Movies, at their greatest, are personal endeavors. That’s true for audiences as well as filmmakers—especially Terence Davies, whose newest film Of Time and The City continues his individual exploration of the medium. Once again, Davies revisits his youth growing up in post-WWII Liverpool, England—as in the masterly features Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. Now, instead of fashioning lush dramatic recreations that use avant-garde narrative structures, Davies arranges straightforward documentary images taken from archival footage shot by others. Forced to find a new means of production, this new style breaks through to a deeper way of seeing. But how will it fare at a time when lightweight, derivative kitsch like Benjamin Button is taken seriously?
Realistic historical proofs confirm Davies’ unique method of cinematic testimony. Combing through British archives assists Davies’ memory retrieval. Financed as an official history of Liverpool, Of Time and The City isn’t that any more than Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “Ferry Cross the Mersey” was. But like that 1960s British Invasion hit, it proves the spiritual reality of Liverpool through the sincerity of Davies’ recall. He narrates the film himself: “We love the place we hate; then hate the place we love. We leave the place we love; then spend a lifetime trying to regain it. Between loving and hating the real journey starts. Do you remember? Will you ever forget?” Through unabashedly theatrical cadence, Davies pours all his artistry into these images.
Because Davies’ style is both formal and idiosyncratic, you cannot distance yourself from his recollection. By presenting history in a personal manner, he stirs your own memories of youth, of home and of media. Like that magnificent Long Day Closes sequence of school-, church- and movie-going rituals unified by the pop song “Tammy,” Davies appraises shipyard, tenement and factory scenes; relating them to classical and pop music. It is the most extraordinary demonstration I know of the postmodern experience.
What’s postmodernism? If you’ve ever felt a pang of longing from home movies, family photos, old movies or songs, then the formal innovations in Of Time and The City will tell you. Davies’ breaks through the intimidating and alienating use of found footage by experimental directors like Bruce Conner or James Benning. That’s not a slam but a distinction. These images are more than materiel but totems brimming with unguarded emotion. Of Time and The City isn’t a high-minded anti-capitalist critique but a rich panoply of the historical and spiritual facts of industrial-age life. Quotations from Joyce (“As you are, we once were”) to Engels (“Removed from the sight of happier classes, poverty may struggle along as it can”) combine political awareness with passionate empathy. Davies cites DeKooning: “The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time.” Then replies, “The trouble with being rich is that it takes up everyone else’s.” He pinpoints the problem of hegemony.
Opening with an old-style movie palace as its sumptuous red curtains unveil a brilliant white screen, Davies establishes a familiar mode of dreamlike projection. His meticulous eye lives up to hushed expectation. Though he didn’t shoot this footage, each clip is handled like a personal memento, explicating England’s Free Cinema documentary tradition. Davies’ legato pace (nostalgic/analytical) confers emotional grandeur very similar to the recognition of psychic and sociological violence in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep montages. Scenes of vast cheering soccer crowds and beaches loaded with sunbathers convey the phenomenon of desperate leisure. Women washing laundry, workers filing in and out of factory gates are awesome in themselves but overwhelming when Davies adds choice musical scoring (Ewan McColl’s “Dirty Old Town”) and his own acerbic observations (“We had hoped for paradise. We got the anus mundae”).
Selecting from other people’s images conveys the evanescence of memory. It’s amazing that the anonymous documentarians’ best instincts match Davies’ own. He achieves a fragile sense of loss, anxious to capture the exact significance of a passing moment. Memorializing quotidian life, he provides ironic grace: as when happily chanting schoolgirls are linked to a diva’s operatic finesse. It conveys Davies’ process of maturation and his class aspirations.
While sexual identity is a major theme (“caught between canon and the criminal law, I said good-bye to my girlhood”), spiritual longing is bigger. Of Time and The City uncannily parallels Guy Maddin’s charming, satirical gay-memoir film, My Winnipeg; but this more rigorous concept—sticking to actual documentary footage as in shots of a heterosexual couple kissing—achieves a greater sense of outsider’s regret and desire. These are the two most original, ingeniously written films of the past year, yet Davies doesn’t retreat into subculture like Maddin but reworks nostalgia for the universality of its tenderness and comedy.
Toward its conclusion, the documentary evidence of working-class stress inspires indignation, unleashing Davies’ harsh rejection of Catholicism and his disillusionment with “fossil monarchy.” But Davies connects intimate yearnings to his political and existential quandary to demonstrate the importance of movies and music as means of spiritual sustenance. One scene reveals how his repressed sexuality sought the formality and elegance of ballroom dancing. This explains his grave formalism as well as his fuddy-duddy disdain for rock ’n’ roll. The Beatles may have become synonymous with Liverpool but Davies dismisses John, Paul, George and Ringo as “Not so much a musical phenomenon but a firm of provincial solicitors.” Only an artist so passionately devoted to pop music can get away with that perversity. Davies redeems himself by including a Hollies war requiem and with an extraordinary montage where Peggy Lee’s “The Folks Who Live on The Hill” addresses Liverpool’s bitterest home truths.
Throughout his career Davies has referenced T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and here he quotes it directly (“In my end is my beginning”). There’s been nothing this ravishingly highbrow since the compendium of literary quotes in Godard’s Nouvelle Vague. Yet it’s most effective when juxtaposed with the power of popular music and movies. Of Time and The City should inspire moviegoers to pursue full recognition of their cultural experience. Davies doesn’t detach art from life; he knows it’s the key to what makes us citizens and humans.
Of Time and The City
Directed by Terence Davies
Running Time: 72 min.
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