By Mina Radovic.
Richard Billingham’s debut as a director is an unjudgmental, observational, frequently difficult, and highly internalized portrait of his family. Composed to the brim, glacial but consistent in its movement of the camera, with a beautifully decaying pastel colour texture, the film follows a series of interconnected vignettes of mother, father, brother, and relatives in a decaying paper mâché flat in Thatcher-era Britain. The film features little in the way of exposition and much in the way of experience.
The opening sequence on the elderly father reveals much in the way of Billingham’s visual approach. Every shot punctuates a small detail of a space: the film begins with a big close-up of a cupboard top on which lies a single key and around which a single fly swats around, next an extreme close-up on a fly zooming around a dead bulb and flying away, a wider track down to the father waking up in the bed, which matches the colour of the wall and appears to engulf him, the rain-covered window covered by the curtains reveals the title. Afterwards the same shot of the bed, the father gets up, a side-on diagonal shot reveals him having a smoke and ritually pouring a drink of black liquid, with close-ups cutting between him and the fly swatting around the wallpaper and then the bed, then the liquid being emptied out into the glass. After downing the whole black glass, he struggles to get up. A shot of his back shows his difficult movements. An image of Christ sits in a pamphlet on the side of his bed. He staggers to open the window as a camera patiently moves with his hands past the curtain to reveal some fresh air, and a tinge of blue light entering on the side of the curtain to infiltrate the dark beige-red room. A faded close-up reveals his hand shaking dully. Within four minutes the film has used all possible means of form – camera, light, blocking, décor, objects – to show rather than tell, to make us participants in the experience rather than listeners of a story.
We understand the father’s quiet pained character, we see his ritual alcoholism and its internal effects, we see the decay in which he lives not by reference to decay itself but by the dull movements of a neighbouring fly and the lack of the quality and range of light. The window is first another means for creating distance, as it is remains closed and is pummelled by heavy rain, but becomes the means from which the father literally but also temporally takes a breather, as he sits looking off into frame right, out of the window, and the film then cross-fades to the picture of the mother and father – Ray & Liz – and the much younger cleaner father looking off into frame left. Shifting in time one shared look moves us into the house of the past. The attentiveness (and not simply attention) to detail remains a strong feature of the film throughout and one of the reasons the space and the experiences the characters undergo in that space come so vividly to life.
Another feature of the film which is particularly exceptional and adds to its visual structure is the use of sound, particularly the use of silence, quiet natural movements, and muted music. Many sequences are silent or contain natural sounds, featuring the quiet movements of the body, of objects, and of elements, like rain, water or distant thunder. These unobtrusive and moderate aural intonations complement the visual structure which likewise is frequently composed of minute details and of which even the tension in the most dramatic moments, including those of violence, comes through the formal composure of fragments of detail, rather than the usual demonstration of explosive movements or sounds. Music appears in the film in an equally muted fashion, often being a time marker or serving as an elegant sound bridge or fade between sequences, the volume gradually increases and tonally rings as if it is coming from the bottom of a well. Beyond harkening to the time period in which the film is set the music serves as a bridge between time periods, with its faded or well-sounding aural quality evoking the psychological state of a person’s memory, the way in which periods mingle, the sounds and images associated with them converge, and finally time is experienced on one plane.
One of the fruits born from the specifically dynamic use of audio-visual form in Ray & Liz is the reconciliatory depiction of time. Here, time ultimately exists on one plane and each instant becomes in a way an eternally frozen moment devoted to the characters that made life meaningful, albeit seemingly difficult, for this film’s director. Not judging the characters, no matter how dark and twisted they become, is perhaps one of the ways the director expresses reconciliation. Though the filmmaker manages to distance himself from the wrongful actions they committed, as seen for instance through the exchange between older brother Richard (Billingham’s on-screen double) and the councillor just before his younger brother Jason is taken to foster care, we continue to feel compassion for them. In a protracted final scene between the titular mother and father, an aged Liz asks the elderly Ray for money, they share a moment of silence couched against one another on the bed, she shouts at him, he hands the money willingly and she leaves eventually. Sadness remains imbued in the fabric of the parents’ life. Even as their family is divided, to the end we stay with them, right until a more hellish red engulfs the father’s room.
Though the director has cited A Man Escaped (1956) as an inspiration in his childhood, there is much in his approach to time (as well as colour) that bares affinity with Tarkovsky. The reconciliatory depiction of time also has its counterpart in the unremarkable but significant allusions to faith weaved into the fabric of the film. The icon image of Christ appears with the father in several sequences, and though in one scene a relative verbally mocks God the film tells us something else as, later in the same scene, we see an image of Christ healing the blind man in stark contrast to an outburst of violence. Interviewing Billingham on the issue and looking at the ways in which his cinematic work develops will only reveal to what extent family histories constitute an essential part of his oeuvre in relation to questions of personal reconciliation and faith.
Ray & Liz has its US theatrical premiere at NYC’s Film Forum on 10 July.
Mina Radovic is a doctoral researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London. He holds a Master of Arts in Film Studies and German Language, Literature, and Linguistics from the University of St Andrews. A FIAF-trained archivist and filmmaker, he regularly contributes to international film and academic journals and runs the Liberating Cinema Project.