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'Britain's Greatest Living Director' on his latest film, difficult truths, and the joy of the American musical

Davies1.jpg
photo courtesy James Dowling
Terence Davies

Fletcher Powell: Terence Davies has often been referred to as “Britain's greatest living director.” And there's an argument to be made for removing the geographic qualification from that statement, too. His films are often quiet, sometimes angry, and always achingly beautiful, whether he’s telling a story of his time growing up in Liverpool or adapting Edith Wharton. His latest film is called Benediction, and it's about the British poet Siegfried Sassoon, who became a vocal critic of World War I and the political interests that took the war far beyond the noble pursuit he initially thought it was. Terence Davies, welcome, and thank you so much for talking to me.

Terence Davies: Oh, it's a joy. It's a joy. Your—American names have just such wonderful romance. Wichita. Kalamazoo. Boise, Idaho. I mean, oh, the romance! Isn't there a western called Wichita?

There is, Jacques Tourneur. Yeah, it's fantastic.

Yeah, that's how I know it.

That's the best movie ever made about Wichita.

(laughs)

Benediction is about a poet. Your last film, A Quiet Passion, was about Emily Dickinson, a poet. Knowing a few things about you as well, it's pretty clear that poetry holds a great deal of importance for you. I'm wondering, can you describe how it feels to you when you read truly great poetry? And maybe more than that, when you read it out loud, what does that feel like to you?

Well, when you respond to something deeply, I mean, the first great poetry I ever heard was in my teens, in the ‘60s, and Alec Guinness read, from memory, the whole of The Four Quartets. I mean, I didn't understand them, but I fell in love with them absolutely. Because it’s about the nature of time and all those things which I care about. But, my very first consciousness of poetry was when I was in the penultimate class before I left primary school, I was 10 and there were two poems—one, The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, and Hiawatha by Longfellow. And I learned great tracts of Longfellow, because it's in this trochaic rhythm, which is eight beats to the line. And once you get it in your head, you cannot forget it! I read and learned huge amounts of it, God knows why! It was completely compulsive. But, The Highwayman, which was written in the early ‘20s, it’s about a highwayman going to an inn and falling in love with the woman, and then getting shot by the soldiers. And it's got this wonderful refrain, it ends with:

“And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,   
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   
A highwayman comes riding—
         Riding—riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.”

Ooo, I got a little chill. For people who can't see, he's doing this from memory. So the kind of rhythm, that poetry can have, and that musicality of it, I'm wondering if that makes its way into your films in any way for you consciously?

No, it's never conscious. It should never be conscious. I think any influences should come out of you refracted, but unknown. No, the biggest influence was, A, my family and people who came to our house, they all sang, and some of my family had lovely voices and always sang at the end of a party. But also, I was introduced to the American musical. My elder sister took me to see Singin’ in the Rain when I was seven. I mean, how can you not fall in love with the American musical? And those were the years when I think the greatest American musicals were made. And they are so beautifully crafted, you know, some of the, yes, are sentimental, and some of them are not very good, and the earlier ones in the late ‘40s aren't, but there's always something that is wonderful in them. Like, there's Betty Grable and Dan Dailey in Mother Wore Tights. And there's one great little number, it's called “Kokomo, Indiana.” And it's just wonderful, it's worth it just to watch that (laughs). But then, when you see Singin’ in the Rain, which I did when I was seven, I mean, in the number, that great number, there are nine cuts from eight positions. That's all. What an epic, it's just so fabulous! I mean, I was too young to understand Jean Hagen's wonderful comic performance. That is one of the great comic performances in the history of cinema. I mean, she's quite, quite wonderful.

I could probably watch Singin’ in the Rain every day of my life.

Yes, who couldn’t? Who couldn’t?

I want to get to Benediction in a second, but since you brought up singing, I'm curious about how you use singing in your movies. There is often someone singing or a group of people singing. And this isn't like what people would see in a musical. I'm thinking, I guess specifically right now, about one in The Deep Blue Sea, where a number of people are in the Underground with a German raid going on overhead. They're taking refuge in the Underground. And a man starts singing, I think “Molly Malone.” And there's a gorgeous tracking shot down the tunnel, with all the people. And they start joining in.

