Friday, April 3, 2009

Of Time and the City: Liverpool Made Me

The 21st Century has seen an amazing rebirth of feature length documentaries as a rich cinema experience. Obvious examples from 2008 are Man On Wire and Waltz with Bashir.

Of Time and the City is the latest and certainly the most eccentric. It has no obvious claim to a mass market, not even from its home turf Liverpool. It is quite esoteric at times, laced with poetry and introspection which may make it less accessible for some who would otherwise enjoy it immensely. Yet at the same time it is a vivid history of post-war Liverpool, and its working people. A collage of the changing character of British cities in the second half of the 20th Century.

This is filmmaker Terence Davies' homage to his roots. The official website describes it as "both a love song and a eulogy. It is also a response to memory, reflection and the experience of losing a sense of place as the skyline changes and time takes it toll." Davies was born in November 1945, after the end of the Second World War and at the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

Terence comments that "family, church and the movies [were his] whole world". He grew up in Liverpool's slums. The changing and unchanging architecture of this port city is central to his memories. The enduring buildings are mostly Classical, with more columns than a U.S. State Capital.

We see the promise and the betrayal of the slum clearances with the communities of small terraced houses replaced by the ghettos of public housing towers. The "loss of dreams" is underscored by Peggy Lee's The Folks Who Live On the Hill. "We had hoped for paradise. We got the Annus Mundi," puns Davies.

His republican sentiments are clear. We are treated to some of the highlights of the royal circus known as the Betty Windsor Show, in particular her wedding and coronation.

He also parades the other masters of pageant and ritual, the Roman Catholic Church and its red-robed clergy. However, the papal pomp is not enough to keep Terence within the faith. The hideous new Cathedral cannot cement his attachment to his ancestral religion. Instead he visits a different arena, the wrestling ring, to indulge his adolescent homosexual fantasies.

Of Time and the City is a visual gem, using mostly archival footage. It's his first documentary and Davies says that he cut it like fiction - "the images should speak". The narration mixes poetry with his own commentary as he explores "time, memory and mortality". T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets is a major source of inspiration:
Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.
(East Coker)

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
(Little Gidding)
Musically Davies has little time for the pride of Merseyside, The Beatles. His soul has been stirred more by the likes of Mahler. The film's sound track is an aural delight.

If you're looking for a travelogue, then forget this film. Terence Davies challenges his audience, through his personal reflections, to ponder their own journeys.

(Most of the quotes and background for this review are from two major resources at the film's website: the Full Transcript and a video interview with Davies.)

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