2008 has turned out to be something of a watershed for longtime Terence Davies fans like myself; not only has the BFI finally released his visually and aurally astonishing British works on region-2 DVDs with commentaries and interviews, but Davies has also completed his first film in eight years: Of Time and the City. Fortunately, it’s showing all week in Los Angeles as part of DocuWeek, a program of films the International Documentary Association is screening in commercial theaters to qualify them for Academy Award nominations.
Of Time and the City is Davies’ first documentary, and it’s a brooding, passionate, and often sardonic essay film that tributes the working class Liverpool of his childhood, and charts–with rueful adult hindsight–its cultural milieu. The film is largely comprised of archival footage from the era (Davies was born in 1945 and left Liverpool in ’72) that is layered together with a supremely evocative soundtrack that includes broadcasts, classical music, pop tunes, and atmospheric sound effects with Davies’ own narration. His raspy, effusive delivery oscillates between his memories, musings, and quotations from the likes of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. (Much like his absorbing DVD commentaries.) The latter poet is no surprise for those familiar with Davies’ autobiographical films: his trilogy of shorts, Distant Voices Still Lives (1988), and The Long Day Closes (1992) are all constructed as overlapping, circular memory films, snatches of scenes that fluidly merge in time and space, visually expressing Eliot’s idea that “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.”
There are no direct depictions of his family this time, only bits and pieces of Liverpudlian actuality, assembled through a highly personal perspective that emphasizes Davies’ private experiences, passing joys, and deep regrets. (It takes as its cue such classic British works as Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain, building a portrait of an era through poetically rendered images of ordinary people in their daily lives.) Rather than tell the story of his family, he tells the story of his place, and the sights and sounds of Liverpool offer constant markers of his status as both insider and outsider: the devout, Irish Catholic schoolboy repressing his homosexual urges; the slum resident during the lavish coronation of Queen Elizabeth II; the devotee of passé love songs during the reign of the Beatles.
Davies always seems askew of his epochs. He bookends his film with gleaming imagery of Liverpool’s state architecture and heroic sculptures (accompanied by Handel’s stuffy “Music for the Royal Fireworks”), implying that his own view of the city is inherently subversive. In her excellent 2004 British Film Makers book on Davies, Wendy Everett comments on “the alien masculinity of the public architecture of Liverpool” in the filmmaker’s short works. “Upright, rigid, complacent, such buildings automatically define [the protagonist] as ‘other’, and position him outside their space.” One of the film’s biggest laughs occurs when Davies quotes a historic legal sentence: “Not only did you commit an act of gross indecency,” said the judge, “but you did it under one of London’s most beautiful bridges.”
Davies’ films are always structured emotionally, yet he never descends into sentimentality or nostalgia for its own sake, often preferring a tone of lament that is felt in full force here. Like Buñuel, he thanks God he is a “born-again atheist” after years spent praying for a heterosexual transformation that never occurred. (According to interviews, he loathes being gay.) Much of Davies’ bitter humor is directed at the spectacle of the Church set against the economic squalor of the times (one striking pan connects a crumbling neighborhood wall with the splendorous steeple of the Metropolitan Cathedral rising in the background). But the filmmaker’s profound sense of the sacred in the everyday pulses throughout the film, perhaps most movingly in a sequence where he adorns lyrical, black-and-white images of dilapidated housing tracks with a soaring aria.
The film also finds indelible beauty in images of lone children playing in rubble, and elderly men and women sauntering through weathered streets, shielding themselves from the wind. A sequence that superimposes images of amusement park lights in the seaside resort of New Brighton (a favored family destination) creates a mesmerizing visual texture. And many impressionable cuts need no narration at all, like when Davies meshes a British Airways billboard (“Now the world is yours”) with a bedraggled family pushing a pram down the street. In general, a lot of the slum footage compellingly emphasizes children, and one can almost hear Davies wondering aloud if they ever discovered their own happiness. Like The Exiles, this film documents a lost world, a fully lived-in domestic realm cleared by city planners, leaving nothing but memories in its place. “The golden moments pass, and leave no trace,” Davies quotes Chekhov. Fortunately, they’ve left a bit of cinema, and Davies snatches and arranges the fragments with masterly craft and conviction.