(Sound from The Deep Blue Sea)

It seems like often people are singing in your films sort of to fight back against the weight of their circumstances. Almost like there's not a lot we can do, but we can do this.

Yes. But that's what people did. I mean, they sang a lot in Britain. Because popular song in the ‘50s was there to be reproduced. Not like it is today, when it's not there to be reproduced. I mean, at one time you actually bought a 78 record and they had, on the sleeve, the lyrics, that's how people learned. And they sang what they felt. They didn't realize that, but that's what they did. They sang what they felt. But the genesis of that is watching American musicals. I mean, it just is. I cannot tell you how much I love the American musical. I just adore it. No one can compete with you, no one. And the joy that one got from simple things, I mean, I love Doris Day. Because I first saw her in Young at Heart, and in the second scene of that film, she goes to bed, gets into bed with her sister. And the whole of the interior are soft pastels. They're not in sharp focus, but they're all soft yellows and whites and blues. I mean, just exquisite to look at! And I know it's terribly sentimental, but I don't care. I love her anyway. So I forgive her anything. But when you see things which are truly, that are truly avant-garde it—Singin’ In the Rain, when he takes Debbie Reynolds into the deserted sound stage and builds up the shot for her, with all these technical things, we actually see him do it. And you are convinced that it is in a garden with the moonlight and he's making love to her, and they have showed you how they've done it! That is so incredibly avant-garde, and still wonderful even now. And so that was a huge, huge influence on me, as the American Songbook was. I mean, now that Sondheim has died, the American Songbook now is over. Because there's no one to replace him. But, that period from about 1890 to when Sondheim died is as good as German Lieder. And I don't say that lightly, because I think it is. I think it's one of the great cultural gifts that you've given to the world.

I wouldn't disagree with that. I think people often don't take popular culture as seriously as maybe it ought to be taken.

Because they’re such joyous things. You know? I mean, the three strippers in Gypsy, how can you not think that divine? The closing line is, “If you want to make it, twinkle while you shake it. If you wanna grind it, wait till you’ve refined it. If you wanna bump it, bump it with a trumpet.” That's fabulous!

It sounds like your own family also influenced this aspect of singing in your films. This is just something you grew up with, everybody sang?

Yes, everybody. I mean my mother and my two oldest sisters and my oldest brother had lovely voices. They just were natural singers. I, alas, didn't inherit that. In my first week of drama school, you had to do a singing class. And I said, “Look, you do not want to put yourself through this, I cannot sing.” But I was forced to. Anyway, I did this song and she said to me, “Well, Terence, your voice comes from the same mold as Frank Sinatra. He got the voice and you got the mold.”

Oh, my!

But, alas, all too true.

Well, I'm dreadful myself, I certainly won't criticize. Let’s turn to Benediction for a bit. There's something I'm really curious about because most descriptions of Benediction—most, let's say, short descriptions, say something like, “Siegfried Sassoon, a poet who criticized World War I and later converted to Catholicism. Okay. Now, obviously his conversion was a really important part of his life, I'm sure. But people seem to see it as kind of a culmination of his life and you put it into the movie 10 or 12 minutes in—now, you jump around in time in the film, so he's an old man in that scene, you haven't put it at a different point in his life, but you put it into the movie a couple of minutes in, really. And don't explicitly mention it again, I don't think. And so I'm kind of curious if maybe you regard that moment a little bit differently from how other people do.

Probably, because I have made it and therefore I can't view it with innocent eyes, if you like. Because what has emerged from that film—and only after you've finished it, do you realize what the true subject is—is that he's looking for validation and redemption. And unfortunately, you cannot find it in anyone else, in religion, or art. If you don't find it within yourself, you never find it. And I don't think he ever found it, because I've never found it. And that's what lies beneath it. But it’s very difficult when you've made it to have a kind of rational view of it. It's an emotional thing. And that's what I think it's about. It's about the redemption and the tragedy of not finding it. I've searched for it all my life and I've never found it. And I doubt if I ever shall. And I doubt if Sassoon ever found it, to be honest with you, which is what's so sad.

