Sunday, November 13, 2011

Terence Davies' Of Time And The City (2008)

I saw Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) in D.C. at the Key, I think, back in 1989 when it hit these shores. It was a tremendously affecting film and even watching parts of it now is an emotional experience for me. It's clearly a personal work that somehow resonates with people like me generations and oceans removed from the creator's upbringing.

I'm not a Top 10 Films-sort of guy but I should add that Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) would be on such a list if I were to make one. It's easily up there with Wish You Were Here (1987) and Whistle Down The Wind (1961).

And, like those two other films, it works for me on both intellectual and emotional levels.

I finally watched Terence Davies' Of Time And The City (2008) today. I got the DVD back in June in Hong Kong and, while I had seen bits of this on cable TV a year ago, I am glad that I waited to watch the entire film. It's a marvelous, highly personal work that blurs the lines between documentary, memoir, travelogue, and newsreel into something else, another genre perhaps.

And given those qualities, it's the sort of film best watched alone, on a big TV, on a quiet Sunday morning, with one's full attention given to what's unfolding on the screen.

(Needless to say, I hit "Pause" every time I wanted to jot something down during the film's 73-minute running time.)

What remains at the end of Of Time And The City (2008) is a sense of place. Less a history of Liverpool than a look back at it through various filters, Terence Davies has constructed a moving-and-talking photo album.

What I particularly admired about this film was that it was highly personal and it still worked. As an American with an admittedly deep love of all things English, I was at an advantage going in. Still, I had to look up a few terms and people as the narration progressed.

That said, the film still moved me. I got a sense of a Liverpool vastly different than the one I visited in 1999.

While I went to the city because it was the home of The Beatles, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Wild Swans, I came away with a bit of affection for Liverpool that had little to do with those great bands.

Terence Davies seems to have a bit of disdain for rock music and that's fine. Frankly, Of Time And The City (2008) is helped by not having a lot of stuff about The Beatles. Coming of age in the postwar era, Davies grew up on the pop of the Fifties, before Elvis and John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The effect of this film is strengthened by a reliance on a score consisting of classical music and the occasional pop standard.

Growing up as a gay, Catholic young man in postwar Liverpool, Davies had an understandably unique upbringing. That he manages to translate that experience into something accessible to this straight American born in 1967, is something impressive.

What I guess I'm saying is that Of Time And The City (2008) is less about Liverpool and more about what Davies thinks the film is about. The success of the picture is best judged by its writer and director but, personally, I think it works.

It's not that things were better back then or anything like that but that something has gone.

"Although sometimes, it felt as if one's entire world was one, long Sunday afternoon."

I get the feeling, looking at the footage of Liverpool streets in 1950 or so, that even in poverty and apparent misery, Davies may have been content, happy even.

It's an odd sort of reminiscence but a poetic one.

Of Time And The City is an ode to a world lost. A set of snapshots of another era and an attempt to piece together scraps of meaning from the scraps of time's ravages.

I never found the England I was searching for but I loved the England I found on my two visits there in 1999 and 2000. That impossible England is gone forever but, as I surveyed the old houses in Liverpool that surrounded the boyhood homes of Ringo Starr and George Harrison, I caught a glimpse via the architecture of another Liverpool, the Liverpool of Of Time And The City (2008).

This film should be a model for what the "documentary" form can do.

Get it on DVD from

The wonderful war-time film Listen To Britain (1942) is included. While the 19-minute work is clearly a bit of propaganda meant to bolster feelings of patriotism in Britons fighting the Nazis, it works as another bit of visual and audio poetry, a picture of an impossible Britain gone forever despite the victories of 1945.

There are also some interview segments with Terence Davies. It's telling that Davies cites T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets in one of the interview segments as his films -- especially this one -- work in similar ways.

Even if you don't get every reference, or the significance of every word -- or shot, in this case -- the overall artwork still moves you.

And there's a 45-minute "Making Of" that provides a bit of insight on how the memories of one man were presented through a wealth of archive footage from various British film archive houses.

Plus you get the 2-minute theatrical trailer.