Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sweet Nostalgia and the Shock of the New

Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, 2008)

How gratifying it is, after having written much on these pages about how Terence Davies has been shamefully neglected by the British film establishment, suddenly finding myself a mere drop in a very big pond of publicity for his return to active film making. Following its success at this year’s Cannes film festival, ‘Of Time and the City’ has subsequently been screened at more than thirty other festivals and has revived international interest in the man now commonly accepted as ‘Britain’s greatest living film-maker’. Present at this screening to answer questions, Davies is given a roaring standing ovation from a satisfyingly sold out NFT 1 and is visibly emotional as he leaves the stage. He claims he still has three films left in him. On this evidence, let’s hope he gets to complete them.

‘Of Time and The City’ has been described as Davies’ first documentary but this is more than a little misleading. Davies himself refers to it as a ‘subjective documentary’, subjective very much being the operative word in that description. Davies has always been an unashamedly autobiographical film-maker and by writing and orating (to describe it as reading would hardly be adequate) the voiceover in his exaggerated baritone, he makes himself as much the film’s subject as the city of Liverpool.

With its preoccupations with Catholic guilt and frustrated homosexuality, ‘Of Time and The City’ ought to seem like a gross indulgence from a film-maker commissioned and funded to make a film about Liverpool. So how and why does it become so haunting? Is it just that the mere experience of watching a new Davies film when it once looked like he might never work again is enough? Is it simply that Davies is such a cinematic artist that we are prepared to forgive any degree of self-obsession?

I would argue that ‘Of Time and City’ actually succeeds in transcending these concerns. It is an elegy, a visual poem, openly in thrall to the language of both words and images and rapturous over an old England that has now been lost. Like his earlier feature films ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ and ‘The Long Day Closes’, it is about the power of memory and the tragedy of loss. Davies muses on his own memories, his childhood, his hopes and his fears, but subsumes this into a broader visual narrative about the passing of time and changing states. Most often, it is when he realises the images do not require any verbal explanation that the film exercises its most powerful muscles. The sequence that juxtaposes images of high rise blocks with Peggy Lee singing ‘The Folks That Live On The Hill’ is heartbreaking, as are the images of urban decay set to Mahler’s imperious 2nd Symphony.

You’d have to be churlish in the extreme not to enjoy Davies’ voiceover though. He reads from Housman, Coleridge and Eliot, as well as having the audacity to include his own languid poetry. He quotes from major thinkers, philosophers and psychologists. Perhaps most provocative of all though are his own prickly, sardonic, often contestable proclamations. He brilliantly portrays the innocence and wonder of childhood, the strong sense of community and family life but he also captures the absurdity of England’s prejudices too (the gay men imprisoned for not just committing an ‘act of gross indecency’, but ‘for doing so under one of Britain’s most beautiful bridges’). He dismisses The Beatles as being like ‘a firm of provincial solicitors’, sneering over footage of them with rancorous glee. He is full of righteous anger when talking about the privilege and waste of the monarchy, and he sends them up with an almost royal pride. Then there are his passions – for music, for radio broadcasts (the clips of Julian and Sandy from Round The Horne are a reminder of what ‘edgy’ comedy used to be about) and, most importantly, for the cinema – a love that began with seeing Singing In The Rain as a child.

If anything, this is a film as much about the art and mystery of cinema as it is about Liverpool or Davies himself. This broader theme is hinted at with the film’s wonderful opening, shot in an old cinema (the only one where the screen rises from the floor). Davies beckons us to follow him, and we hear the melancholy haunting sounds of Liszt piano music. Davies seems to realise that whilst words, music and images are all powerful by themselves, it is the unique possibility of cinema to juxtapose and combine them that makes it a sublime art form, with the ability to move and inspire its audiences.

Whilst the film is suffused with memories from Davies’ youth, some wonderfully specific (the ‘gobstoppers that would last until your middle age’ at New Brighton), it features relatively little drama from Liverpool’s rich social and political history. One member of the audience perceptively recognised that, despite his commitment to the poetry of the working classes (and his insistence that the phrase ‘working class’ is itself still valid), there was no mention of any Union or radical political movements in the film. I suspect this is largely because Davies’ view of history rejects any sense of chronology – he is more interested in the emotional connection between thoughts, how memories pull us in unexpected directions and govern our feelings. Actually, he goes to great lengths in this film to emphasise the grandeur and courage inherent in ordinary working lives. There’s a wonderful moment when an old man is captured slowly walking, soundtracked by portentous classical music. Davies sees the tragedy in lives that end up forgotten, but has made his own attempt at expressing the triumph inherent in individual ordinary lives. It is clear that he sees the failure of the clearance of Liverpool’s slums and their replacement with estates as a huge betrayal – something carried out with the best of intentions, but with dreadful unintended consequences.

‘Of Time and The City’ presents Davies as returning to a land he had left behind, now very much an outsider looking in. Someone in the audience who had clearly studied too much cultural and social theory referred to this as the ‘essential queerness’ of the film. Maybe Davies, by his own admission still not comfortable with his homosexuality, would have appreciated this terminology, but I can’t help finding the connection of sexuality and ‘otherness’ to be about as quaint as much of Davies’ lost England must seem to many younger viewers. Yet there’s something beautiful and poignant about Davies’ struggle to understand the new world and how he might fit into it that suggests there is something significant about questions of identity, or at least a sense of belonging. He certainly won’t appreciate the comparison with Tony Blair, but like our former leader, Davies frequently seems powerless in the face of modernity.

The film is full of melancholy over what is lost, but it also leaves many questions unanswered as to whether or not this loss has been accompanied by progress. Whilst the film’s form, essentially a collage of newly shot and impressively edited archive footage, is uncomplicated, its nuances and resonances are many and intricate. He isn’t reductive enough to point the blame for his sense of loss directly at, say, immigration, or even the decline in manufacturing and industry. Maybe these intelligent ambiguities, along with a brave and unfashionable exposition of the importance of childhood, are the film’s greatest strengths. The children Davies’ camera lingers on in modern Liverpool’s bustling shopping centres encapsulate the film’s key themes. What will the city be like when they reach their 60s? What will they gain? What will they lose?

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