There's so many feelings that you have in this movie, but one of those things is that he is really searching. And, like you said, he doesn't find it. He mentions to his wife before he gets married to her, or maybe when he is getting married to her, you know, “My whole future could depend on you.” And then he says the same thing about his son when his son is born. And my feeling is he felt that same way when he converted to Catholicism.

Yes, but I mean, that was the most shocking thing of all, finding that he changed to Catholicism. Because I was brought up a Catholic. I'm now a born-again atheist. How anyone can possibly believe all that nonsense, I don't know. But, it's a series of mistakes—falling in love with the wrong man, and saying to someone, his potential wife, “You will save me.” Well, you can't really say that to someone. And he says it elliptically. I mean, he doesn’t actually propose. And she accepts elliptically.

(Sound from Benediction)

When he says, about his son, that that might redeem him, she says to him, “Well, you once said that about me.” And, and it was clearly a movable feast, constantly trying to find someone or something to give him this kind of solace which I think is, may not, for some people may not be found on this earth.

What was he trying to find solace from? Do you think—Sassoon was gay and there's a moment I want to talk about in just a few minutes regarding that. Do you think that was one of the things he was trying to find solace from was being gay in this society that had it literally criminalized it?

Yes. But one also has to remember, he was from a very privileged part of society, while a lot of gay men had very good sex lives and never were never found out. If you were middle class or working class and you were found out, you went to jail for three years. So, he was very, very privileged. But under that is the knowledge that it is illegal and you could be put into prison. A lot of people were blackmailed. But I think he constantly looked in the wrong place, and the real place is yourself. But if you've had that taken from you—or in my case, it was beaten out of me when I was a child—you can't regain it. I don't believe that you can regain it. The best you can do is try and bear it, and bear it with humor. Although that is very, very difficult. Very, very difficult.

They do, in your film. A lot of the gay men that Sassoon is with and around, and even himself, they do bear it with humor. Now, it's very cutting humor. They are very sharp barbs that they're throwing, but it is funny.

Yes, but gay men are. They're like Northern women in England, just always funny. And very cruel at times, but also sometimes just funny. They're fun to be with. But what lies behind it, of course, is something that is not funny. It's something that's sad, really. Even now, it's decriminalized in this country, I think if you scratch the surface, there's still a great deal of homophobia. There's still a great deal of misogyny, if you just scratch below the surface. And that, in a way, that’s saddening beyond belief.

Yeah. I don't think you even need to scratch the surface. It's explicit.

Yeah.

There's a scene where Siegfried is sent to a mental hospital rather than being court-martialed when he's not going to support the war anymore. And Sassoon is talking to a doctor—I guess like a psychiatrist, we'll just call him a psychiatrist—

Dr. Rivers.

They're having a conversation that sort of involves the two of them dancing around the fact that each of them is gay. And, essentially, they reveal this to each other without explicitly saying it.

(Scene from Benediction)

What really struck me about that conversation is the kindness that his doctor showed toward him. And I don't think it's just because they're both gay, because there are plenty of other gay men who are not kind at all. There's a generosity that he shows towards Sassoon, and that's something that, at least in your film, seemed to be what helped Sassoon open up that part of himself to himself.

Yes, because Dr. Rivers was a rather avant-garde, he brought the talking therapy into this country. That was really quite radical for, you know, 1915, 1916, ‘17. And because they both come from the same social background, they know that they can say things which will have implications, which they will both understand, but you just don't make it explicit. But, I think Dr. Rivers was genuinely—a really genuine, kind human being. And he sees what's wrong, in a way, with Siegfried, but Siegfried has to find that forgiveness within himself and he never allows himself to. Whereas Dr. Rivers, the implication is that he has found a way of living with that. And that's fine. He just disregards the law. He’s very polite, but he just disregards it. Whereas I don't think Siegfried can, I think Siegfried is one of those people, like myself, if there are rules, you don't break them.

Did you ever have a conversation like that with anyone?

No.

