FILM REVIEW: Of Time and the City (2008)

Of Time and the City (UK, 2008)
Directed and narrated by Terence Davies

There are two main problems with contemporary documentary filmmaking. The first is that the films often become more about the personality of the people making them than the facts and arguments they are trying to present. Michael Moore may be the greatest culprit, but this trend can be traced back to Nick Broomfield’s Driving Me Crazy, in which all the dead-ends and failures of filmmaking were filmed in real time and included in the finished product.

The second, resulting problem is that the vast majority of documentaries end up, in some form or another, preaching to the converted. Environmental films in particular start out with the best intentions and a solid amount of resources, but a number of factors intervene which prevent them from having ‘mainstream appeal’. The subject matter may be too esoteric, the content may lecture the audience, or in the case of An Inconvenient Truth, you find yourself agreeing with everything being said whilst being bored senseless by the man who’s saying it.Of Time and the City should therefore be congratulated for avoiding both traps. Although it is unquestionably Davies’ most personal film, it is not marked by anything which could resemble arrogance or vapid self-promotion. It is instead a film of contrasts and contradictions, examining the ambivalent relationship one has with one’s origins, whether physical or cultural. It is a poignant and emotional examination of ageing, memory and coming to terms with one’s past.Things don’t get off to a very convincing start. The opening five or ten minutes, which feature contemporary shots of Liverpool’s religious iconography, feel very televisual. Part of this might be down to our reaction to seeing archive footage on the big screen – we are so used to seeing black-and-white newsreels in TV documentaries than it is easy to forget they were originally shown in cinemas. But even if certain elements of said footage are cinematic, they are still assembled and structured in a manner more befitting of television. Just as Danny, the Champion of the World suffered from the involvement of Thames Television, so the funding and expertise of BBC Films may explain the uneasy position Of Time and the City occupies on the big screen.The other immediate obstacle is Davies’ narration. Anyone expecting a film about Liverpool to be narrated by someone with a whining, nasal Scouse accent is going to be surprised (perhaps pleasantly). Davies’ voice is one of long, dolorous vowels and nervous consonants, and he expresses his opinions on a spectrum ranging from suppressed fury to jowly mourning via open-mouthed rapture. He resembles an old-school university lecturer, brought out of retirement to teach his favourite subject to a class of disinterested first-years. For anyone too young to remember Wallace Greenslade or John Snagge, it takes some getting used to.

But after this uneasy first quarter of an hour, the film begins to build and you start to get swept up in the images that unfold. There is no central narrative or thesis beyond a loose chronology, which takes us spontaneously from the Second World War to the present day. In one beautiful moment, Davies recalls a childhood memory of catching a ferry on a day trip across the Mersey. He narrates: “people got on board in black-and-white… they disembarked in colour”, and the footage mimics his narration.Even if it were little more than a collection of photographs set to music, one cannot deny that Davies is a skilful compiler. His choice of music and images mesh together beautifully, creating moments of great power in which one enhances the other. In one very poignant moment, he shows a collection of black-and-white images of abandoned factories, scoring them with Brahms’ Lullaby. It’s a tender and elegiac combination, casting a grey cloud of sadness over an already dark time in the city’s history.

Of Time and the City is on one level profoundly elegiac, with Davies mourning or remembering sadly all the images and traditions of his childhood years. There is something about black-and-white which brings out the earthy ruggedness in people, bringing all their crags and wrinkles to the fore. The section of Davies recalling Christmas in the 1950s is very evocative; it brings to mind the traditional seasonal images of Christmas past, without feeling in any way picture-postcard or chocolate box.But more deeply, Of Time and the City is about identity and memory, and how one shapes the other. The film is a cinematic scrapbook with Davies retracing his footsteps, trying patiently to hang on to his memories and to the city he once knew. Late in the film, he mournfully asks what has happened to his city, showing a montage of new housing developments and the changing shape of the riverside. But this is not some boring old fool moaning about the youth of today; this is a man remembering what he had, with mixed emotions, and trying to find glimpses of the good he knew in what he sees today.

Davies’ relationship with the past is far from straightforward, and the film is neither a breathless rant nor sentimental hagiography. There are great sections of him getting angry or expressing disillusionment with what was then the status quo. He lays into the monarchy during scenes of Elizabeth II’s coronation, calling it ridiculous to preserve such a thing out of tradition, and finding it obscene to stage such lavish ceremonies while millions were still on rations. In one laugh-out-loud moment he remarks: “the problem with being poor is that it takes up all your time; the problem with being rich is that it takes up everybody else’s.”On more than one occasion, he expresses distrust of the church, recalling how he discovered “it was all a lie” and calling himself a proud atheist. He even finds time to express contempt for The Beatles. But amidst his bouts of passionate fury, there are also plenty of moments with Davies embracing his past. He waxes lyrical about his love of film, expressing an almost religious passion for cinema as images of Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner grace the screen. He reads from T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets and P. B. Shelley’s Ozymandius like a priest might read from the Gospels: with reverence and a dry sense of humour.Of Time and the City is a deeply evocative film which examines memory, time and identity in the midst of a conflicted portrait of Liverpool. It takes a while to embrace its every idiosyncrasy, and its deeply personal tone may be alienating to some. But it crucially succeeds by not being entirely esoteric, providing a wide range of scenes and images which reach out to the viewer and invite you into this forgotten world. As a documentary it succeeds by conveying its message in an appealing and stimulating way, and by having an emotional core which feels honest and inviting.

Rating: 4/5

Verdict: A moving and elegaic portrait of Liverpool


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