what I thought was cinema, about images and words.
I like to write short prose pieces, but I write poetry now more than prose. Those experiences were invaluable though, in order to find a voice.
I acted as an amateur for twelve years, only as an amateur, but I learned about how you build up a character and study a character. I know what it’s like to be an actor, and equally, I can tell when actor doesn’t understand the text, or I can detect when an actor is using tricks. That learning process was a vital one.
SFBG: What you’re talking about in terms of working with actors, would that especially apply to a project with well-known screen actors, such as House of Mirth, or to all of your films?
TD: It applies to every time I work with actors. Having done it myself, I know when someone does something extraordinary, and I’m the first to say, “That’s wonderful.” Equally, I know when to say, “No, I don’t believe that for a second.” The first thing I tell all the actors is, “Please, I don’t want you to act, I want you to be.” That’s much more difficult, but it’s also much more rewarding.
SFBG: Music plays such a major role – as important as acting – in your films to date. Moments from Distant Voices Still Lives and the movie theater scenes in The Long Day Closes are, to me, some of the most memorable uses of music in film – and they’re memory-based. How are you going to use music in the documentary form?
TD: The documentary is memory-based, too. Most of the material is archival. I’m shooting a little bit [of footage] to bridge passages, and I’m using music. In a way, [the film] is a poetic evocation of what Liverpool was, the Liverpool I grew up in. My template is Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain [1942].
SFBG: I came across an older interview with you from the era of Distant Voices, Still Lives, in which you were talking about the utter transformation and deterioration of Liverpool. That interview dates from almost 20 years ago. Have the changes continued?
TD: Yes, inevitably. At the time I left, Liverpool was very down at heel. I left it at its worst. It’s getting better now, but there’s still an awful lot to be done to the city.
The evocation of war that Humphrey Jennings did, I’m trying to do for Liverpool. I wanted to try and capture what it was like when I was growing up. Even I was shocked at some of the footage of the slums, which were some of the worst in Europe. I grew up in one, and when you grow up in one, you don’t realize it, because everyone else is in the same boat. But seeing footage of it now, it’s absolutely appalling. When you think that in 1953, this massive amount of money was spent on the coronation of the present queen, it’s just obscene. They get away it -- it’s quite extraordinary. I’m very much a republican, I’m not a monarchist. When you juxtapose the coronation with the footage that we’ve found, it’s shocking.

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Terence Davies

SFBG: In some senses your shift to documentary doesn’t seem surprising, because you’ve made films from personal experience. You’ve mentioned the current erosion of cinematic form and any distinctions between cinema and television, but England is central to earlier stages of the documentary tradition. Do you see what you’re doing in relation to that tradition?
TD: We [England] virtually invented documentary. We did, in fact. But I can’t see myself in relation to other filmmakers. When I go into a room full of them, I always feel like the inferior one – that they look like filmmakers, while I look like I should be in the glue factory. I’ve never felt part of a school of film making. I’ve simply wanted to make a poetic documentary about the city that I grew up in and that I loved and for a while hated before returning to a more balanced view. You need a journey away from it to understand it. As [T.S.] Eliot says, you leave the place, and when you arrive back, you know it for the first time. That’s very true.
SFBG: There are other authors whom I wanted t ask you about, because I love their writing and feel it might have a kinship with your films. One is Denton Welch.
TD: I haven’t read him.
SFBG: I wondered if you had because I’ve seen you mention Siegfried Sassoon and Edith Sitwell.
TD: Edith Sitwell is odd. I like the poems as façade, but they don’t mean anything. You just listen to the quality of the words. What does the “allegro negro cocktail-shaker” mean? I have no idea. She once said in a documentary on the BBC that two things had upset her in her life. One was when someone said she was as ugly as her poetry, and the other was when somebody had called her forever a Hottentot. [Laughs.] Only in England.
SFBG: You could say that’s being likened to a Venus. I also wondered about Welch because his writing is very solitary and at the same time rich with sensory experience, and those are qualities I get from your movies. Those qualities take on specific aspects in cinema – your use of darkness in relation to light is connected to, and even a few times directly about, the experience of being in a dark movie theater.
TD: You have to see the films in the cinema. It’s lovely to see, say, Letter from an Unknown Woman [1948] on the telly, but if you see it projected, it’s even more ravishing. The only way to see a film is in the cinema – nowhere else.
SFBG: I first saw The Long Day Closes at the Castro [Theatre] here in San Francisco, which was ideal.
TD: I did actually go to the Castro. It is a beautiful theater. But I remember that when I was there, two men were walking down the aisle and one asked, “What did you see last night?” The other said he’d seen the Trilogy. The first asked, “What did you think?” And the other said, “Not very good.”
SFBG: There’s no accounting for taste.
TD: Another man said to me, “These films make Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis,” which I thought was a wonderful insult – practically a compliment. Isn’t that fabulous? [Laughs]
It reminded me of this story of Mrs. Patrick Campbell in one of the [Bernard] Shaw plays. She gave this performance, and it was terrible. The audience did not like the play or her performance. But she came out at the end as if they were giving her this wonderful ovation, even though they were booing and shouting. She saw a man in the front that had a goiter, and she said, “This has been the most wonderful evening of my life, but I have to say that I object to people bringing bums into the theater.”