Nothing that helped you to open up to yourself?

No. It was still a criminal offense in this country until 1967. So, you didn't dare tell anyone. The only one who knew was actually my doctor, my GP. Because at that time, it was just before they abolished conscription in this country. And that really did terrify me. And I thought, if I'm conscripted, then I will say I'm a homosexual. And my doctor will (say) that that is the case. Luckily, it was abolished before I became of age. But there was no one to tell. And as a large working class family where straight sex wasn't even talked about. I mean, in a house full of eight people with no bathroom, I never saw anyone naked. And if you wanted to have a bath, what you did is you got a bowl of hot water, you took it upstairs, and my mother would say to anyone going upstairs, “So and so is having a good wash.” So you didn't go upstairs until they'd finished. That's how you did it.

How did you get to where you were comfortable being out?

Oh, but I'm not. It's still, I’m filled with terrible doubt, and hate it, in many ways. I am not glad to be gay. It's brought me a great deal of suffering. And I wish I was just ordinary, I've always wanted just to be ordinary, like everybody else. It was just, it's simply too difficult. And I don't like—this is a long time ago now, when I went on the scene, I thought I can't live like this. The sexual venality and the narcissism. I thought, I cannot live like that. And I just thought, it's not for me. And since that time, 40 years ago now, I became celibate, and I have lived alone. Because, I could not do, I couldn't live like that. I just can't. Also, I wasn't attractive anyway, so no one was interested in me anyway. No, I wasn't. I wasn't. And you realized that very, very quickly, and you think it’s probably best to stay at home, in the fruit cellar with Mrs. Bates (laughs).

Have you found kindness in other places then?

Yes, I have. Yes, I have. Yes, I have. I've got a wonderful manager, who's very, very dear to me. I've got my friend and neighbor, James, next door. And my, what's left of my own family. And the people who surround me here. I’ve come across enormous kindness. And that is lovely. That's something that you have to treasure.

Your films make a lot of use of silence, and I think Benediction even more so. There's very little music, really, in the movie. The characters are often speaking just above a whisper. They'll pause before the next one begins speaking. Can you talk about the role silence, and quietness, plays for you artistically?

Well, when I was growing up, the youngest of 10 children, you know, no one asks your opinion very much. So, you listen all the time. And I'm very conscious of atmospheres, I can remember atmospheres. Particularly when I was very, very young. I was six or seven, when my father was still alive and very violent, and his he'd go into this silence and these silences would last for hours. I mean, literally hours. And then he'd turn on you. So, I'm very aware of that. And silence is very, very potent. And if you use it properly, it's like music. In the script it says, ‘silence or a pause.’ And I always say to the actors, “You play it, you do it as you feel it, then it will be true.” And it tells you a great deal, so that when you do actually hear music, or something else on the soundtrack, it has the most powerful effect on you.

One of the greatest, probably the greatest score for a film is Bernard Herrmann's Psycho. It's just his greatest work. But there are times when it's just completely silent—just before Arbogast goes into the house. And as he opens the door, the strings play with their mutes on. That's all! But, only because there's been silence beforehand. And if you listen to a great symphony, that's what you—there are times when it stops. (Pauses) And another idea may come in. It's particularly true of Bruckner, who is my great love, where he'll state first theme. Secondary theme. Third theme. But they are long waits. The ending of the fifth symphony by Sebelius, where there are just six chords. And if you don't get the timing right, it ruins the symphony. And sometimes you think, no, it's too slow. This time, it's too fast. But when it's right, it's just thrilling! Because you don't expect it. But there's silence between it.

So, silence can act like music, it cushions what you may be waiting for. The worst thing you can do in a film, with music, is to tell you what you are supposed to feel. It's there to underpin what you feel and to enrich it. Never tell you. That's why Bernard Herrmann is such a great composer. But there were also some others like Alfred Newman. There's a lovely moment in The Robe, which is the first Cinemascope film ever made, when Richard Burton is leaving Jean Simmons to go to the Holy Land. And it's foggy. And as the boat goes, you hear that lovely theme just come in on strings, “La, dah, dee dum dah…” It's exquisite, it's exquisite! But one has to play it right. And when I do use music, it's felt. It's just felt. That's the piece. Like I just knew the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia was right for the ending. Because he wrote it in 1910, before the First World War. And last night, I couldn't sleep and I switched on Radio 3 and they were playing it. God, what a great, great work it is. It’s so fabulous.

