“Through cinema the past is regained.”
Of Time and the City (2008) is Terence Davies’ first documentary — although “documentary” is hardly an adequate description of this fierce and loving film-essay on his native Liverpool — and, more significantly, his first film in eight years. Any new film from Davies is an event in its own right given his status as arguably Britain’s greatest living filmmaker. Yet he’s someone who has been almost unable to work in a film culture that’s essentially inimical to the kind of filmmaking he represents. Of course, he’s not the only British filmmaker to suffer from this — whatever happened to Carine Adler (Under the Skin, 1997), or Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, 1999; Morvern Callar, 2001)? — but the situation with Davies is a particularly bitter one simply because of the stature of his work.
Davies’ last two films were literary adaptations (both, interestingly, from American novels), The House of Mirth in 2000 and The Neon Bible in 1995. They’re nicely done but neither approaches the intensity, power, and beauty of the autobiographical films he made before this and on which his reputation rests. Firstly, between 1976 and 1983 he made the three black-and white shorts (Children, Madonna and Child, Death and Transfiguration) that comprise Davies’ trilogy. The trilogy draws on his impoverished working-class childhood, the memories of his violent father, his close and loving relationship with his mother, and his struggles with his Roman Catholic religious belief and his homosexuality, to fashion a work that is intense, unrelenting, and emotionally devastating.
Davies then used the same autobiographical material for two colour films, Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 and The Long Day Closes in 1992. The way the trilogy worked with shifts in time through increasingly complex visual and/or aural matches is refined in these colour films. They are as close as narrative film can come to a pure sensory experience of sound and image — The Long Day Closes is famous for its lengthy shot of the hall carpet, one that is held by Davies for the patterns of changing light to play out. This is filmmaking of the rarest delicacy and beauty.
In Of Time and the City, Davies returns to the autobiographical source of these great films, the working-class Liverpool of his childhood. The film was financed as a commission to celebrate Liverpool as the 2008 European Capital of Culture and is essentially a compendium of archival footage that covers the years from the end of the Second World War through to the seventies. This is Davies’ dreamtime, the world of his memories of a simpler, better world, an ideal world even — “If Liverpool did not exist,” he says, “it would have had to be invented.” This memorisation of and memorial to Liverpool is specifically framed as a cinematic re-creation: the film opens, in colour, with a glorious-red mock-up of one of the grand old picture palaces of the past — the curtains open, and the black-and-white footage expands to fill the screen and take us back to the world of Davies’ childhood.
There is plenty for unsympathetic viewers to resist in Davies’ idealisation of the past. For one thing, he doesn’t hide his distaste if not disdain for subsequent decades. Near the end of the film he offers us some scenes of inner-city night life, of the nightclubbing, pub-crawling, binge-drinking contemporary leisure culture, scenes that are a clear rebuke to the world of the present. Even the footage he chooses from the seventies serves to emphasise the decline in civic life, with the demolition of the tenements of Davies’ youth and the move — keyed ironically to Peggy Lee singing “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” — of the working-class into high-rise tower blocks. Gone are the children at play in street or playground, the crowds enjoying themselves at the New Brighton seaside. Instead, lonely figures wander down empty streets, and the camera picks out the ugliness of the graffiti-strewn buildings and mourns the demolished old residences.
Davies’ dislike of modern popular music — everything from the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, in fact — is just short of the vitriolic. When the Beatles make their inevitable appearance, one nevertheless that Davies characteristically keeps as brief as possible, he greets them with a long, drawn-out, sarcastic “yeah yeah yeah” before writing them off as looking like a “firm of provincial solicitors.” Although comedy is barely evident in the trilogy or in Distant Voices or Long Day, there’s a bracing comic strain to Davies’ antipathy toward modern life that runs through Of Time and the City. You can find an even stronger taste of that in some interviews Davies has given (one example: Steve Coogan is “as funny as tertiary syphilis”).
But underneath this line of humour, which Davies is aware enough to turn against himself, lie a bitterness and even a rage at what has been lost. In music, it’s the loss of the art of the well-crafted song of the pre-rock age, a musical genre that Davies adores (think of the emotion he invests in opening Death and Transfiguration with a Doris Day number), whose supersedence by rock ‘n’ roll turned him to classical music. High culture is important to Davies, and it sets the tone of this film, whether it’s the aria that he lays over everyday images of playground and street scenes or the poetry that he continuously quotes (and whose authors he, rather preciously, consistently identifies, along with a host of other authors running the whole range from Engels to Chekhov).
