Terence Davies's "Of Time and the City": Liverpool! By Howard Feinstein

in 61st Cannes Film Festival

by Howard Feinstein

Over the decades many accomplished directors have created cinematic odes to cities dear to their hearts. Walter Ruttmann’s seminal Berlin: Symphony of a Great City dates from the silent era, while Alexander Payne’s segment of the omnibus project Paris je t’aime is one of the most affecting shorts in recent memory. Fellini’s Roma comes to mind. But Liverpool? You have to hand it to Terence Davies. Although he has not made a film since The House of Mirth (2000), he has successfully constructed an outstanding work about the hometown he may have left behind but clearly has not ceased to haunt him. (It was shown out of competition but as a special event in Cannes.)

He structures what is almost entirely archival footage circuitously yet accessibly, and narrates the scenes with what can only be called a Daviesian blend of personal memory, poignant observation, occasional aphorism, and invigorating infusion of sarcasm and camp. It is both local and universal.

Davies has always been fascinated by both out-of-reach glamour and the banality of the quotidian. Here he shifts seamlessly from one to the other, propelling the film’s momentum in the process. He begins and ends with a self-consciously false movie screen accompanied by the theme music from Hollywood melodramatist extraordinaire Douglas Sirk’s fabulously overwrought 1956 masterpiece All That Heaven Allows. He commences his essay projecting on that screen the most ordinary of old Liverpudlian scenes. Davies is a true democrat: No hierarchies cloud his vision. Revisiting what he calls “the happy highways where I went and cannot come again” is obviously cathartic for him, even if melancholy seeps through every frame.

Without judgment, he shows and discusses everything from busy washerwomen to overdecorated Catholic churches (he may term himself an atheist now but the Church has been a tremendous, even tortuous, influence on his life and films), slum housing, the carnival in nearby Brighton, wrestling matches, rusty steel bridges, and the horrid, unphoenix-like urban renewal projects that replaced much of the inner city in the ’60s. For him all are significant, pieces of the puzzle. The Beatles get short shrift: They are of no more importance to him than the children at the public pool or the old women at the tea shop.

To his credit, Davies does not isolate Liverpool from the nation, indeed the world, around it. Acid dripping from his tongue, he talks about “the Betty Windsor Show”, Queen Elizabeth’s ostentatious marriage at a time of rationing and supplying soldiers for the Korean War. He does not ignore aspects of himself that others might choose to gloss over. He constantly alludes to his homosexuality, whether directly or through gay-inflected humor. Like its director, Of Time and the City is of a piece, an honest, open entity that censors nothing in a sincere if relentless quest for truth.