A stolen look was all it took. A boy on the verge of puberty stares out his back window. Something catches his eye: a laborer cementing a wall brick by brick. It’s not the toil that captures his imagination, clearly, but the man himself, shirtless, sweaty, muscled. The man notices the boy, and winks at him; it’s not flirtation but mockery—we hear the chortles of his coworkers as we see the boy slink down away from the window, his face registering that pure kind of shame that only comes from those tender early years, exacerbated here by the fact that the boy—named Bud—is realizing his first stirrings of homosexuality, and that it’s 1950s Liverpool.
Now picture a boy on the verge of puberty, looking at this image of a boy on the verge of puberty looking. It was just a scene, dissociated from its context, a quick clip accompanying the review of the film in question on Siskel & Ebert. The syndicated movie review show aired every Sunday morning on my local cable affiliate in the Massachusetts town where I grew up. I was thirteen years old, and though this film, which the critics were recommending, looked very different, very strange, I was overcome with curiosity. And little did I know it was a curiosity for film, tied up with my curiosity about sex. In other words, complete desire. I didn’t have the self-awareness or even language to know at the time that I was gay, and would not know for many years, but this tiny little scene, this tiny little glance, stirred a particular feeling within me. The feeling was not “I identify with this child,” though I did. The feeling was not “I’ve never seen anything like this before on film or television,” though I hadn’t. The feeling was: “I want to see this movie.”
Foreign and off-the-beaten-path films were not so easy to come by in 1992 in suburban USA, so I was not able to see this movie for a few years. But I remembered the title: The Long Day Closes. I knew nothing about the filmmaker, Terence Davies, and I certainly knew nothing about the film’s aesthetic singularity—that it was a dream of a film, unencumbered by plot or linearity, a film outside of time and space that drifted from one moment to the next in a seemingly stream-of-consciousness chain so as to best evoke the experience of being a child caught in the beautiful-melancholy haze of transition. I only knew that I was relating to a vision, an image of a child looking, and I wanted to look. When I finally saw the film, on a videotape rented from my local library, I was pleasantly baffled by it. A minute-plus close-up of a rug dappled in afternoon light? A four-minute, unbroken shot of the sun setting behind slowly descending clouds? But as unorthodox as the film was, it was still emotionally legible to me. It probably bears mentioning that I distinctly remember frequently—often in summers—hiding in my room to watch movies alone on my 13-inch television, and that, more than once, I peeked out the window to look at the construction worker my mother often hired, a burly, muscled man who would often nonchalantly peel off his shirt under the blazing summer sun.
Movies are reflections of our fears, our desires, and often our fearsome desires. I doubt you could find a man or woman who could not point to a cinematic image that stands out from childhood for the way it taught them how to look sensually. The identification of which I spoke above is so literally correlative and dramatic that it’s nearly absurd, but I doubt it’s all that abnormal for such a connection to occur. This is not because films are necessarily universal, but because what they tap into is. In Vertigo, we feel empathy for both Scotty and Madeleine, depending on the shot, depending on where the camera is, and depending on what we’re seeing. He may be dangerously obsessive, and she may be monstrously duplicitous, but when they desire, we desire. In what other medium are we invited we see how another person sees, to actually take part in a simulation of their point of view?
The intoxication of looking is often inextricable from the shame we’re made to feel for it. Just as Bud is inherently humiliated and made to feel different for his pleasure, I felt a tingle of humiliation (a sense of wrongness) about my wanting to watch this movie, my unknown desperation to identify. The Long Day Closes is a film about watching: not just the attractive man laying bricks in the backyard, but movies, mothers, siblings, the street, the rain, a rug. Bud doesn’t control through his gaze, though, he witnesses—an important distinction. The beauty of being a movie watcher lies in the contradiction of engaged passivity, the ennobling sense that we’re all fixed points in a world constantly spinning around us. Movies remind us we’re always looking at ourselves.
Michael Koresky is the Director of Publications and Marketing at Metrograph, as well as the author of the book Terence Davies for University of Illinois Press. He is also a founding editor of Reverse Shot, a publication of Museum of the Moving Image; a contributing writer to the Criterion Collection; and a freelance writer whose essays have appeared in Film Comment, Sight & Sound, The American Interest, and elsewhere.