It does seem a little overdetermined when Davies, in the early stages of the film, quotes from Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” The image of an ancient monument of a once mighty civilisation now fallen into utter decay hardly seems to fit a view of Liverpool’s civic architecture. But for Davies, what’s at stake here is the emotional feeling that the lines of verse arouse, the sense that he has as he surveys the past that — in Shelley’s words — “nothing beside remains.” Again and again he highlights a world that was, in his terms,better, whether it’s in the small details of the football matches where the winners didn’t punch the air in victory, or in the lengthy sequence he devotes to a celebration of the simple working-class pleasures of a day out on the New Brighton seaside pier. “Oh, how we laughed,” he marvels and mourns at the same time.
This survey of Liverpool is an occasion for Davies to revisit, through his voiceover commentary, his own autobiography. It’s an autobiography familiar to the viewers of his earlier Liverpool films. First, there was his struggle with his Roman Catholic upbringing, the “years wasted in useless prayer” before the inevitable loss of faith and the total rejection of the church, both as a set of religious beliefs and a social institution. (Interestingly enough, this “born-again atheist” still seems upset by the transformation of deconsecrated churches into trendy restaurants.)
The second autobiographical thread is Davies’ growing awareness through his adolescence of his gay sexuality. This gives rise to the one moment in Of Time and the City where he evokes a personal memory involving someone else, when on Guy Fawkes Night a boyhood friend rested his hand on his shoulder and Davies prayed that the hand wouldn’t be removed. Otherwise, for all the personal reminiscing, Davies’ tone throughout the film is distanced, removed, even cool — he never, for example, explores the dynamics of individual members of his family as he does in the earlier films.
Cinema is another central feature of Davies’ memories of the Liverpool of the past. Although individual films have their role to play — for example, the effect of Dirk Bogarde in Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961) on Davies’ growing gay consciousness — it’s the broader communal spirit of cinema-going that he celebrates here. There’s a plaintive ache to the way Davies ties his evocation of family Christmases to his time spent in the cinema: “In those movies it was always Christmas and it was always perfect.” Inevitably, though, Davies ends with the sense of loss, the mournful cry that “they are all gone.”
If all this seems too maudlin in its nostalgia for an age passed, it’s a bracing change when Davies turns caustic in contemplation of Britain’s Royal family, what he calls with deprecating sarcasm “the Betty Windsor show.” Decades later, Davies still burns with anger at this “fossil monarchy,” at the outrage of a luxurious royal wedding at a time of rationing (it’s often forgotten that the rationing introduced in wartime Britain didn’t come to an end until 1954) in a nation that possessed some of the worst slums in Europe. Davies underlines his fury cinematically, intercutting (admittedly, this is hardly subtle) black-and-white footage of the Korean War with colour sequences of the Royals. You can feel Davies’ lip curl in disgust when he hopes that the Scots, with their 21-gun salute to the Royal couple, “maybe […] were taking the piss.”
This is a necessary reminder of the passion that underlies Davies’ project in Of Time and the City. This passion is not always apparent in the arch, fey tone that Davies’ voiceover commentary can take on. Perhaps the film’s one failing is that the personal tone that Davies brings to this film-essay only rarely attains a truly emotional pitch; it would be much better with more reminiscences like that of the Bonfire Night friend. There’s also an element of the reactionary, the spectacle of the curmudgeonly 63-year-old disconnected from the modern world. But these are minor quibbles. There’s no denying the intensity of Davies’ commitment to both his vision and his art. At the beginning of the film he invites us in to share his dreams of his Liverpool past, and if the overall tone is one of sadness and loss, at the same time that tone is countered by Davies’ very act of filmmaking. Through cinema the past is regained and made one with the present — that’s always been at the core of Davies’ filmmaking practice. Coming away from this film, our hope is that there will be still more films from Terence Davies, that this coda to his Liverpool films won’t turn out to be the coda to his career. In that case, his bittersweet tone will become our own.