(Clip of ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams)

But you're right about music, certainly. Silence has to be a part of music, too. Having those pauses to help to define the rest of it is just a really important part, whether you're talking about music, or film, or anything where you're hearing something.

Yes. I mean, look at Marnie, look at the way music is used in Marnie, for instance. And it's also gorgeous, gorgeous Technicolor. It's very soft. It's very soft. But look at the way (music is) used. And the use of silence is wonderful. When she's trying to get out, and the cleaning lady, and she's got her shoes in a coat, God, that is so good! It's such a simple idea, but you listen. You listen like anything. Sometimes silence is very, very expressed. Sometimes it's terrifying. Especially when you are lonely, silence is awful. Because it then accentuates any extra sound that you might hear from someone next door. Or someone talking as they pass your house. That's when it can be heartbreaking and very, very hard to bear. But sometimes between people, when they don't quite know what to say, the silence hangs there both as a comfort and as a kind of challenge: What do I say next? How do I say it? Or do I say anything? It's a mixture of things that are both very revealing and terrifying at the same time.

You mentioned Technicolor. This is kind of a half-formed question, I'm not really sure what I want to ask with this, but you mentioned Technicolor a little bit ago with Marnie. I'm curious. How do you feel you would've gotten along in the Technicolor era?

Oh, I would never have worked. I mean, cause the sort of films that I write, no one would fund. But oh, to work in three-strip Technicolor and with Natalie Kalmus as the person who’d overlook it that, that woman is a genius. That woman is a genius. Oh! You look at Marnie, you look at Young at Heart, you look at Meet Me in St. Louis and it's so beautiful it's edible. Oh! But I'd have never, nobody would've ever funded my films, I would've never worked.

I'm not sure that's true, because something that made me think of that was that I watched Tea and Sympathy recently—Minnelli?—and I kind of thought of you.

But in my case it would be Tea Without Sympathy.

(laughs) Well, I don't think that's true either because as we talked about with Dr. Rivers earlier, you have that kindness and that sympathy in there. Anyway, like I said, that was kind of a half-formed question. But I'm not sure that it's entirely true that you wouldn't have been working at all because, I think you can see some of that there.

Well, it's a lovely thought, but you know, that era for me has a kind of glow I don't think any films have now, including my own. There's not that glow there. I mean, we were just a large working-class family, right? Went to the pictures all the time. And my brother, who was a docker, would come in and say, “You've got to go and see this film, Thelma Ritter’s in it. We loved Thelma Ritter, we just loved her. And you'd go and see it simply because she was in it. And she was a wonderful actress. And there’s one wonderful moment in Pickup on South Street and she joins Richard Widmark in a bar and she's got a bag full of ties, and she puts the bag on the table and she just says, “Coffee.” And you hear a life of struggle in that one word. It's heartbreaking. It's absolutely heartbreaking. So, for me, there's just a wonderful glow of those films that I don't see anymore. But when I see the ones that I really love, I know where I saw it, I know who I went with, I even know where I sat. It's that vivid.

Something I really appreciate about your films is that you are willing to go to difficult places and to leave it in difficult places. I'm thinking of where Emily Dickinson ends up at the end of A Quiet Passion, essentially right after she expresses that she's fallen into bitterness, which is what she never wanted to be. Shortly after that, she dies. Benediction, I think we watch it and maybe keep expecting some kind of deliverance for Sassoon that I don't really think ever comes. And as you said, he's looking for it in other places and he's not going to find it there. Most people would not leave their movies there. There would be some kind of catharsis after that.

