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Of Time and the City

By John Houghton.


There are three things we need to get clear about Of Time and the City, Terence Davies’ black and white documentary about Liverpool. First, it’s not black and white. Second, it’s not a documentary. And third, it’s not about Liverpool.

Premiered in Cannes in 2008, the year of Liverpool’s status as the European City of Culture, and now available on DVD, the film won some critical acclaim on its release but is often dismissed as a hymn to scouse sentimentality, and even a “risible and almost militantly superficial piece of regional PR” according to the Telegraph.

Of Time and the City is many things, but it’s not a “study of Liverpool”, and it certainly isn’t sentimental about the place and its people. In black and white and colour, Davies uses drama and documentary film styles to create a ‘cinematic poem’, dense with literary allusion and filmic references.

Its central subject isn’t Liverpool, but the role of memory and reflection. Davies’ reflections on growing up in the city in the 1950s and 1960s provide the light which projects his memories as if, to follow Davies in borrowing from Eliot, “a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen”.

The resulting pattern is both complex and beautiful. Davies presents a montage of archive and contemporary footage, overlaid with music, poetry and his own personal reflections which are, by turns, angry, moving and occasionally very funny.

At several points, the director uses archive documentary footage to expose the folly of Liverpool’s post-war demolition and estate construction programme. Davies draws a deliberate stylistic contrast between the black and white footage of pre-development families in poor but apparently cohesive working class communities and the bleak, malfunctioning tower blocks in which they were dumped.

In one brief but powerful sequence, the camera pans back from a woman sweeping her well-maintained veranda to reveal the decayed and litter-strewn block in which she has been housed. In another, Peggy Lee sings about domestic bliss and self-improvement over shots of half-demolished slums and half-built estates.

Davies’ use of the documentary style to make semi-direct political statements is effective, but they’re only one element of the film and they serve a much more personal purpose than critics who want to co-opt the film into the canon of social realism can accommodate. There is often an elegiac tone to these sequences, which some have taken to interpret Of Time and the City as a eulogy to a lost Liverpool, but the film isn’t a commentary about the city’s achievements and failures over past decades and some of its cultural monuments are gleefully defaced.

The Beatles are simply dismissed as sounding like a bunch of “provincial solicitors”. Football is included only briefly, in a sequence which suggests Davies’ childhood frustration at the banality of weekend family life. If the film is a eulogy to Liverpool, then it’s a massively disrespectful and equivocal one. And as a piece of “regional PR” it would count as a massive failure.

Along with the music of Mahler and Bruckner, the young Davies found escape through cinema. Finding the house of God empty, Davies fled to the picture house and Hollywood stars played the role of comforting angels. As a result, Of Time and the City is a filmy kind of film. The film opens with a screen emerging from the floor of a picture palace, bathed in womb-red light. A reference to Victim, in which Dirk Bogarde plays a gay barrister who is blackmailed by a male acquaintance, links Davies’ childhood realisation of his sexuality with the cinema’s role in bringing homosexuality out of the shadows of illegality. The reference to day-trippers to New Brighton who “board in black and white then disembark in colour – for things were changing”, also points to the role of film in changing the way people viewed the world.

Davies borrows from the visual alphabet of films about cities. It’s striking, for example, that Liverpool is introduced with shots of the Overhead Railway resembling a Fritz Lang future city and a tracking shot filmed from a train entering the city, echoing a technique pioneered by the Lumière brothers. Other sequences – flashing neon cinema signs, men working to the relentless tempo of industrial machines, the devastated rubble of post-war destruction, which for an earlier generation marked “one of the punctuation points in the depiction by film of urban space” – reveal Davies’ debt to the lineage of films about urban experience.

Of Time and the City would, however, sit uneasily in this grouping. The city often functions within film as a place where memory and identity is erased, and reflection is made impossible by the frenetic, kinetic pace and / or the sheer brutality of urban living. Unlike Baltimore in The Wire or Napoli in Gomorrah, Liverpool isn’t a ‘character’ in the film or the deus ex machina which determines the actions of all the other actors within its bounds. It’s simply the place where Davies grew up, which shaped his character and frustrated his desires, and which provided a selection of sensual and cultural stimuli, from the sacred – vaulting architecture – to the profane – the meaty arc of wrestlers’ lycra-clad buttocks.

The power of the film comes from Davies’ ability to reach back and re-experience his response to those stimuli, re-collecting and re-presenting them through film in a way that allows us to experience some of their impact. A trip to the seaside, an afternoon spent listening to the Grand National, a Christmas made special by the exoticism of a pomegranate in the era of rationing – all are recreated and overlaid with the director’s voice moving between his memory of these experiences and his later interpretation of them.

At key points, Davies recites fragments of poems (and the occasional snatch of Catholic scripture) which explore this theme of memory and reflection, from Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ to Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. He doesn’t draw on Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’, but the two works share the same pursuit of filtering and re-working memory, the “spots of time” that are “scattered everywhere, taking their date / From our first childhood”, through a creative membrane.

His self-narrated reflections have proved one of the most divisive points in the response to the film. Where some hear profound reflections delivered in a mellifluous, stentorian voice, others hear self-indulgent crankiness, in tones better suited to a Marks and Spencer commercial. In truth, one can hear both voices at different points. Hearing Davies’ description of his half-understood childhood yearning for the close friendship of another boy is sad and moving. The guilt, confusion and desire is still felt after all these years by director and audience alike. His dismissal of ‘Pope Clitoris the Umpteenth’ is crude and jarring, the sort of comment which has fuelled the charge of self-indulgence.

Like many Eliot poems, Of Time and the City has a structure without an overall narrative, and one which ends where it begun. Some have interpreted the final sequence of the film as the climax, Davies’ reckoning with the present Liverpool of “deconsecrated Catholic churches”. At least the old Liverpool, despite its banality and frustrations, had a solidity and cohesion, which the modern-day commercially driven city lacks, according to this interpretation.

Again, however, this reading misses the point. Davies himself has made clear that there is no “message” in the film about community or urban life. His reckoning is not with the city, but with himself, then and now, re-explored through film. The tracking shots are of Liverpool’s gleaming waterfront, filled with buildings that have the look of buildings that are looked at, but the recitation of Eilot’s ‘Four Quartets’ speaks of memory and age – “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living”.

Of Time and the City is not an exercise in urban studies or parochial self-adulation, but an ambitious work of art that addresses a universal theme; cinema’s best attempt so far to equal the poetry of Eliot and Wordsworth in its capacity to energise the power and creative capacity of a person’s engagement with his own memories. For that reason alone, it deserves a much greater audience.

John Houghton
is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 6th, 2009.