The Screen of Memory: Terence Davies's Of Time and the City
Of Time and the City, the new film by Terence Davies (the British writer/director of Distant Voices, Still Lives, The House of Mirth, and The Long Day Closes), blends archival footage of post-World War II Liverpool, personal reminiscence, poetry, pop music, and cultural/political analysis into a life-affirming, era-summarizing thesis statement/autobiography. It gives an invigorating workout to your every movie-watching muscle.
The story Davies tells, as the non-linear flow of images takes you from the lost tenements of '40s-'50s Liverpool to the city's current cultural revival and back again, explicitly relates the high-modernist aesthetic of his past movies back to the post-industrial, post-war conditions that inspired Modernism. Each element of the filmmaker's ambivalence in looking back--each of his internal allegiances struggling for supremacy--finds an "objective correlative" (T.S. Eliot's term) in the archive.
Charged with this significance, the images make you gasp. A playground shot of Liverpool kids spinning free of the ground around a maypole perfectly evokes the innocence of early experience, made even more fragile by the images of adult toil that surround it: the shipyards, the municipal laundry. The most moving and troubling sequence shows Liverpudlians pulling down old tenements, making way for high-rise eyesores...then the new apartment-dwellers on their balconies, scanning the cityscape uncertainly, expectantly. It's an analysis of the class system as cogent as any I've seen in a movie, but Davies transcends even this by underscoring the whole sequence with Peggy Lee's rendition of "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" for deep poignancy, not cheap irony.
Davies's narration, a near-breathless litany of vivid remembered details, restores the richness of ritual to visible history. Over shots of the seaside resort town of New Brighton, a common "day out" destination for Liverpool's working class, Davies explains, "A nation deprived of luxury relished these small delights." Here is where Davies marvelously introduces color archival footage, saying, "They board the ferry [across the Mersey River to New Brighton] in black-and-white, and disembark in color." Footage of a New Brighton bathing-beauty contest challenges our view of the pre-women's-lib past when knowing, free-and-easy female laughter appears on the soundtrack.
Social institutions, though, bring out the gravel in Davies's time-scarred voice. The opulence of a royal wedding (the November 1947 marriage of then-Princess Elizabeth) appears to mock the poverty of British tenement-dwellers, but the monarchy's detachment is defied by footage of the huge street parties Liverpool held to celebrate the event. Davies, a gay man, rejects the Catholic Church whose doctrine haunted the early stirrings of his sexuality, saying, "I was born again as an atheist, thank God." And as Liverpool's long-gone movie palaces fill the screen of memory, he comments on his childhood moviegoing experiences, "I gorged myself with a frequency that would shame a sinner." Davies rejects all orthodoxy, a thrilling application of Ezra Pound's modernist exhortation, "Make it new!"
This includes, apparently, the 21st-century orthodoxy of The New York Times. Dennis Lim's recent Times piece on Terence Davies and Of Time and the City invited a reductive response to the work, claiming, "...[H]e can...come off as a proud reactionary, stuck in a halcyon past, contemptuous of change. He laments the emergence of his contemporaries the Beatles, who killed 'the witty lyric and the well-crafted love song,' and spitefully scores images of dancing throngs at the Cavern Club to Mahler’s Second Symphony." The spite seems to originate from Lim, who forgets to mention that over those images of early rock-'n'-roll revelers and the snatches of Mahler, Davies intones a list of foreign musicians and composers whose names fascinated him and sparked his love of classical music. He isn't trying to drown out the Beatles; he's juxtaposing responses to pop and classical music, daring to sound the depths of fashion. This is far deeper than the Times ever goes.
Lim's most grievous misinterpretation is the charge: "Mr. Davies belongs to the species of miserablist — the English singer Morrissey is another example, though Mr. Davies would abhor the comparison — for whom unhappiness is not just an idée fixe but almost a badge of honor, something to flaunt and wallow in." The Morrissey comparison isn't Lim's own--he cribbed it without acknowledgment from Armond White's definitive book The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World. Not an original thinker, Lim bungles the obvious. Of Time and the City ends with a two-part display of hope: a shot of a rainbow against the blue Liverpool sky, then a shot of the night sky illuminated by fireworks. This call and response between heaven and earth expresses Davies's true identity: not a miserabilist (neither, by the way, is Morrissey) but a spiritual artist.
Of Time and the City opens at New York City's Film Forum on January 21st. Do not miss it.
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