Friday, October 10, 2008

Review - Of Time and the City

Of Time and the City is Terence Davies' first documentary film, but it feels indistinguishable from the director's great body of fictional work. It has the same intensely personal feel, the same mixture of reminiscence, humour and pain, and the same non-chronological structure, with Davies' favourite music providing a connecting thread. In short, it is another jewel from a director who should be considered a national treasure in this country, but who has found himself out in the cold for most of his frustratingly sporadic career. In the eight years since Davies' last film, the superb but sadly undervalued The House of Mirth, he has fought unsuccessfully for financial backing and gradually fallen out of sight. In those years, this country has produced films such as Sex Lives of the Potato Men, Fat Slags, Rancid Aluminium, Maybe Baby, Honest, Straightheads and Three and Out. When set against such a contemptible list, the British Film Industry's almost decade-long shunning of Davies is as infuriating as it is bewildering.

Finally, Davies has been allowed to bring his vision to the screen once more, thanks to Liverpool's status as the 2008 European Capital of Culture. The director was commissioned to make a documentary about his native city, but in typical fashion, Of Time and the City is a film less about the city as a whole, and more about his own heartfelt memories of it. The film is driven by Davies' emotions, as he himself narrates over a wide and beautifully compiled selection of archive footage, and quickly lulls us into the flickering black-and-white world of his past. This is no mere wallow in nostalgia, however, as Davies is always quick to alight upon the wounds – emotional and spiritual – that marked him as a child; particularly his struggles with his own sexual urges, which put him at odds with both the law and God.

Fittingly, Of Time and the City opens inside a cinema, for that was where young Terence went to escape the grey, grim bleakness of post-war Britain. The allure of the silver screen has always been a powerful component in Davies' work, the glamour of Hollywood contrasting sharply with the banality of everyday life, and in Of Time and the City he once again remembers the pleasure of losing oneself in those faraway fantasies "where it is always Christmas, and always perfect". But he also recalls seeing Dirk Bogarde in Victim, and feeling a spark of recognition that contextualised those stirrings he felt as he watched the sweaty grappling of a local wrestling match. Born and raised a Catholic, Davies could find no solace in the church ("only Satan smirking behind corners and saying: “I’ll get you in the end""), and he felt himself cast as both a sinner and a criminal, cringing when his grandmother says she fancies Quare Times in the Grand National, and silently begging to be spared the wrath of God.

Davies growls that final line – making it sound more like "The wraaarth of Gooord!" – and his throaty, irascible narration is key to Of Time and the City's success. He imbues every line with passion, whether he is quoting from TS Eliot, Emily Dickinson, or simply allowing his own memories of tiny, seemingly insignificant incidents to spill forth. He recalls bonfire nights, Christmases (with the annual exotic pomegranate), and trips to New Brighton, where he recalls boarding the ferry in black-and-white, and disembarking in colour, with the footage suddenly switching to match the vivid mood. For Davies, memory is a circular, nonlinear phenomenon, and he weaves his personal recollections freely with matters of more national interest. Most of the major events that occurred in Britain between the end of the second World War and the end of the 60's are covered in some way by the film, and many of them allow Davies to be at his tetchiest. The Royal Wedding of 1947 – "The Betty and Phil Show" as he dismissively labels it – is regarded as a shameful display of opulence at a time when most of the country was living in abject poverty, and the rise of pop music, something Davies abhors, is given equally short shrift ("yeah, yeah, yeah" he sarcastically drawls over footage of The Beatles).

Despite his anathema to some of the most widely loved music this country has ever produced, Davies has worked wonders with his own soundtrack selection once again. All of his films have the director's favourite music deeply ingrained into their souls, and in Of Time and the City he mixes snatches of Mahler and Brahms with songs such as Dirty Old Town and He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother to both reflect upon and underscore the emotions his visuals stir up. Another superb choice is Peggy Lee's rendition of The Folks who Live on the Hill, which plays as the Liverpool slums are replaced with ugly, towering high-rise flats, prompting Davies to muse upon "the British genius for creating the dismal".

There is no doubt, however, that Davies still possesses a genius for creating great art. Of Time and the City perhaps lacks the overwhelming emotional force of his 1988 masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives, but it is still a wonderful piece of work. "As we grow older, the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated of dead and living" Davies says, and that quote from Eliot seems to perfectly sum up the wonderful gift this director has for intermingling the past and the present, and infusing all of it with a complicated mix of joy and sadness, yearning and regret. We have few enough genuine artists working in the film industry in this country, so the fact that we have left a filmmaker the calibre of Terence Davies out in the cold for eight years is something of which we should be profoundly ashamed. We can see that Terence Davies has lost none of his passion, wit or vision in his wilderness years, and now he is behind the camera again, it is our duty to keep him there.

Read my interview with Terence Davies here.