Volume 78 - Number 35 / January 28 - February 3, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Of Time and the City
Written and directed by Terence Davies
Through Feb. 3
Film Forum
209. W. Houston St.
212-727-8110; filmforum.org

Photo Credit Solon Papadopoulos / Strand Releasing

A grain barge pulls into the Liverpool docks, 1969.

Remembrance of things past

By Matt Harvey

In the late1920s Carl Jung had a dream about Liverpool, then the second busiest port of the world’s most powerful empire. The psychoanalyst associated the dream’s content—a flowering tree in the middle of the city square—with man’s unconscious relationship to an ancient cosmology.

A new documentary about Liverpool, “Of Time and the City,” opens in the vaulted, ornate dining room of one of the city’s swankiest restaurants. The camera swoops down from on high, and pans across a crowd of well-to-do middle-aged professionals dining stiffly in a gilded ruin. It’s the interior of a deconsecrated two-century-old Catholic church, St. Peter’s.

Civilization’s discontentment established in digital color, the beautifully edited and narrated 70-minute audio-visual collage flashes back to the subdued black and white of late 1940s Little England; the image of a family huddled around their wireless on a quiet Saturday afternoon. Over stock footage of a football match the narrator says, “Football, like life, was played in black and white.”

The bleak post-war period—long seen as a fleeting period of unity and innocence—has an unparalleled significance for the British. It is also when the film’s Liverpudlian auteur, Terence Davies, was born. He’s been revisiting his childhood since the 1970s, when he produced three autobiographical short films about growing up working class after the war. “Of Time and the City” takes on the primary sources; an audio-visual collage is woven together to breathe life into Davies’s city of memory.

The director’s narration—rife with classical allusions—takes us further into the heart of austerity-rich Britain. Shots of children playing and walking to school are paired with references to popular BBC radio serials, sporting events and his religious upbringing. When combined with Davies’s use of the pronoun “we,” these cues simulate the illusion—for the audience—of being deep in the collective unconscious of England’s baby boom. In a deep and quivering baritone, Davies asks, “Do you remember? Do you remember? Christmas?” After a long pause he continues his aching plea, his tone rising. “Do you, do you?”

Davies’s infusion of sepia tones into 1950s life does not color his take on the aristocracy. His voice dripping with disdain, he labels the apotheosis of the class system a “fossil monarchy.” For much of the working class, Elizabeth Windsor was not a reluctant symbol of hope among decay; she was an obsolete Marie Antoinette, stealing from poor children for self-affirming grandeur. When Davies lists the number of silk stockings given to the then princess on her wedding—to illustrate the royal’s rapaciousness—he unwittingly makes a larger point. The economic world order had forever shifted away from the Empire; multiple pairs of silk stockings were becoming commonplace in middle class American homes.

His point is better illustrated by a rare splash of color spliced in Technicolor footage of Elizabeth II’s 1953 fairytale coronation. It fades to a wide-angle portrait depicting two of the new Queen’s poor and elderly subjects crouched in a grim bedsit. Beyond the royals, the upper classes are only noticeable in “Of Time’s” breach; the smokestacks, shipyards and terrace houses are definitive of Northern England’s dirty old industrial towns.

After Davies experiences the first stirrings of same sex desire, the narrative becomes more personal. Realizing that ritual cannot relinquish longing, he turns away from the church and God. By the time the hometown Beatles briefly appear we are far from the maddening crowd; the world-conquering heroes are quickly dismissed as petty bourgeois professionals. When Davies says, “We could still find the pleasures of ball room dancing,” the “we” signifies the plural first person. I became more aware of Davies’s posh diction—as it contrasts with the notoriously nasal Scouse working-class accent.

Nothing swings in Davies’s 1960s Liverpool except the wrecking ball. The Labour government’s response to the unchanging poverty of Northern cities—slum clearance—demolishes the Victorian terrace houses. A montage of terraces being razed to rubble is set against Peggy Lee’s spare orchestrated melancholy standard, “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.” The construction of council estates—the UK’s answer to federal housing projects—follows, and the personal connection of neighbors to each other disappears. The new apartment buildings leave an oppressive Soviet looking cityscape. Mothers, the elderly and children are shown looking scared and alone, lost inside the nooks of massive, graffiti tagged, and concrete housing blocks.

Davies intones bitterly, “We had wanted paradise and we got the Anus Mondi instead.” Since the war is the film’s ever-present, yet unseen backdrop, the implication is clear: callous social planners accomplished what German bombs could not. The bureaucrats crushed the spirit of indomitable Britain.

Like Ozymandias, which Davies cites in the film’s intro, “Of Time” is an elegy for a dead civilization. The director’s dark vision of Liverpool as an ancient, “wrecked colossus” is usually convincing. But, at times, the ever-present nostalgia, rising tone of despair and soaring rhetoric threaten to topple the film over—into parody. The lives of Liverpool’s contemporary citizens—certainly far wealthier than their predecessors—are only fleetingly glimpsed. The director focuses on what remains of the city’s monuments (mostly churches and museums).

I found myself asking; “Was it ever that good? Is it really that bad now?” Then a startling black-and-white naturalist image of the empty docks—offset by Mahler—grounds the film. Davies cannot resist being seduced by the home fires that burned in his past, so he’s found the perfect medium to render their ephemeral beauty.

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