Distant Voices, Still Lives

Terence Davies’ remarkable remembrance Distant Voices, Still Lives, is one bleak story, and yet its portrayal of Liverpool formative years during the ’40s and into the mid-’50s is remarkable — and, consistently moving. Davies’ look-back at a contender for eternity’s most dysfunctional family is autobiographical as well, and this is a significant source of its power.




$39.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13.’
Stars Pete Postlethwaite, Freda Dowie, Angela Walsh.

There was so much critics buzz at the time (as well as subsequent awards) over Terence Davies’ remarkable remembrance Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 that I’m a little surprised to read it characterized by some as a film that kind of slipped under the radar. That it did with the public (or at least non-British public) was probably a given; despite pockets of relief, this is one bleak story that no small number of cheer-up narrative asides can transform into a feel-good 88 minutes. And yet its portrayal of Liverpool formative years during the ’40s and into the mid-’50s is remarkable — and, consistently moving.

This radar element is an important part of the movie’s history because when Time Out magazine initiated a poll to determine the hundred greatest British films ever, there was something of a lo-and-behold surprise: Voices finished third behind Don’t Look Now and The Third Man (no knock on Now, which I’ve always liked, but better than The Third Man? Well, that’s a brain-stumper for another day). To be sure, there isn’t anything really like Lives, unless you count the writer-director’s The Long Day Closes, which deals with an ostracized youth growing up in the same era and milieu when he is both Catholic and gay.

Lives is Davies’ look-back at a contender for eternity’s most dysfunctional family and is autobiographical as well (and heavily so), and this is a significant source of its power. Amid the abundance of bonus extras that the consistently first-rate Arrow provides here, an unusually personable filmmaker notes that many of his narrative alterations were purely financial; in real life, he came along 10th in the family, which means nine siblings, though Davies could only afford three for the screen, who stand in for the others. We see right off that this is going to be an impressionistic treatment of the past, what with the way Davies holds his camera stationary for an unusual length of time during an opening staircase scene. Add to color processing that’s somewhere between extraordinary and singular in making his images look like a moving photo album, the product of painstaking labors by the director and his designers.

A performer whose facial structure and, of course, acting ability enabled him to be cast as both amusing oddballs and irredeemable cruds, Pete Postlethwaite plays his family patriarch as the psychotic Davies says he was in real life, and this is not an ambiguous point. We see him, for instance, beating one of the girls with a either a broom or mop (and sans mercy) when she’s scrubbing the floor, an episode Davies says he was too young to witness but one the sister/victim says absolutely did happen.

A horror he did witness — though it’s not in the film because Davies concedes no viewer would ever believe it — was his mother leaping out of a window with an infant in her arms because she couldn’t take it anymore, only be saved by a chance passerby below who was directly in their trajectory. And there’s another scene where dad and kids are eating dinner when, out of he blue, he yanks the tablecloth from the table and the food and dishes go flying. Davies says this one scene stands for the countless times it happens.

Still, the movie isn’t relentless misery — and certainly brightens some with dad’s death in the early ’50s — which would be dramatically pointless, to say nothing of un-fundable. The major point here, other than the immediate story at hand, is how much movies of the day and especially pop music can help get you through dreadful times; at least some of our selective memory about the “good old days” has a lot to do with the songs that captured the time — in this case at family events (marriages are big here) and in the pubs.

The songs here are exceedingly well chosen and hardly boilerplate choices, which means they must have heavy personal meaning; one chain-rattling juxtaposition connects Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of “Taking a Chance on Love” with a family beating. Another (the previously unknown-to-me Brit pop “Finger of Suspicion”) strikes me as an almost perfect evoker of immediately pre-rock pop (sub-category: “dreamy”) from singer Dickie Valentine, who ended up being killed in a 1961 head-on collision.

Regarding the Blu-ray, Davies does the voiceover commentary and appears on a stage interview of a half-hour’s duration. There’s also featurette with art director Miki van Zwanenberg, plural essays (one is called Bittersweet Symphony, a title that pretty well describes the film itself) and three vintage BFI National Archive short subjects about Liverpool, including a 1939 one about slum clearance that makes you appreciate the Beatles all the more. These docs remind me of the backdrop to a movie I love: 1941’s early Deborah Kerr breakthrough Love on the Dole, which takes place in Greater Manchester (Salford) but deals with a not dissimilar how-do-I-get-out-of-here existence.

