Ode to a Landscape Lost
2008 // UK // Terence Davies // March 14, 2009 // Theatrical Print
[Of Time and the City featured in a limited engagement on March 13-15, 2009 at the Webster University Film Series.]
A - Even the most supple and contemplative documentary features usually make gestures towards a narrative, sculpting their visual and aural components into hand-holds where viewers might find purchase. The only noteworthy exception to this principle in recent memory is Philip Philip Gröning's magnificent Into Great Silence, a film that broke every rule of the medium and achieved something singularly beautiful. While Philip Gröning's triumph strove for a quiet, observational character, Terence Davies' equally superb Of Time and City takes an entirely different track, embracing the director's own memories and emotions with soaring enthusiasm. The ultimate effect is daring and exquisite, resulting in a film that functions as a tone poem to a vanished environment, and yet also as a tuning fork keyed to the viewer's own nostalgic impulses. Via a collage of images, music, and narration, Davies explores the most cherished crevasses of his heart, where the lost Liverpool of his youth still resides, and in doing so he tunnels into our own hidden stores of bittersweet remembrance.
Davies has assembled an astonishing plethora of archival footage—both black-and-white and color—depicting Liverpool's public and private face, with a focus on the 1940s through the 60s, a span corresponding to the director's early life. This material is combined with a smattering of contemporary footage documenting the city's monumental landscape and the babble of its street life, creating a portrait that is both intimate and suffused with a lingering Industrial chill. The archival material is intriguing, perplexing, and revelatory. While I suspect that aerial shots of Liverpool's hideously modern Catholic cathedral are as plentiful as dandelions, one wonders about the footage of an elderly woman salting her dinner, or of children at play in vacant lots littered with brick. Where did these images come from? Why were they captured? It's almost as though some anonymous Liverpudlian's 8mm camera were whirring away in five-decade anticipation of Davies' extraordinary film.
The director knits together this footage with musical selections, most of them classical pieces, and narration he wrote and performed himself. While Of Time and the City's visuals lay out a footpath for the viewer, it's the narration that calls out to us, leading us gently forward through the film's experience. With a superb voice that is all warm cream and scratchy wool, Davies offers recollections studded with dazzling detail, and poetry that wonders aloud at the mystery of change and the meaning of home. Inasmuch as Of Time and the City can be said to have a structure, it is a rhythmic one created by the pattern of Davies' musings, which fall into three broad categories. First are his meticulous remembrances of warmly remembered but decontextualized scenes, such as Christmastime or a trip to the beach. Second are his recollections of specific events in the history of Liverpool and England: the Queen's coronation, the Korean War, the emergence of the Beatles (which Davis dismisses as the moment when pop evaporated from his own cultural consciousness). Finally, there are his more abstract and lyrical ruminations on time's ravaging hand, and in particular how it alters both landscapes and our memories. Streaks of personal anguish, longing, and resentment characterize much of the narration, particularly with respect to Davies' homosexuality, his Catholic faith, and the intersection of the two.
Mere description cannot do justice to the elegant manner in which these disparate elements—sensory, intellectual, and emotional—are united into a wondrous and distinctly filmic experience. It's easy to characterize Davies' meditation on his native city as profoundly personal, but the cunning of Of Time and the City rests on its mingling of the personal and the universal. The film excavates down through the accumulated clay of the creator's life to unearth the essential emotional landmarks of the Western cultural experience, examining them with an eye that is both rational and intuitive. While its anti-royal and anti-Church currents carry a bitter tinge—and justifiably so, in Davies' estimation—what truly astonishes is the film's spot-on admixture of tenderness, sorrow, drollness, and awe. Davies has bottled the wistful ache of unglossed nostalgia in cinematic form, capturing the ineffable urge to savor the past and shake our heads at its passing. It is this perfection of tone that lends Of Time and the City its smudged loveliness, and that makes it such a curiously powerful experience.