The Best Movies of the Year: All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Terence Davies, and the Poetry of MemoryMovies Features best of 2023
When Terence Davies passed away in October, obituaries flooded the internet labeling him as a singular talent, responsible for creating a whole new way of remembering mid-century British life. Michael Koresky wrote that his films “glided on waves of contemplation and observation,” each buoyed by the same specificity of growing up in Liverpool. His films are trained on a time and place, composed with scenic clarity, yet in such specificity they are also alive to the struggles of contemporary British life. His filmography re-drew the bounds of queer artmaking forever. The sweltering, dense thicket of Mississippi is as far from the dry, frozen concrete of Liverpool as can be, but both Davies and All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt director Raven Jackson are concerned with how the dismembered parts of a place make up the feeling of the whole.
In All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Mack (portrayed with wondrous self-possession as an adult by Charleen McClure and endearing delicacy as a child by Kaylee Nicole Johnson) sits alongside a lake, static hanging in the sky, muck swirls around her hand, settling in grainy patterns. This opening scene is a succession of hands, each fiddling with fishing apparatus as Mack’s father dispenses advice.
The marked facelessness of these introductions echoes the opening moments of Davies’ iconic Distant Voices, Still Lives, where his camera trails across the entryway of a simple, unvarnished home. As Davies drinks in the threadbare carpet and yawning hall, the voices of a mother and her children crowd the space, charging the empty air.
In both movies, the protagonists’ personhoods and worlds are conveyed through limited filmic means. Such carefully disembodied introductions speak to the introspective tone and still, contained shape of these projects—both reacting against the more sensational aspects of autobiography.
One of the most apt observations on the passage and process of memory is English poet Molly Drake’s track “I Remember” from her lone album The Tide’s Magnificence: Songs and Poems of Molly Drake. The combination of her imperfect singing voice and stilted, precise lines draws a fresh sketch of grief: Not quite a wave as summarized in the cliches, more brief flashes of recognition; glimpses of refined clarity answered by the resounding haze of loss. She splinters the body of the past into individual observations: “I remember firelight / I remember firelight / And you remember smoke.”
Jackson embodies this wisdom in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, living in the intimacy between sisters Mack and Josie (Moses Ingram) as they grow away from their youth and into themselves. The truth of their childhood, of their long-dead mother, Evelyn (Sheila Atim), lives somewhere between the “I remember” and “you remember” of Drake’s lyrics.
There is a charming knowingness to how both Davies and Jackson edit together their reflections. While there is innate tragedy to the early lives of their characters, there is also an ease and lightness—a physical musicality to this time in life. Mack practices kissing her hand under the streetlamp, before Jackson abruptly cuts to Evelyn smacking on a rich red lipstick. The dinner party she is preparing for is a mess of limbs and colors; fingers curling around palms curling around shoulders. Gladys Knight & the Pips rolls around the living room as Mack looks on, barely understanding the feelings she sees, grasping at adulthood in handfuls.
Davies always twists structures around his protagonists and the nostalgia that propels them forward. In The Long Day Closes, Bud (Leigh McCormack’s single, genre-defining turn) filters the world around him through his love of films, painting the saturated, hard shapes in technicolored shades. He trades the cheap, foldout seats of the theater for his carpeted stairs where he positions himself above this domesticity. He eventually witnesses his sister and her beau’s silhouette, with Judy Garland and Tom Drake’s “Over the Bannister” cocooning him. Like Davies, who’s own love of movie musicals formed the bedrock of his creative voice, Meet Me in St. Louis offers Bud a way of processing the world, insulating him from others’ buried feelings while directing him inward, to access his own. For Davies’ characters, art is so integrated into their lives, it redirects their sightline, funneling light to theatrically stage the people around them.
Both of these filmmakers are concerned with the value in beauty, ensuring that the feeling of childhood is captured, with technical accuracy sacrificed to visual poetry. Davies expresses this with sharp precision, steady shots that hold a swelling tide of unspoken passion. This composure lends heft to the silence that is draped over every interaction. Audiences are invited to sit between characters, attributing the slightest reactions with real weight—an exaggerated version of living under the repressed, war-stricken generation.
Jackson is less enamored with this visual collectedness, stashing away moments like pictures in a photo album, assembled around memorable dates in an interpersonal timeline. There is a startling physicality to Jackson’s approach in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt. Close-ups of faces, hands and arms, finding new, painstaking ways to settle into the frame—unhurried, unaware. In one of the clearer pictures, Mack lays with her head in her grandmother’s lap, her sister sitting upright on the other side. They remain silent and still as her father passes over them. “Go back to sleep,” her grandmother then soothes while Mack’s eyes hold the camera. It is a moment beautifully textured, rich with the detail of their lives, and Jackson’s lens is wide enough to balance each character, whose thoughts and secrets (Was Mack ever asleep? Did her grandmother know?) are tucked away, settled into the corners of the couch.
Drake’s “I Remember” peters off to a close, met with the distant voice of her husband Rodney’s approval. “I think that’s really good!” he assures her. The finale offers the same kind of strange, unpracticed intimacy that Jackson achieves in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, transporting its listener to a different time with Davies’ kind of earnest care. Both Davies and Jackson are artists who reject the solidity of events, preferring to swim through memories—arriving with films that mine the untapped ground between “I remember” and “you remember.”
London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.