Stephen Cone is a Chicago-based filmmaker whose films include Princess Cyd (BFI London Film Festival, BAMcinemaFest) and Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (BAMcinemaFest, Maryland Film Festival), both of which are currently streaming on Netflix, as well as the Outfest-winning, New York Times Critics Pick The Wise Kids, which can be found streaming on Hulu. Other films include Black Box (Devolver Digital), This Afternoon and In Memoriam (Vimeo). Stephen teaches in the Department of Radio / Television / Film at Northwestern University.
Old-fashioned: Of, relating to, or characteristic of a past era; adhering to customs of a past era.
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Terence Davies’ semi-traditionalist Sunset Song is the definition of “old-fashioned” in narrative and (mostly) in style, but not philosophically or politically. One could make the case that either all great works of art are old-fashioned, or none of them are. The past and present are too tied up – are one and the same, really – for anything else to be true. It’s worth considering the value of the term, however, because the more fashionable and present-tense the works that we consume, the more vulnerable we are to losing sight of and becoming distracted from the essential elements that glow at the heart of art.
It will be tough for me here to stay on the path of Sunset Song and not veer into Terence Davies: The Man and the Legend, as his The Long Day Closes stands alongside John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence as my favorite film. (There’s an electric, progressive female empathy that binds the Cassavetes and Sunset Song, but that’s another piece, for another time.) It would do this latest, great film a disservice to dwell on surface comparisons to Davies’ past work, as although what he’s doing now may on the surface be slightly more traditional, underneath it is as radical and revolutionary as the gently tossed grenades that are his early masterworks.
The story is what we might think of as classical. Based on the 1932 novel of the same name by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song tells the tale of Scottish farm girl Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) as she struggles to come into her own in the years prior to World War I, waging internal and external battles with domestic abuse, finances, love, sexual possibility, marriage, birth and death. The great “problem” with a movie like this is that, with its traditional epic narrative, deliberate formal style and slow pace, it risks losing the 21st-century mainstream moviegoer, and, more importantly, the young women who might have given it a shot in the past but are now so blasted with cultural noise that it’s impossible for them to sit still and ponder the eternal soul and struggle of a young woman. Sure, people will soak in the culture they soak in, but it’s worth arguing for the existence of old-fashioned stories, and their relevance to young and future filmgoers, if only because those viewers do exist and might need a lighthouse.
The deceptively progressive Sunset Song is an especially potent example of “back to basics” filmmaking. A classical narrative with a laser-beam focus on a woman first and foremost, as well as rigorous and quite exhilarating formal daring – spare but extended musical cues, hypernaturalistic sound design (which reminded me, thrillingly, of The New World), brief but evocative graphic sexuality, and its stark, isolated vignettes representing each phase of young life – Sunset Song is more timely and urgent than any contemporary film festival film that hides behind a mask of “relatability.” How badly we need to be reminded of the land, and our individual place in the landscape, and our potential.
The land! What other film of recent years – save maybe Malick’s somehow underrated 21st-century work – has so strangely and effortlessly flirted with politics and environmentalism without showing any signs of actually caring to do so overtly. The most movingly radical idea in Sunset Song might be the idea that we are the land. How empowering to reconsider our ties and responsibility to nature, as we learn to think and feel and love and fuck. There is a reason that our greatest period pieces and our most time-tested science fiction share in common a meditation on the elements. Because therein lies both our beginning and our end, our personal and our politics. The rest is navigation.
For a reason I’m still to find, I’ve been obsessed of late with the 19th century in general, and with the American Transcendentalists specifically. While Terence Davies is a decidedly 21st-century artist, as modern in his sly, elegant experimentation as a Malick or a Hong or a Tsai, and while two of his greatest films appeared in the 20th century, I would consider the Davies of Sunset Song (and, I presume, of A Quiet Passion, Davies’ forthcoming film about 19th-century American Emily Dickinson), to be a spiritual descendant of transcendentalism – in which people, born of the earth, possess a spirit that can be willed into its fullest being by thought and determination alone. In some ways, this optimistic perspective is new for Davies. As someone who is profoundly moved by the struggle of the young queer men in his Liverpool films, it was beyond rejuvenating to see Davies tell the story of a young woman who, on the land, on the eve of war, manages despite all odds to find her place in the world.
I’m not the first person to state that it’s important to keep a foot in the past. But there is a reason that “classics” even exist: to remind us how modern we aren’t. I’m so grateful we still have artists like Terence Davies around to make clear the landscape, revealing the way of progress.