One of the great innovations at the Raindance Festival while my colleague Fred Hogge was working there was the Alexander Mackendrick Lecture. Mackendrick was one of Britain’s greatest directors, whose work includes The Man in the White Suit, The Sweet Smell of Success and A High Wind in Jamaica. His films are beautiful, pointed and pitiless, and he went on to be a great teacher of film, whose book On Film-Making should be required reading for everyone. This year’s Mackendrick subject is Terence Davies, director of Distant Voices, Still Lives and Of Time And The City. Davies is not just a terrific film-maker; he’s also a very funny, passionate interviewee. Fred will be interviewing him on 6th October, and tickets are available here. And here, to whet your appetite, is an introduction that I wrote for Raindance, setting out why Davies is such a worthy choice for the Mackendrick:
Terence Davies has been called many things. Eric Stoltz called him “a Tasmanian devil crossed with Doris Day”. He’s described himself as looking “like an avocado”. But he’s perhaps best known, in Mark Kermode’s words, as “Britain’s greatest living film director”. He is also the first Mackendrick subject to have been taught by Mackendrick himself, as he recalled in 2005: “It was quite wonderful: you could actually learn about rhythm and timing and where a shot dies.” Mackendrick was obsessed with craft — “process, not product” was his mantra — and Davies is one of the most rigorous directors working today. As he told Harlan Ellison in 1998, “I write down everything as I hear and see it in my mind — every track, pan, dissolve, crane, piece of music. So the script becomes an aide-memoire, which is why I never do a storyboard”.
Mackendrick also wrote that “Cinema deals with feelings, sensations, intuitions and movement, things that communicate to audiences at a level not necessarily subject to conscious, rational comprehension”, and Davies’ work is a prime example of this. Most British directors photograph dialogue. Davies photographs emotion. His rapturous tracking shots, long-held close-ups and precisely chosen music can move you to tears, even as you’re wondering quite how: if you’ve ever cried while watching carpet, you’ve seen a Terence Davies film.
And Mackendrick was devoted to emotional truth, the absolute heart of Davies’ work. As he explained in 2008, “If you’re true to your subject, people recognise that. You don’t have to be Austrian to love Schubert, or Russian to love Chekhov — they’re true to what they felt and what they experienced.” Davies’ great understanding is that, to be universal, you must be specific: audiences worldwide respond to his movies not because they’re gay, raised Catholic, or Liverpudlian, but because they’ve felt desire, shame or a longing for home.
Davies’ films are unique in British cinema: deeply personal, beautifully made. So what next? His work isn’t famous for its humour — when Mackendrick, after seeing Madonna and Child, was asked, “It’s a gay movie, isn’t it?” he replied “Not at the moment” — but Davies has a spiky wit that makes you long to see his planned romantic comedy, Mad About The Boy. There’s also a movie of Sunset Song, or his adaptation of Ed McBain. But whatever his next project, Davies’ movies don’t belong in an art house. They belong in everyone’s house, and it’s a great honour to Raindance that, on October 6th, he’s coming to ours.