Saturday, January 31, 2009

New Film: Of Time and the City

Of Time and the City represents both writer-director Terence Davies's first foray into documentary filmmaking and the Liverpudlian auteur's return to a non-fiction first-person after his obversely objective 2000 pinnacle The House of Mirth. Following more than a decade-and-a-half after his pair of autobiographical masterpieces, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) - the former ranking as the finest British film since at least that nation's 1940s golden age, and the latter, the best of the rest - Of Time and the City likewise charts the pocked terrain of Davies's younger years, articulating his formative discontent via a jarringly emphatic first-person voice-over and the film's constituent found footage.

Davies's latest reveals a devout young Catholic whose faith never crystallized, transforming itself in the process to the "born-again" atheism that the director professes today. In this use of terminology, Davies marks his kinship with fellow UK northerner Morrissey, who twice used the phrase in early nineties tracks "Black-Eyed Susan" and "Nobody Loves Us." Of course, the similarities between the two extend well beyond this militant anti-religion: first, there is each's homosexuality, which to take the testimony of either has more often than not been experienced as loneliness; second, there is the remarkable directness of both Davies's and Morrissey's art; third, there is the miserablism that this candor takes in both instances; fourth, there is Davies's and Morrissey's related taste for the witty, well-constructed pop song, in supposed contradistinction to the bête noire's of the film director, The Beatles; and fifth, there is the romance of each for Britain's war-restricted, proletarian past, much more of which, it must be said, Davies lived through (the director was born in 1945 and the singer in 1959).

This last point of contact can be seen in the songwriter's referenced taste for the British kitchen-sink realism of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karl Reisz, 1960) and This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963), which was a milieu it seems that Davies was raised in. Much of Of Time and the City's content in fact is concerned with the life of the factory houses of an older Liverpool that have since been raised (pictured) to be replaced by the depressing tower blocks that have come to define international skylines in the post-1960s world. Davies, like so many others, manages to romanticize these older working poor residences, in spite of the often unhappy childhood he spent there - and in spite of even the choking, polluted skies that his images showcase. In an originary critique of modernist architecture, the alienated vertical arrangement of flats disallows communal, empathetic existence. By comparison, the factory houses of Davies's youth promise a familial existence introduced by the under-class romances of Peggy Lee's "The Folks who Live on the Hill" (a perfectly selected piece of pop music for Of Time and the City) and Morrissey's "double bed, and a stalwart lover for sure" in his "I Want the One I Can't Have." All that remains now is the detritus and spray paint decorating the already decaying tower-flat walls.

Ultimately, there is a conservatism - and even according to Lisa K. Broad a classicism (beyond his stated taste for classical music) - to Davies's art, which can be seen not only in his nostalgia, but in the fludity of his montage. Namely, Of Time and the City, in spite of its compendium format, does not read as fragmentary, but rather as a continuous flow of an evanesced time that clearly suits the film's Proustian narration (Davies has long been singularly indebted to the French writer). In fact, as Broad continues, Of Time and the City lacks the epistemic skepticism of the modernist, archival documentary: this is a Liverpool he knows, and which he will endeavor actively to reconstruct. It is by the same measure no My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007) - again, Davies is far too concerned with lived experienced, unmediated by a surreal counter-reality. In sum, one can see in Of Time and the City how Liverpool, already the stuff of fiction, made Davies, whereas My Winnipeg shows a city remade in Maddin's perverse, Freudian preoccupations.

Returning to Davies film alone, the succession of images in Of Time and the City does not, at least in this writer's first viewing of the work, sustain the perfect organic progressions established in say Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister's Listen to Britain (1942). Rather, in somewhat less impressive fashion, Davies models his latest after the more impressionistic editing of the Jennings's nonetheless striking London Can Take It! (1940) and Words for Battle (1941), with which it shares an overtly poetic soundtrack. Indeed, though Davies has since his Distant Voices... earned the status as the British cinema's new Humphrey Jennings - which is to say its greatest active poet - it is only with Of Time and the City that this inheritence has been made explicit. Thus, if Of Time and the City is not quite another Davies masterpiece, it is nonetheless central to the art of Britain's leading living director.

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