Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, 1988)


This is a different sort of review. I never meant to write a formal piece, but I ended up watching the film an unprecedented three times in three days, and I want to share the experience by posting various informal writings on the film in chronological order.

It began with me watching the film, considering it a masterpiece and thinking along the lines of 92/100. By the following day, with songs and memories stuck in my head, I had raised it to 96, the first level of ‘masterful’ status. This was mostly due to the absolutely perfect first five minutes of the film, and the use of “There’s a man goin’ ’round (taking names)”. Editing during this opening sequence is second to none, with several brilliant cuts across the axis of action which follow first a tracking take which abstractly introduces us to the stairs/front door/corridor of the house—an enduring piece of furniture and object which becomes aestheticized, affecting, and used in service as a motif.


Letterboxd 1:

Davies’ masterpiece– Like thumbing through a family album of moving portraits. Haunting, ethereal, transcendent.

96/100 – Masterful.

Unable to remove the film from my mind, I decided to re-watch those first five minutes and ended up re-watching the entire film, this time realizing just how brilliantly the film’s sense of rhythm and time is crafted. Due to the collage effect of sound bridges/off screen sound, music, precise and affecting images in the form of open montage, and careful cinematography, each moment of the film immediately segues into the next with not a moment of wasted time. It is one of few films which maintains an artistically and aesthetically pure cinematography to the extent that the entire run-time flows like a singular work of art, compelling the viewer to maintain attention for each individual moment as well as the entire film itself as a larger example of how a singular moment can last an extended period of time—such as 85 minutes. I most recently felt this way about Elegy of a Voyage (Sokurov) and large expanses of Werckmeister Harmonies and Satantango (Bela Tarr), though my personal favourites in this regard include Mirror (Tarkovsky) and Tree of Life (Malick)

I wrote this (Letterboxd 2):

I watched this yesterday. and I re-watched it today. and I can’t get it out of my head. and it might be a perfect film.

But, for now, I will raise my score from 96 to 98/100. pretty much the ultimate film for building resonance

The very next morning I was killing time before work and responded to a friend about my comparison of the film to Tree of Life (and Sunset Song to Days of Heaven):

“Films like DVST or TOL don’t lack a story or narrative but have a story and narrative which befits the medium of cinema, which involves less “wordiness” to suggest and abstract and tell the story through images is how cinema operates”


Because of its short run time I decided to brief myself with a few moments of the film before writing a a secondary response to yet another friend on a message board:

“Yes, very highly recommended to a known fan of Tree of Life. It has a lot in common from its loose non-linear narrative, working from images of memory and nostalgia to form a dream like narration of autobiography, life, memory, etc. Though not as ambitious as Tree of Life, the loosely figured narrative is edited with better clarity and a focused agenda making it less poetically ambiguous and certainly less divisive structurally. It uses a number of photograph like images as tonics to begin a stream of consciousness only to later return to this tonic image and then move into a different direction, a distinct stream, in a manner which works similar to remembering. It’s undeniably unique and highly affecting.”

Again, I fell into the film’s hypnotic/dreamy atmosphere and I ended up watching the entire first part—Distant Voices. As a completest, I watched Still Lives in pieces when I could and finished it earlier today, finally deciding that it was a superior film deserving of entry into my 100s–Perfect 100/100 films.

So, here we have the end notes (Letterboxd 3):

Having now watched this an unprecedented 3 times in 3 days, I confidently add it to my 100s. Apologies to Pauline Kael, with whom I respect but complete disagree with on the idea of one-time viewings. Developing attachment to a film upon multiple viewings due to a stronger appreciation of aesthetic expression is not a fault of objective film criticism, it is a sign of the complexity and significance of the film and viewer relationship. Like with music, familiarity of aesthetic structures and forms of artistic merit builds the experience, while non-art tends to lessen upon repeat experience. Longevity and resonance are meaningful factors in film analysis, and Davies’ masterpiece here is perhaps the ideal film in arguing for the value of cinematic resonance and art as a form of transformation.

100/100 – Perfect.

5 Stars


About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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