Saturday, January 24, 2009

Of Time and the City

In an early scene in Terence Davies' Of Time and the City, the camera tracks slowly across the empty altar of the Liverpool Cathedral, one of the architectural centerpieces of the director's hometown, while Davies intones slowly, in a voice deep and tremulous, each word carefully articulated before a slight trailing off at the end of a phrase: "We love the place we hate, then hate the place we love. Then spend a lifetime trying to regain it." As a formulation, it's fairly simple stuff - and much of the rest of Davies' narration, a dense and lyrical mix of poetry, remembrance and bawdy wordplay, is a considerably knottier proposition - but it gets neatly to the heart of the filmmaker's ambivalent feelings toward his native city - sentiments which play out in the film through often surprising juxtapositions - and serves as a clearly articulated statement of purpose for the director's memory project to follow.

But if Of Time and the City is a deeply personal film, its private meaning is filtered through something like the collective Liverpudlian memory. Excepting the brief opening and concluding sequences, the work draws almost exclusively on a thoroughly impressive collection of archival footage - spanning roughly the 1940s to the 1970s - which brings to vivid life the daily activities of the town's citizenry as well as the increasingly blighted landscapes that represent the backdrop of the director's upbringing. While I haven't seen Davies' celebrated semi-autobiographical fiction films Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, and some admirers of those works have found the imagery in City, contrastingly, too distant and anonymous, it's just that tension between the intense specificity of the narration and the communal resonance of the footage - much of which is shot with an artist's eye whose precision nearly rivals Davies' own - that keeps the picture from lapsing into an unwelcome self-absorption.

Narrating his early life, Davies outlines the church's baleful influence, his discovery of the movies, his budding homosexuality, his dislike of the Beatles. Quoting and revising Shelley, Eliot, Joyce and uncountable others, turning an inspired phrase (he describes Brighton rock candy as being "as sweet as sick") or indulging in crude formulations (listing the Popes who served during his childhood, he includes "Clitoris the Umpteenth"), the director's narration circles around itself, attempting to properly situate the filmmaker in relation to a lost past. When that past is confronted, what emerges is both an elegy for the vanished world of Davies' childhood and a disgusted look back at a city that offers few opportunities for a man of his sensibilities (or given the evidence of urban decay in the later footage, for pretty much anyone) and from which he long ago effected his exit.

But while Davies' narration stands at the heart of the project, it occasionally tends a bit too much toward the smug and, at times, threatens to overwhelm in its thickly layered show of erudition. So the filmmaker wisely intercuts a series of narration-free montage sequences, juxtaposing archival footage of the city with musical selections which provide a gently ironic commentary on the proceedings. While this audio/visual contrast can be amusing - as when he overlays Mahler onto footage of a rock band to show his preference for non-contemporary music - or, occasionally, overly glib, at its best it proves inspiring.

Setting off footage of the daily activity of the city (kids playing in the streets, women performing housework) and shots of uniform industrial housing blocks (which take on a certain nobility when viewed through rising crane shots) against a choral piece, Davies achieves his richest articulation of his initial formulation of ambivalence. As he invests the scenes of quotidian poverty that represent his ancestral birthright with a certain poetic grandeur - the details of work, play and architecture raised to sublimity by an angelic chorus - he gives fullest expression to both sides of the initial equation. While there's much to hate in such a drab, increasingly depleted environment, in reclaiming his personal past - as well as that of his collective generation - he finds plenty to love as well. And if Davies' body of work seems to confirm his assertion that "we spend a lifetime trying to regain" that lost world, then here the filmmaker gives us one more view of that process, investing public imagery with personal significance and achieving something like an apotheosis.

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