This is a really impressive release from what I’m starting to think of as “good old Arrow” — taken from a 4K restoration by the BFI, with Davies’ input. It cannot have been easy getting this level of specialized color just right on a home release, but I saw Distant Lives at a New York critics screening when it came out, and it replicates my memories.

Distant Voices, Still Lives

Mike’s Picks: ‘Brewster McCloud’ and ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’

‘Schlock,’ ‘Twelve Monkeys,’ Italian ‘Torso’ Due on Blu-ray From Arrow and MVD in October

A collection of horror, a sci-fi classic and a British classic are coming out on Blu-ray from Arrow Video and MVD Entertainment Group in October.

Schlock from director John Landis hits Blu-ray Oct. 16. The comedy pays tribute to monster movies of the past as it follows a prehistoric ape named Shlock on a rampage throughout southern California. The genre mashup launched the career of Landis and makeup effects wizard Rick Baker. The Blu-ray comes with a new 4K restoration. Special features include an audio commentary with both Landis and Baker; a new video interview with author and critic Kim Newman; “Birth of a Schlock,” a 2017 video interview with Landis; an archival video interview with cinematographer Bob Collins; 1972, 1979 and 1982 U.S. theatrical trailers; and U.S. radio spots.

Due Oct. 23 is Jim Van Bebber’s blood-soaked cult classic Deadbeat at Dawn. It’s the story of Goose, a gang leader trying to go straight until his girlfriend is brutally murdered by his rivals. Now pulled back into the world he was desperately trying to escape, Goose is hell-bent on getting retribution. The 1980s feature comes with a new 2K restoration and bonus content including a new audio commentary with Van Bebber, actor Paul Harper and guest Cody Lee Hardin, moderated by filmmaker Victor Bonacore; Jim VanBebber, Deadbeat Forever!, a new retrospective documentary on VanBebber and the Deadbeat legacy by filmmaker Victor Bonacore, featuring first-time interviews, rare footage, VanBebber’s college films and more; an archival 1986 behind-the-scenes documentary,  Nate Pennington’s VHS documentary on a failed Deadbeat shoot; outtakes, newly transferred in HD; four newly-restored VanBebber short films; “Jim VanBebber Music Video Collection,” featuring never-before-seen director’s cuts; Chunkblower, a promotional trailer for an unfinished Gary Blair Smith-produced gore-soaked feature film; an image gallery; and a reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain.

Oct. 30 comes Sergio Martio’s Italian film Torso on Blu-ray. The giallo about a sex-craved maniac prowling the streets of Perugia looking for his latest victim is a favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s. The Blu-ray features a new 2K restoration of both the 94-minute Italian cut and the 90-minute English cut. Bonus features include new audio commentary by Kat Ellinger, author of All the Colours of Sergio Martino; a new video interview with co-writer/director Martino; a new video interview with actor Luc Merenda; a new video interview with co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi; a new video interview with filmmaker Federica Martino, daughter of Martino; a new video interview with Mikel J. Koven, author of La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film; a 2017 Abertoir International Horror Festival Q&A with Martino; Italian and English theatrical trailers; and a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Adam Rabalais.

Also coming Oct. 30 on Blu-ray is Terry Gilliam’s 1990s sci-fi classic, Twelve Monkeys. Based on a short film by Chris Marker, Twelve Monkeys opens up in 1996 with a group known as the Army of Twelve Monkeys releasing a deadly virus upon the world. Flash forward to the year 2035 where Bruce Willis is ordered to travel back in time to find a cure. The film was nominated for two Oscars. The Blu-ray features a new 4K restoration approved by Gilliam. Bonus features include audio commentary by Gilliam and producer Charles Roven; The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, a feature-length making-of documentary by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (Lost in La Mancha); an image galley; a theatrical trailer; and a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin.

In a change of pace Oct. 23, Arrow Academy will release Distant Voices, Still Lives on Blu-ray. The debut from director Terence Davies allows viewers to peer into the life of a working-class family in 1940s and 1950s Liverpool, England. The new 4K restoration was carried out by the British Film Institute. Bonus features include commentary by Davies; an interview with Davies; an Interview with art director Miki van Zwanenberg; a theatrical trailer; a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio; and for the first pressing only, an Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Christina Newland plus archive essays.