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Still from The Neon Bible

SFBG: When Maria Callas was a source of controversy at La Scala in the ‘50s, the fans that adored Renata Tebaldi and hated Callas would sometimes throw bouquets of rotten vegetables onto the stage. She’d see them, pick them up, and carry them along with the flowers. If you’re too precious, it’s easy to be hurt by things that can be hilarious. For example, any decent Californian should laugh at the way Woody Allen skewers California in Annie Hall.
TD: There were people I spoke to in visiting California who were very much glad to be gay, and I said, “I’m not glad to be gay, I’m actually miserable.” After a screening of the Trilogy, I remember this man standing up and saying, “This [film] is not accurate [about gay life].” I said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, and you don’t know what it was like in England.” [Homosexuality] was still a Crown Offense until 1967. I also said, “You happen to be very good looking. Have you any idea what it’s like when you’re not good looking, and no one is interested?” He just sat down.
SFBG: In your novel and in the Trilogy, there’s a severe contrast between going to an office job during the day and a leather bar at night. The one thing that unites the protagonist’s daily life and nighttime desires is a sense of severe alienation.
TD: This might just be my prejudice, but the gay scene [today] still seems to be about this kind of illicitness. Four or five years ago, I was in New York researching a film that never came off. I was taken to this gay bar and I had to walk out, I was so depressed. I thought, “If this is all it is -- what you look like and who you fuck -- there’s got to be more to life.” It chilled my soul.
SFBG: Those kinds of sexual situations once seemed linked to an idea of liberation, even if it was naïve. Now they’re usually connected to pornography or commerce.
You’ve talked about the tyranny of beauty in interviews, but certainly, at least looking within the history of what’s been called gay, a lot of great art has been based from a response to, or view of, beauty. Now, there’s no culture attached to it.
TD: I remember once going to meet someone for breakfast and seeing some of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen, with wonderful physiques. But that was all it was about. You’d look into their eyes, and they’ve done everything, they’ve seen everything, and they’re dead. All they’re interested in is, “Look at me, adore me, I’m gorgeous.” That’s a betrayal of Stonewall, surely.
But I’m just getting old and miserable -- that’s what it is.
SFBG: It can be great to be miserable. You can mine all sorts of things. People are overly enamored with happiness.
TD: Every childhood is supposed to be miserable.
SFBG: What are you enjoying in terms of watching films? This question obviously applies to older movies, but I’m also curious if there are any recent ones.
TD: To be honest, one of the last recent films I enjoyed was [Bernard] Tavernier’s Laissez-passer [Safe Conduct, 2002]. I return more and more to the films I saw as a child and that were made even before I was born. They gave me enormous pleasure. I must say I find much modern filmmaking not terribly inspired: huge production values, very slick, but not about anything. I’ll just stay at home.
Looking back to the past, reading poetry, writing poetry, and listening to Bruckner, that’s where I get my solace now. Bruckner is my constant solace. He always makes me feel that it’s worthwhile going on.

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Still from The House of Mirth

SFBG: What poets and poetry are you reading?
TD: The Sonnets. [The Love Song of J. Alfred] Prufrock is another must. I love Emily Dickinson. I tend to go back to those. Also John Betjeman. I love reading him because he’s very funny. His depiction of the upper middle class is wonderful. He has a poem in which one woman is writing to her friend because her daughter is turning into a horse. And another called “In Westminster Abbey,” where this woman during the war goes into Westminster Abbey and asks for all these horrible things from God, as long as she’s protected. I love Betjeman.
SFBG: Do you have a practice in terms of writing poetry? Do you write daily?
TD: I’ve been writing for quite a while, not to be published, but just for my own pleasure. I’m using some of it in the documentary. Some of the poems are rather good, even if I say so myself.
SFBG: With both The Neon Bible and The House of Mirth, you shifted to literary adaptations. I was curious what drew you to those particular books.
TD: I was approached by [the film’s producer] about The Neon Bible. She showed me the book, and I liked it. I think the film is a failure. It’s my fault. It was my first adaptation. I’d never read A Confederacy of Dunces and am sad to say I still haven’t.
I love The House of Mirth. I think it’s [Edith Wharton’s] greatest book, in fact. It’s about that enclosed society, really just like Hollywood, where there are all these rules and you’re expected to know them. If you don’t, the retribution is swift and deadly. I love that., because American high society of the belle époque was even more restrictive than anything in Europe.
SFBG: One thing that’s remarkable about the book is the author or narrator’s relationship to Lily Bart, and in fact to all of the characters. There’s a real tenderness and also a harsh viewpoint. In one scene a character may be depicted sympathetically, only to appear 20 or so pages later in a much more selfish or unflattering light.
TD: When the book begins, [Wharton] shows Lily at her most unattractive and venal. The great thing about the book is that it’s a journey to moral salvation. Lily realizes she has an integrity that she didn’t know she had, and once she does, she will not be compromised again. It’s a dramatic irony, and it’s wonderfully moving.

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