16. THE LONG DAY CLOSES
I watch The Long Day Closes every year during the Christmas/New Year period. Most years I watch it at some other time as well. I never tire of it.
Most people probably don’t know the movie exists at all, and for many it may be just a footnote. For me it is one of the greatest movies ever made, ranking up there among my top 3 (the other 2 being The Tree of Life and 2001).
It thrills my soul.
And how can a movie whose central theme is the erosion of the human spirit mange to so inspire?
Erosion is referred to with great explicitness twice in the move. First, in a schoolroom setting mid-movie when the stern male teacher is presenting a lecture on types of erosion which his pupils are expected to write down every word. That lecture is continued in voiceover toward the end of the movie, as our young central character disappears into the darkness in the basement coal room under his home. That fade into darkness is accompanied by another voiceover, the long speech by Marita Hunt’s Miss Havisham from David Lean’s Great Expectations and a bit of Orson Welles’s’ narration from The Magnificent Ambersons. The effect is breathtaking.
As in the teacher’s lecture, the erosion comes from a variety of sources, some societal and some more persona. And some simply from life itself. The school, with its punitive teachers and disdainful nurses. The schoolyard with its bullies (“Who’s a poofter, then?”) and uncaring supervisors. The Catholic Church (although in this movie director Terence Davies is gentler with the church than in some of his other works). Young friends in his neighborhood, who seem to befriend only when it suits them. The process of growing up. And sadly, his family.
He has 2 much older brothers and an older sister, and they are loving and kind. Yet, likely because they are of the courting age and the child is not, they leave him behind when it suits them to do so. There is no father in evidence, and if we have seen Davies’ earlier movie Distant Voices, Still Lives we know that the father was brutally abusive toward wife and children and is now dead.
Only his mother seems to be the solid ground supporting him. And the movie is much concerned with the great love between son and mother.
The boy is called Bud but we know that he is really the director as a pre-pubescent child. The movie is distinctly autobiographical. The family’s last name is Davies, as we hear twice in the movie. Bud is definitely going to grow up gay, as is made explicit in his fascination with a shirtless workman early in the movie. And we know that the director himself is a gay man who admittedly has never outgrown the shame of being so and who late in his life has difficulties forming lasting attachments.
The title is that of the song by Henry Chorley and Sir Arthur Sullivan (yes, the one of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) that sung in its entirety by a male choir closes the movie. So does the movie take place in one day? One might say yes, from certain evidence, but one might also say that it take place during a year in the boy’s life. For me the work takes place in 2 overlapping timelines. Shakespeare uses a similar device in Othello, where some plot incidents require a long time passing and others require time compressed.
This long ending takes place after Bud disappears into the blackness in the coal cellar. It begins with Bud and a buddy sitting on the stoop of Bud’s house gazing at the sky, with Bud commenting that if you shine a flashlight up into the darkness the light will go on forever. And yet the long day closes. A conflict? Or sheer poetry. I opt for the latter.
So: young boy growing up gay with his spirit being constantly eroded in crowded conditions (the daughter sleeps with her mother) in a working class family (all 3 of the older siblings have jobs) in gray and grim post-WW2 England (Liverpool, actually), how depressing can you get?
Magically, not at all! And somewhere in that fact is why the movie is so great to me.
In part we can thank the music. The movie is filled with song. Just take a look:
-Minuet from 'The Quintet in E, Op. 13, No. 3. by Luigi Boccherini
-20th Century Fox Fanfare, Composed by Alfred Newman
-Stardust, written by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish and performed by Nat 'King' Cole
-If You Were the Only Girl in the World, by Nat Ayer and Clifford Grey
-At Sundown, by Walter Donaldson, performed by Doris Day
-Blow the Wind Southerly, arranged by William Whittaker and performed by Kathleen Ferrier
-The Carousel Waltz, composed by Richard Rodgers
-She Moved Through the Fair, by Herbert Hughes and Padraig Colum
-A Shropshire Lad - Rhapsody for Orchestra, composed by George Butterworth
-Once in Royal David's City
-Symphony No. 10, by Gustav Mahler
-Auld Lang Syne
-Faith of Our Fathers
-Once in Love with Amy, by Frank Loesser
-My Foolish Heart, by Ned Washington and Victor Young
-Me and My Shadow, by Al Jolson, Dave Dreyer, and Billy Rose
-Ae Fond Kiss (And Then We Sever), written by Robert Burns, Traditional arrangement performed Isobel Buchanan
-Over the Banister, by Ralph Blane
-On a Slow Boat to China, by Frank Loesser
-Civilisation (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo), by Bob Hilliard & Carl Sigman
-When I Leave the World Behind, by Irving Berlin
-I Don't Know Why (I Just Do), music by Fred E. Ahlert, lyrics by Roy Turk
-We're a Couple of Swells, by Irving Berlin
-Oh, You Beautiful Doll, music by Nat Ayer and lyrics by Seymour Brown
-Tammy, written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, performed by Debbie Reynolds
-The Long Day Closes, by Henry Chorley and Arthur Sullivan
And that’s just a sample of the music and songs used.
