The Sounds of the Past
“To this inexorable, insidious awareness of your own dependence on your past, like an illness that grows even harder to bear, I gave the name “Nostalgia”…” (Tarkovsky, 1986, p.206)
One of Distant Voices, Still Lives’ key differences to all that had gone before in the canon of British working class films was its emphasis on the power of sound. The opening of Distant Voices, Still Lives makes this clear and its opening five minutes have more sound ideas to examine and analyse than the other films looked at put together. Everett (2004, p.67) sums up; “The scene is often considered to be abstract and formally challenging, and it is certainly true that the spectators must create their images from the sounds that are heard, even though the locus of the film is there on screen.” This inverse relationship is key to understanding the scene.
Within five minutes, Davies has used sound in a number of different ways. The first is to very clearly show the period nature of the film. A viewer going into the film with no prior knowledge will not be aware that the film is set between the 1940s to the 1960s so Davies provides a subtle hint, specifically through sound. Once the title credits have appeared, the viewer starts to hear a storm and the crackling of a radio. There is a voice hanging in the air as the blackness fades to the image of a typically northern terrace house. This voice tells of a number of things. The fact that it is a crackly radio instantly sets the film back to the 1950s (pre-coronation). It is definitely the radio as it is the reading of the Shipping Forecast. “The cost of radio sets dropped dramatically in the 1930s, and purchases on credit enabled most working-class households to afford a wireless set and tune in to the BBC or, where available, foreign services such as Radio Luxembourg.” explains August (2007, p.211) highlighting both the symbolism and periodicy in its sound.
The Shipping Forecast is very clearly old. The texture of the sound is one giveaway, another is the accent in which it is spoken in Received Pronunciation, typical of early BBC radio broadcasts. This voice however is problematic in terms of diegesis. The radio is perhaps in the house (the next cut reveals this by adding the natural reverb to the sound as if being produced from one of the rooms) yet the viewer can hear it as clearly as a piece of nondiegetic soundtrack. It is also shown in the next scene that the potential for the characters hearing it is also there, yet its original mixing hints that the film is one based on a fragmented memory with sounds leading to associations; that the sound of the rain and the Shipping Forecast has lead to the recalling of what is next seen in the film.
Before that, the fluidity with which the film treats the passing of time is also shown in the film’s soundtrack. The camera has followed an older woman into the house after she has gone outside to get the milk. She calls to her children upstairs to come down yet, when they do come down, the camera does not show them. There is not a cut from when the mother is visible, and it stays locked onto the staircase to deliberately emphasise their absence. The memory is again jogged by sound with the footsteps of her son, Tony, coming down the stairs. It is definitely him as the viewer can hear his voice, yet he is only present in sound rather than vision. Stillwell (2001, p.173) theorises that;
“While vision creates a “there”, locating an object in space separate from (though obviously in relation to) one’s own subject position, sound creates a “here”, or rather a “there” + “here”: two points of space, the object and the subject, both separated and connected by the vibrating medium which transmits the sound.”
This goes someway to explaining the effect though not Davies’ lack of cutting. As Tony’s sisters come down the stairs, the viewer can hear their conversation with their mother. Now that the ambiguity is set up, it becomes unclear as to whether the characters are simply round the corner or whether they are only here in sound to represent the different time frame. The potential for having two separate time frames within the same picture is one explored throughout the film but never as explicitly as here. Whereas the image is showing an empty house, the soundtrack is showing a full and vibrant household, shown later to be on the morning of one of the daughter’s weddings. “Offscreen sound, for example, typically motivates camera movement and/or cutting to new quadrants of space.” is Gorbman’s (1987, p.25) general argument for the logic behind off-screen sound yet here, it has deliberately gone against this piece of classical film sound logic.
This sound time frame is again moved and changed to a sung version of “I Get the Blues When It Rains”. The issues around having it sung by one of characters rather than an original period recording will be addressed in the next section but it is its implications as a sound that is relevant here. The lyrics refer back to the opening sound of the weather, linking in the emotional hardship that all of the characters will be shown to experience during the film.
Distant Voices, Still Lives makes strong associations between marriage and death with one often reminding the bride or groom of the other. This opening collection of images and sounds link together the two and build up the association both for the viewer and for the characters. Heritage (2012, p.305) puts the film into the category of Realism which, looking at just this opening selection of images, seems highly inaccurate. Jumping ahead to after the montage has finished and the camera views the family unit first dressed for the father’s funeral and then dressed for a wedding. The first line of dialogue is spoken by the bride to be who wished her Dad was there. The camera shows the character speaking these lines, almost straight to the forth wall but it is the reaction from her sister that is interesting.
Taking away the image and simply listening to the scene, it could appear that her sister has a disagreement with her, claiming that their father was “a bastard” and that she “bleedin’ hated him”. Restore the visuals and what Davies has actually done is to continue his split time frame approach to sound. Whereas the previous few minutes have shown sound to travel in different times, here the sound enters into the personal perspective of a character. Maisie’s opinion on her father is spoken within her head and not out aloud. This allows the narrative to move backwards and forwards between each sibling’s experiences of their father, using the inner monologue as a segway into the past. This clash between the sound world and the visual world is an extremely avant-garde aesthetic to apply to British working class cinema. Davies however is not merely interested in the era or the periodicy of working class life. He is a filmmaker that is constantly using memory and nostalgia as a basis for drama, often implied through sound.
Part 7 coming soon.