Years ago, my brother and I were hanging out in the apartment we shared in Phoenix and a feeling of nostalgia arose. Something about the atmosphere of that spring day with its gentle breeze lapping at our blinds reminded us of our childhood in Missouri. “I don’t know why, but it feels like summertime,” my brother mused. Was it the April preheat of the city’s famed temperatures? The lazy afternoon with nothing to do but reminisce? Suddenly it occurred to us: someone across our courtyard was listening to a baseball game, and its faint echos were subconsciously transporting us non-sports fans to the summers we spent listening to our baseball-obsessed father playing his radio somewhere down the hall, off in the distance; memories of tranquility in a home that wasn’t always peaceful.
A few nights ago, I listened to two DVD commentaries that reminded me why I love alternate audio tracks and especially those that feature eloquent filmmakers on personal films: Terence Davies on 1988’s Distant Voices, Still Lives (released in the UK a couple months ago) and Charles Burnett on 1977’s Killer of Sheep (coming from Milestone later this month). I’ve loosely compared these two films before, but seeing them back to back only intensified their connections. Though Davies and Burnett tribute vastly different cultures (mid-century Liverpool versus ’70s south central Los Angeles) and their films are visually contrasting (painterly tracking shots versus documentary-like, handheld imagery), both films are deeply felt autobiographies of times and places, loose dramatic vignettes structured around evocative vocal music. Smell is often (rightfully) associated with memory, but films such as these can remind us just how much sound and music can also become portals to the past.
A lot of filmmaker commentaries sound as if they hadn’t seen or thought about their films in years, and thus only offer impromptu anecdotes. (“We really struggled with the rain that day!”) For me, the most rewarding commentaries shed light on the inspirations and intentions behind the filmmaking and elaborate on themes in ways that deepen our appreciation.Davies and Burnett (who talks with programmer Richard PeÒa) plunge into their films with constant references to the way their images and sounds stack up against their memories and experiences. Davies’ film is the more purely autobiographical (he adamantly insists on the literal truth of virtually every scene); Burnett’s film is a mixture of stories he experienced, heard about secondhand, or spontaneously developed.
Both films were conceived as multi-part tales. Davies made Distant Voices (about his family past with his abusive father) and the BFI wanted to release it as a short film, but he persuaded them to wait a couple of years until he completed Still Lives (about life after his father’s death) in order to combine them as a feature. Burnett initially envisioned Killer of Sheep as a trilogy about a meat plant worker; a family man named Stan, who suffers existential pressures, goes on vacation, and returns renewed. But after a year of production, Burnett was already a longtime veteran of UCLA’s program, and the school insisted that he wrap things up and graduate, so he collapsed the basic idea of the second two films into the final act of Killer of Sheep.
Unlike his engrossing but sporadic commentary on The House of Mirth (2000), Davies is a fount of conversation, candid revelations, movie references, and considerable humor (he’s renowned for his melancholy, but his lively charms are on ample display). Speaking of the spiritual “There’s a Man Going ‘Round (Taking Names),” he chuckles, “Just before the playback, the cast thought it was a Country/Western song, something like [impersonating a Southern twang] ‘There’s a man goin’ round, takin’ names!'” Without missing a beat, he remarks on a framed photo of a man and a horse: “This picture behind them is actually a photograph of my father, the only one that’s in the family.” (He wryly adds, “Dad is on the left.”) “It’s hard to believe that one man could’ve caused so much suffering and that all these years later, I would make a film about it. Quite extraordinary.”
Both films have been compared to musicals; they’re undeniably tone poems. Davies takes on a structure that suggests the nonlinear workings of memory (he compares it to concentric circles of water radiating out), and his dramatic scenes are interspersed with period music, both as part of the film’s soundtrack and as part of the action. Characters sing alone or in groups, at home or in smoky pubs, emphasizing the restorative and transforming power of music in their daily lives. The movie opens with the sounds of a shipping forecast. “When I was growing up, there were three channels on the radio,” Davies says, “the shipping forecast was the most wonderful mantra. I didn’t understand it at all, but I loved it, I never, never forgot it.”
Similarly, the soft-spoken Burnett remarks, “The blues pieces [in the film] were all favorites, I used to hear them all the time, constantly. Then there was a period where I didn’t hear them and I forgot about them, and then for some reason, I started humming them. . . . I remember one of the records–Cecil Gant, who did ‘I Wonder’–there was a melody in it that was always haunting, I never could forget it. . . . A score is probably a lot cheaper, but people can associate with pre-recorded music, rock pieces that conjure up certain moments and times in their lives.”
So much of Burnett’s film involves children playing in junkyards or dusty, abandoned lots, intercut with brief subplots to construct a surprisingly nostalgic overview of South Central life. “It’s very nostalgic in a way” he says, “because it was at a time–the late-’60s and early-’70s–where there was a sense of community, and you could walk down the street if you were a kid in the neighborhood. You may have had to know how to fight, but you could at least survive. And there were jobs, the schools were a little bit better, because of Civil Rights you could make a difference; there was sort of a positive atmosphere.”
That hopeful atmosphere translated into action: “[The student filmmakers at UCLA] came in, most of us, thinking that we were going to make a difference and reflect the black experience, introduce new narratives about the black experience, and we were reacting against all the negative stereotypes Hollywood continued to produce. . . . So we turned back to our own stories and tried to tell them.”
Davies and Burnett are lucid, touching, and highly informative, and given the importance of memory and biography in their works, their personal recollections are especially enlightening. Davies is particularly intimate, but Burnett’s openness and optimism is a rich companion to his film, and sure inspiration for any aspiring artist or filmmaker.