(And I have recently noticed that after the Minuet under the opening credits and the Fox Fanfare the first song we hear is “Stardust,” and the last words in the movie refer to stars and light going on forever. Great works of art continue to open up, like flowers in spring.)
Sometimes the selections are heard as background or commentary to actions onscreen, and sometimes they are sung by the characters in the movie. I have always marveled at the use of Debbie Reynolds singing “Tammy” while the camera pans right to left down tenement streets, the aisle of a movie theater, the aisled of a school, the aisle of a church, and back to the tenement street. I love hearing “The Carousel Waltz” on the soundtrack while we see Bud in the center of the first row of a movie balcony watching that movie, and while the music continues the camera pans down into darkness and a night when Bud and his sister and his mother are walking through a fair, with the waltz gradually fading and being replaced by “She Moved through the Fair,” a love song to the mother. I still get goosebumps when we hear “Blow the Wind Southerly (and bring back my lover to me)” as Bud sits dreamily in a (sometimes) windswept and rain-driven classroom.
In addition to the music it is filled with references to other movies. Specific references are made to the following, including scenes as well as dialogue from them used as voiceover: The Magnificent Ambersons, Meet Me in St. Louis, Great Expectations, The Happiest Days of Your Life, The Ladykillers, Private's Progress, and Kind Hearts and Coronets.
The first voice we hear, after Nat King Cole sings “Stardust,” is that of Alec Guinness (“I hear you have rooms to let”) from The Ladykillers.
It is rewarding to know the movie references, but if you do not the movie still makes perfect sense.
All of this helps lift the movie away from misery, but more important is its depiction of family love. The mother’s love for her son: perfect. A bedrock for the boy. But also, in their imperfect way, his siblings love him, and he loves them.
In spite of its depiction of the erosion of the human spirit, the movie makes grat room for resilience. The child is worn down but not defeated. The erosion wounds but does not destroy. The mere fact that Terence Davies grows up to direct many fine movies including this great one is further proof of that.
And he has made something beautiful where there might have been just misery.
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The movies of Terence Davies are all worthy, and he is one director among several still alive (a list that includes David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronovsky, Stephen Spielberg) whose every movie I must see. I like and admire his “fiction” movies The Neon Bible, The House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea, Sunset Song, and A Quiet Passion. I have just seen Benediction, having unexpectedly found out that it is available on Hulu. It is wonderful. But somehow they don’t thrill my soul to the degree that those based on his personal experience do: The Long Day Closes, its prequel Distant Voiced, Still Lives, and his poetic documentary about Liverpool, Of Time and the City.
Distant Voices, Still Lives is brilliant, fascinating, and hard to take. Has there ever been a more frightening, bullying, and abusive father and husband than the one portrayed here by Pete Postlethwaite? It is up there with Jack Nicholson in The Shining. An incredible and brave performance, and hard to watch. Again we get lots of songs and movie references. If not for The Long Day Closes this movie I would have considered his best work. But without The Long Day Closes I might not be including him so prominently in this work.
Of Time and the City is a documentary, I guess, for it is about Davies growing up in Liverpool in the 1950s and 1960s. I think I would prefer to call it a poetic reverie about the time and the city, for it is unlike any documentary I have ever seen. Lot of archival footage and again lots of movie references and songs. Liverpool. Beatles? No. He considers them and all subsequent popular music anathema. Hey, it’s his movie, he’s got a right to his opinions!
Terence Davies was born on November 10, 1945, nearly 7 years younger than I. Terrence Malick was born in November 30, 1943, nearly 5 years younger than I. Of all movie artists they are the ones closest to me in spirit. Is it because they are so close to me in age? Both born in the month of November? Both with the same first name other than the extra R in Malick?
I need to experience one more great artist born in November with the first name Ter(r)ence to make some sort of case.