Faced with The A-Team and The Karate Kid, or going back to pick up the slighted Get Him to the Greek and Marmaduke, I did what any free-willed film fan would do: went to the video store (Kensington Video, where else?) to find something I was actually interested in. Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City, his first film since The House of Mirth ten years past, has been out on DVD for a year now, after coming nowhere near us in limited theatrical release. High time for it.
Narrated by Davies himself (a sometime actor in the Seventies) in intensely subjective first person, this is a work of excruciating nostalgia, an ode, an elegy, on his native Liverpool, making an indispensable nonfiction companion to his semiautobiographical masterpiece, The Long Day Closes. “Here was my whole world: home, school, the movies, and God.” Same there as here. The documentary is composed mostly of archive footage, beautiful, textural black-and-white giving way gradually to gaudy color, the beauty of the imagery declining in step with the beauty of the city (or the beauty of his memories of it): postwar urban blight, utilitarian housing projects, graffiti, rubbish, rubble, broken windows. “We had hoped for paradise. We got the anus mundi.” Perhaps ten, fifteen minutes (out of seventy-four total) of crystalline present-day footage at the end would appear to have been shot by Davies, concluding with a sardonic rainbow and nighttime fireworks display over the skyline.
On one level — notwithstanding the unoriginality, the secondhandedness, of most of the footage — this resembles a “city symphony” in the vein of Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Rhythm of a City, Cavalcanti’s Rien que les Heures, Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, Vigo’s À Propos de Nice, an impressionistic mosaic, allusive, evocative, of residents at work and at leisure, children at play, places deserted or thronged, streets, buildings, interiors. But in its chronological scope (the standard city symphony spans from dawn to dark), it is, on a second level, something of a social history: the Second World War, Elizabeth II, the Korean War (accompanied anachronistically by the Hollies singing “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”), ugly urban renewal (accompanied ironically by Peggy Lee’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”), a passing glance at the Beatles and the Merseybeat movement: “And the witty lyric and the well-crafted love song seeming as antiquated as antimacassars or curling tongs,” rumbles our narrator, sounding like an elderly Noel Coward on a winding-down gramophone.
How, you might wonder, can you have a postwar history of Liverpool with only a passing glance at the Beatles? Well, maybe you couldn’t, but Davies bloody well can, for this is also, on a third level, unapologetically a personal history: classical music (“I discovered Mahler and responded completely to his every overwrought note”), homosexuality (inflamed by the nearby beach at New Brighton, Dirk Bogarde in Victim, the professional wrestling arena), anti-royalism (namely, “Betty Windsor”), and lapsed Catholicism, angry atheism.
In a sense the film stands as a testament to the glory of cinema, the sense in which films meld with memory, the sense in which they are at once the objects of memory and the agents of memory, things to be remembered and things to assist in remembrance: records, references, documents. (This is quite a different sense, a different glory, from that represented by the clips of Gregory Peck and company at a splashy Liverpool movie premiere.) Davies’s search of old footage is in effect, if not in actuality, a search of memory, a dredging and sifting. And so persuasive is the illusion, so exact the analogy, that we can almost believe the images come straight from his memory bank, as though he were there in person when they were captured. In truth, we would have no way of knowing whether the housewives and their laundry, let’s say, originated instead from Manchester or Leeds; and in that respect the studio re-creations in The Long Day Closes, for all the selectivity and unreliability of uncorroborated memory, are somehow the more trustworthy. With them, the fabrication is fully apparent. But in larger truth, it doesn’t really matter. The assembled documents speak to, and for, Davies. They testify in his behalf.
Behind it all, the narration, or more particularly the filmmaker’s cultivated speaking voice, is without doubt the most problematic element in the film. It’s a thick voice, anguished, aggrieved, growling, emphatically dramatic, a little overbearing, a bit buttonholing, and so closely miked that you can practically feel his breath, practically smell it. His considerable wit is too bitter to be a pure delight, even were his readings sprightlier. And he is so prone to literary quotation (only occasionally attributed: Joyce, Engels, Chekhov, Jung) that we can at times lose track of the source of the words. Whose voice is he now speaking in? When he’s saying “My name is Ozymandias...,” we know where we are — we know that unless he has lost his mind his name is not Ozymandias — but in his orotund delivery and diction it all tends to sound like poetry, albeit not all on a par with Shelley. “But where oh where are you, the Liverpool I knew and loved? Where have you gone without me?” The border between recitation and plain statement, between excerpted poetry and autobiographical prose, becomes blurred.
Thorny though this voice may be, it’s good to have it on record, good to have it as part of the picture. Good, anyway, if you have any of my feelings about its owner. And the fewness and far-betweenness of his films bump up the value of every one of them.