Thursday, January 29, 2009

Terence Davies' OF TIME AND THE CITY

I'll admit that it has taken longer than it should to notice Terence Davies' films. Although aware of his feature films, I was completely uninterested due to recondite reasoning that I myself have no explanation for. This is especially true for Distance Voices, Still Lives that was newly out on VHS during my fertile video store years. Customers were often sing its praises, and I dismissed the admiration as the same flutter you would get around the Merchant Ivory films.

Of Time and the City was my gateway to Davies. As I headed off on vacation this summer, I threw recently arrived periodicals in my bag for downtime reading. One of them was the summer issue of Cinema Scope (that's two words folks, Cinema and Scope - Mark Peranson, I hope you are reading) which included an interview with Terence Davies. I was reading it with about as much interest as I had given Distant Voices, but by the time I got to the end I was stunned and had to re-read it. Who was this guy? Is he for real?

The interview is pleasant and Davies exerts a wry sense of humor. But it is his honesty that I was struck by, while methodically and politely contemplating Of Time and the City. Right smack in the middle of the interview Davies is talking about how, when he was 11, he realized he was gay, and that it ruined his life as a devote Catholic. Jason Anderson asks Davies, "So have you ever felt happy since you were 11?" to which he replies, "No, never. I'm afraid not." His candor in this interview was my first insight to why his films are so special.

When I heard that the Walker would be screening Of Time in the City, I was ecstatic. Terence Davies revealed. It was recommended to me, if I was really interested in Davies, that I check out his Trilogy—Children, Madonna and Child, and Death and Transfiguration—available on DVD in the UK. So that is exactly what I did. I converted my hard earned American dollars into British pounds for the DVD and spent last weekend diving head first into what has to be some of the most personal and achingly beautiful films I have seen.

Of Time and the City is being called a film essay for its use of archive footage and voice-over narration, but it could just as easily be called a memoir. Returning to his hometown of Liverpool, Davies reminisces and contemplates the place that molded him into the adult that he is today. The majority of the film is made up of found footage, mostly black and white, of Liverpool and England during the time Davies was growing up. With subject matter switch from the Royal Family to the Beatles to the Catholic Church, Davies sews together a free form composition. It is too personal to have the universal overtones of Chris Marker, and is more serious than the dark sarcasm of Guy Maddin. Exhibiting the same honesty that I noted in his interview, Davies unflinchingly introduces his homeland with an air of nostalgia and scorn (sometimes in the same breath.)

Davies acknowledges that Humphrey Jennings' 1942 Listen to Britain was direct inspiration for Of Time and the City. Listen to Britain was solicited to support the Allied war effort. It is a short film that shows 'a day in the life.' Although very propaganda-like, it is considered a masterpiece and in Davies' own words, "one of the greatest documentaries." The lyricism and the authenticity was what Davies was trying to capture for Liverpool.

Compared to his Trilogy, Of Time and the City is extremely lighthearted, even playful. The films that make up the Terence Davies Trilogy are his first three films made between 1976 and 1983 that have a consistent narrative line. The films highlight his formal skills as a filmmaker and his ability for emotional gravity. They are nothing short of stunning, and it is no wonder why Davies was heralded as a master very early on. Of Time and the City is a perfect reflection of the Trilogy thirty years later.

Of Time and the City's official website here.
A peek at Humphrey Jennings'
Listen to Britain here.
The Walker's Expanding the Frame continues this weekend with Jia Zhang Ke's 24 City.

It looks like I should have checked out Distant Voices, Still Lives when I had the chance on VHS; domestically it is unavailable on DVD.


Dan said...

I long to see it.

Davies acknowledges that Humphrey Jennings' 1942 Listen to Britain was direct inspiration for Of Time and the City. in Davies' own words, "one of the greatest documentaries."

I've seen this a few days ago! I knew Jennings was praised by Lindsay Anderson The Great, but I didn't know this.
If you want "Distant Voices", I think you have to check out the BFI store:


Dan said...

If you want, here's a beautiful recent interview with Davies:

Sandy Nawrot said...

A recent review of this movie in EW reads like a love letter. The reviewer states that "documentary" is to impersonal a word for Time and the City. She also mentions a breathtaking 2000 adaptation of The House of Mirth. I'm adding Time and the City to my Netflix Q, as it appears Terence Davies is worthy of adoration...

dan said...

Yep, House of Mirth is wonderful too!

Kathie Smith said...

Here's the full quote from the Cinema Scope interview regarding Listen to Britain (when asked to make a film about Liverpool, he was asked what he would like to do:) "'I'd like to do a documentary but in the style of Humphrey Jennings' Listen to Britain (1942).' I don't know if you've seen it but it is one of the greatest documentaries. It's only 19 minutes long but it captures what Britain was like when we were about to be invaded. It's so lyrical and it captures the very nature, the very essence of being British. I thought I'd like to do that for Liverpool."

I feel like Distant Voices will eventually show up on DVD here, and honestly I bet I could find it at the library.

GreenCine Daily had a post on Of Time and the City and there was a link to the 'Phil on Film' interview - very nice.

Davies is definitely a craftsman (his commentary on the Trilogy DVD was all about, 'oh that's a clumsy shot' and 'I should have shot that closer') and I'm sure this shines through in The House of Mirth.