Well, I think it's, you have to be true to what you've done. And sometimes it's not resolved. In the old days, you know, even Billy Wilder was forced to happy endings, the end of The Lost Weekend, the end of The Apartment, he was forced to have happy endings. I think it works more in The Apartment than it does in the other one. The problem with forced hope is that it's actually sentimental. And Joyce said, sentimentality is unearned emotion, and it's the truth. You know, it is, you've got to—you can't sugar the pill. That's something I'm unable to do. And it comes from, two places: One, in my family, it was considered, honesty was considered the highest virtue. You said what you thought, even if it caused ructions, you said it, nonetheless. And the Catholic Church was, you have to be truthful in thought, word, and deed, which is actually impossible. Even saints can't do that. But that's what I was brought up on. And I can't sugar the pill, I can't make it sentimental, and false hope. It was an American who said to Edith Wharton when she had done a version of The House of Mirth on Broadway and it failed. It was Walter Berry, he was called. And he said, you don't understand, Edith, Americans want tragedy with a happy ending. And it's very true. It's very true. There's also another wonderful—which, quite aside—two Americans are walking through Paris, and one American said to the other, “When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” And his friend said, “And where do bad Americans go?” He said, “Well, they go to America.”

(Laughs) Yes.

But you cannot force a happy ending. You cannot force hope. You can't. You may imply it, and that can be just as moving, but it has to be true. What happened to Emily Dickinson? She never was well known in her lifetime. She sold 11 poems to the Springfield Republican. And she dies not of kidney disease (as she does in A Quiet Passion), she died of, actually, congenital heart disease, but still, it was a very painful time. And she was in pain all the time. And she wrote 1,808 poems. She wrote three volumes of letters. She wrote letters to the Master. She cooked, she gardened. And she was in pain all the time. You can't make that anything other than harsh, I don't think. But then, also, like a lot of British people, we’re terrified of sentimentality.

You really like cross dissolves in scene transitions. And it gives this gentleness as you bring us along through it. Even when what we're watching is extremely difficult.

But what is extraordinary about film syntax is that if you dissolve from one thing to another, we all read it as time passing. Now, no one's told us that, but we all do it instinctively. So, if you dissolve from something and you cut between it, and then you don't dissolve back, or you cut back, where is time? Where is the real time? This I get from Eliot, The Four Quartets are about the nature of time itself. And I'm obsessed with the nature of film time. Because it's always in the present. It's always in the present. What cuts to something is the next thing which happened. But what if you don't do that? What if between the cuts, there arises in ambiguity? That is like feeling between the notes of something. In a musical piece, in between the notes, something is happening. In between those cuts, something is happening. In between the dissolves, something is happening. We may not know what it is, but it takes us out of this, “This will happen, therefore, this is the end.”

And there are only two ways to tell a film. You say at the beginning that “this man is the murderer, and how did it get there?” Or, you start with someone being accused of murder and they didn’t do it and you explain this at the end. But it's basically a very simple idea. And I've said this very often, but it's true. Supposing you wanted a man to come out of his apartment and go to another apartment in the city. He comes out of his apartment. He goes down the stairs. He gets into his car. He drives over to the new building. He gets out of his car. He goes into the building. He goes upstairs and he goes into the new apartment. That's not interesting. The only time that becomes interesting is (if) at every stage of the journey, he's interrupted. Then it becomes an Odyssey. Or, the simplest way to do it is we see a guy go out of his apartment, we cut to him coming in the new one, and you've cut out all the journey. They are saying the same thing, but it's how you perceive it. It's how you tell. That's all it is, it's very simple. You're actually giving information. Like, who is the film about? It's about the first person you see. And that goes back to silent films. You had to know who it was about. But it's all, it's always information. But that's what makes it so exciting, you know, because so much more is told than mere merely this, and that, and then that happened. For instance, and it's just a one-shot here, Vera Miles staying in, Sam's store when he goes off to see the Bates Motel. And the closing shot is, she is surrounded by rakes. And she looks like the Virgin Mary. That's a single shot, but what it tells you is a great deal more than her standing in a store room with some rakes behind her.

Terence Davies, thank you so much for talking to me. It's been a big honor.

And it’s a big honor to be in Wichita. If I'm not there in actuality, I'm there in spirit.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.