QUEERNESS AND MELANCHOLIA
An Excerpt from Terence Davies
Called the most important British filmmaker of his generation, Terence Davies made his reputation with modern classics like Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, personal works exploring his fractured childhood in Liverpool. In Terence Davies (University of Illinois Press, September 2014), Michael Koresky explores the unique emotional tenor of Davies’s work by focusing on four paradoxes within the director’s oeuvre: films that are autobiographical yet fictional; melancholy yet elating; conservative in tone and theme yet radically constructed; and obsessed with the passing of time yet frozen in time and space. Through these contradictions, the films’ intricate designs reveal a cumulative, deeply personal meditation on the self.
In this excerpt, Koresky analyzes how Davies’s ongoing negotiation of—and struggle with—questions of identity related to his past and his homosexuality imbue the details and jarring juxtapositions in his films with a queer sensibility, which is too often overlooked due to the complexity of Davies’s work and his unfashionable ambivalence toward his own sexual orientation.
Perhaps the most immobilizing of Terence Davies’s traumas, and the most defining, is his sexuality. In a 2011 interview with Donald Clarke for the Irish Times online, he said, at age 66, “Being gay has ruined my life. I hate it. I’ll go to my grave hating it.” The seeds of confusion and terror wrought by a burgeoning awareness of his desire for the same sex are strewn throughout three of his memory films—Children, The Long Day Closes, and Of Time and the City—while his greatest harbored fears in relation to his homosexuality, and its perceived sinfulness and consequent loneliness, find predictive outlet in Madonna and Child and Death and Transfiguration. In all cases, homosexuality is linked to shame, a politically incorrect and dated perspective in an era in which gayness has been recouped as a marker of identity to be worn with pride. Nevertheless, it is crucial to Davies’s persona and artistic perspective to acknowledge his outsider status—socially and within the film industry—which also helps us understand the connection he feels with socially outcast female characters in his novel adaptations, such as Aunt Mae in The Neon Bible, Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, and Hester in The Deep Blue Sea, all of whom stand as potential figures of queer identification.
The first explicitly gay moment in Davies’s cinema occurs in an early and sexually forthright scene in Children. While showering at a public pool, pubescent Tucker finds himself fascinated by a young man with a well-developed physique who washes in front of him. The camera takes on the boy’s point of view, panning down the man’s body, fixing on his small swimming briefs as he puts his hand down the front of them to wash his genitals; despite Tucker’s shame, the gaze is unabashedly erotic, inviting the spectator to join the boy in the realization of his pleasure. Davies zooms in on the child’s face as he watches wordlessly, dumbstruck (the original screenplay, which included an ultimately deleted voiceover narration, features Tucker whispering to himself, “Look at his muscles!” [Modest Pageant 11]). Clarifying this scene not simply as sensual but rather as a source of trauma, Davies cuts to a haunted-looking Tucker at age 24 (Robin Hooper) in a psychiatrist’s office. After writing a prescription for depression pills, his doctor asks Tucker, “Still no interest in girls? Well, that may come.”
The entire sequence is paralleled in an early scene in The Long Day Closes. Bud, who has begged his mother to let him go the pictures but has instead been enlisted to help with her laundry, is perched at the back window of his row house. His mother works below, clothespinning the wash to the line; meanwhile Bud, center frame, stares straight ahead into a neighbor’s backyard, in which a group of laborers are working under the hot sun to build a brick wall. Bud, intrigued by the sight of these men, especially one standing in front, muscular and stripped to the waist, watches heedlessly. The man catches his eye and winks. When Davies cuts back to Bud, we hear the men laughing offscreen; the boy’s expression alters to bewilderment and shame as he slowly slinks into the darkness behind him. The laborer and Children’s man in the shower are similarly seductive figures, objects of eroticism (with matching slim-to-muscular physiques) indifferent to the gaze of their pubescent admirers, unintentional exhibitionists whose very comfort with their own bodies forms a striking, unsettling contrast to the bodily shame they inspire in the one who is watching.
To better comprehend the revulsion Tucker and Bud feel at the moments of their sexual awakenings, it is helpful to put Davies’s feelings of adolescent self-loathing in the context of England’s cultural attitudes toward homosexuality in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The historical public disapproval of sex between consenting adults of the same gender—seen largely as aberrant or, worse, a “perversion”—was still widely pervasive throughout Davies’s childhood, although a number of events in the 1950s brought the taboo subject out of the closet. Making homosexuality a topic of discussion also would have made Davies, along with other gay children coming of age at the time, more aware of the general disgust the notion raised in many people. Lord Edward Montagu, a young baron and politician of repute, became notorious when in 1953 and 1954 he was twice arrested and imprisoned for engaging in lewd conduct with males, many of whom were also of wealth and renowned lineage. The legendary stage and screen actor John Gielgud was likewise arrested in 1953 for attempting to pick up a man in a public restroom. These and other examples of commonly reported arrests and convictions were part of a wide governmental crackdown—escalated by the newly appointed police commissioner John Nott-Bower—on homosexuals, who were increasingly linked in the era’s Communist witch-hunts, tagged as security risks in governmental jobs, and stigmatized as sexual predators. The more liberal public scrutiny over this ongoing cultural purge eventually resulted in the 1957 Wolfenden Report, which recommended legislation to legalize homosexual behavior, criminalized since an 1885 Act of Parliament. Written by a committee of 15 members, including clergymen, politicians, academics, and doctors, the report concluded that homosexuality cannot be legitimately identified as a disease and that homosexual activity between consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes is not a matter for the government. Though the report received much press, it would not be until 1967 that legislation was enacted to overturn the 1885 act.
Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961), a major cinematic response to the Wolfenden Report, would come when Davies was at the impressionable and fragile age of 16. Davies refers to the film in a revelatory passage in Of Time and the City. After a sequence in which he gushes over his love for cinema, fostered uncomplicatedly in his youth, accompanied by images of glamorous Hollywood movie stars, such as Gregory Peck, visiting Liverpool, Davies intones, “Later I saw Dirk Bogarde in Victim and discovered something altogether different.” Regarded today as a landmark political film, Victim starred a major matinee idol in what was perceived as a risky role: a closeted, married barrister whose concealed homosexual past comes back to haunt him when he and other members of the underground gay community in London are targeted by a vicious homophobic blackmailer. Conceived by Dearden and his longtime producing partner Michael Relph as one of their many “social-problem films” of that era, Victim is a liberal message movie that, as the critic Raymond Durgnat claims, “urges the repeal of a law.” So despite its kid-gloves approach to the material (its buttoned-down air of tastefulness veers from any hint of homoeroticism) and its essentially conservative and tragic representation of the gay community, the majority of whose members are portrayed as burdened, sad-sack figures, Victim is nevertheless a radical and highly political film. The fact that it features a sympathetic homosexual protagonist—the first in British cinema—was no small matter, and the effect it would have had on a boy of 16 struggling with his own homosexual feelings is incalculable. At the same time, its depiction of the gay lifestyle as one of despair and social invisibility could have proven to further frighten him; in fact, it seems to have laid the emotional groundwork for his cinematic intimations of love as tragic and doomed.
Davies’s invocation of Victim in Of Time and the City—which both sets Victim up as an alternative to conventional Hollywood cinema and insinuates that viewing it was an altering experience for him—is followed, tellingly, by a sequence that is a more direct confessional. Over images of professional wrestling matches, Davies relates the combination of tantalization and horror he would feel watching the wrestlers in what he perceived as a hypersexualized environment, where men with immense torsos would strip to the waist and pummel one another into the ground in fits of violent ecstasy. While witnessing these sweat-and-blood–drenched behemoths, staring out from behind tight, face-obscuring rubber masks, either on television or from a stadium seat, Davies says in voiceover that he would find himself “choking with schoolboy guilt and trembling with the fear of the wrath of God.” The stock images Davies shows are more traditionally frightening than sensual, allowing him to both legitimize his sexual predilections and stigmatize them as somehow unwholesome.
This linkage of eroticism and violence recalls Tucker’s sexual guilt in the Trilogy. The first suggestion of this—and one that directly connects Tucker to Davies the narrator in Of Time and the City, creating a clear autobiographical continuum between the films—comes in Children, in which we see 24-year-old Tucker admiring an image collage of mostly shirtless bodybuilders and wrestlers taped to the back of his closet door. In Death and Transfiguration, such images have been transplanted into a photo album that the middle-aged Tucker keeps hidden away and occasionally flips through, its many pages implying that the appeal of the rugged, violent, über-masculine ideal has only increased over the years, now also incorporating bikers and other men fitted out in leather gear. Tucker’s attraction to such physical types forces him to feel further social marginalization, even if such an aesthetic sexual preference is common and is interpreted as a response to a culture that has traditionally feminized gay men. The visual appeal of men in motorcycle jackets, leather caps and harnesses, sailor suits, police uniforms, wrestling outfits, and the like—all traditionally signifiers of dominant, patriarchal masculinity—has been frequently represented in art in the second half of the 20th century, most famously in the work of the filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and controversially in the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and the illustrations of Tom of Finland. Once considered deviant, such types have grown relatively mainstream in gay iconography, but for Tucker and Davies such aesthetic pleasures are necessarily viewed as abnormal. Here, Davies offers a productive, rather than merely retrograde, image of gay shame, a reminder of the self-loathing that persists in the post-Stonewall gay community and that desire is always in the process of being socially marginalized in one way or another. Davies’s effectiveness as a queer auteur, then, comes out of an expression of his own personal marginalization rather than ideology.
Davies pushes Tucker’s complicated desires into the realm of the sadomasochistic, so that the already profound religious guilt he feels over his own homosexuality is exacerbated by the shame he feels as a social aberration who does not even fit in to his ostensible community. Furthermore, the conflation of sex and violence, pleasure and pain, connects Tucker’s adult persona irrevocably to that of the pubescent Tucker, whose entire educational experience as presented in Children is predicated upon dominant-submissive power games between master and pupil—the sadism enacted on the students by school authority figures is further explored in The Long Day Closes, its many scenes of teachers caning their students’ hands for minor insubordinations allowing for an even greater continuum of sadomasochistic dynamics across Davies’s autobiographical films. Tucker is therefore harnessed to his childhood and its attendant fears, rituals, and eroticisms, even as an adult sexual being. Sex becomes a necessarily shameful act, not simply for the reasons connected to the social stigma of homosexuality and the religious damnation it promises but also because the act implicitly returns Tucker to a state of pubescence, therefore retroactively making “dirty” the hallowed, virginal ground of childhood.
From Terence Davies by Michael Koresky. Copyright 2014 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the University of Illinois Press.
Koresky will introduce Distant Voices, Still Lives at the Museum of the Moving Image on September 28, followed by a book signing.
MICHAEL KORESKY is staff writer and associate editor at The Criterion Collection and cofounder of the online film magazine Reverse Shot.