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Of Time and the City (U)

Terence Davies' epic documentary about Liverpool finally goes on release. Gerry Corner watches it in wonder

Written by . Published on December 16th 2009.

Of Time and the City (U)

IN the final image of Terence Davies' much-praised and highly personal evocation of Liverpool, fireworks fill the night sky with light over the Liver Building. It is a surprise because, apart from being a cliché, it doesn't really seem to follow anything that came before. 

No wonder the scenes of present day
Mathew Street party animals made
Davies feel an alien in his own land'

Davies doesn't really do upbeat. He is, by his own admission, a glass-half-empty man. "I love my city but I'm very critical," he says. Like all thoughtful natives of Liverpool, then. So while culture chiefs, ever wary of the slightest negative, may have hoped for a straightforward account of Liverpool's ascent to the status of "world class city", this was the furthest thing from Davies' mind.

Like the director's feelings for Liverpool, Of Time and the City is more complicated than that. So where there is warmth and affection, there is also anger and resentment. Once you accept it for what it is, an intimate, painfully so at times, collection of memories and observations, you can sit back and enjoy a stunning piece of work. If there is a "phoenix-like rise" to be seen, it is that of the film-maker who was beginning to think he might never work again.

The first 20 minutes feature mostly black and white footage from the Fifties and early Sixties, some of it familiar, a lot more that might never have otherwise seen the light of day, and on that level alone there is much to savour. Later, the narrator's trains of thought take us to other places, like the Korean War and the coronation of Elizabeth II, the beginning of, as Davies puts it, "The Betty Windsor Show".

There are a couple of staples of the Scouse nostalgia industry but Davies puts his own spin on all of it, like the trippers boarding the ferry to New Brighton in black and white and disembarking in the same glorious Technicolor of the Hollywood movies which Davies "discovered, loved and swallowed whole".

Themes addressing age and mortality add depth while other layers are provided by Davies' commentary - here quoting passages from TS Eliot, there adding his own thoughts in rich, mournful, unaccented tones - and by the sampled music, everything from Handel to The Hollies. In one sequence, an exquisitely performed aria is played over everyday scenes from a lost world - an old woman rubbing cold hands before an igniting fire, young children with middle-aged faces playing in a schoolyard – giving them an almost unbearable poignancy.

Of Time And The City %281%29

A brilliantly memorable centrepiece finds Peggy Lee's classic rendering of The Folks Who Live on the Hill juxtaposed with the forced relocation of Liverpool's inner city population. Lee's words about future hopes and dreams take on a deep irony as they accompany first the smashing of the slums, then the reality of the high rises; the replacement of one ghetto for another. Many have condemned this time in Liverpool's history, but none more eloquently, or elegantly, than this.

Like much of the footage, the views expressed are black and white. Davies's commentary is frequently irreverent, cynical and overtly political, all moods that ought to be well received in the city of his birth. His scorn is at its most withering when directed at institutions: the Church for, as he sees it, wasting his time with false promises, and the monarchy for the gilt-edged extravagance of the Queen's wedding to Prince Philip while the nation "survived on rationing in some of the worst slums in Europe".

But whether depicting Orange marchers on the train home from Southport "barking at the papist moon" or observing a squad of Scottish soldiers spraying water to celebrate the Queen's crowning - "a 21-hose salute . . . or were they taking the piss?" - a keen sense of humour undercuts much of it.

Davies extols the innocence of beauty competitions and mourns the demise of a time when a dignified handshake sufficed as a goal celebration. No wonder the scenes of present day Mathew Street party animals made Davies feel an alien in his own land.

His self-imposed status as an outsider is not helped by the fact that Liverpool's most sacred cows – The Beatles and football – hold no interest for him. Recalling his brother listening to the football results on a Bakelite radio, he recites the names - "Accrington Stanley, Hamilton Academicals, Queen of the South" - but only, I suspect, because he likes the sound of the words.

"Love song", "eulogy", "phoenix-like rise" - these phrases from the film's publicists feel like they were lifted from the original pitch for the project and may have created the wrong kind of expectations at its Philharmonic Hall premiere. It could also explain why it appeared to be more warmly received by a Cannes audience devoid of the baggage that comes with being from Liverpool.

20083110TerrencelgTerence DaviesIf it were merely a social documentary set to music, poetry and Davies' pungent, passionate prose, Of Time and the City would still be a substantial gift to Liverpool in its year of culture. Davies wanted Of Time and the City to be a visual poem and he succeeds with a profound sensitivity towards his subject matter, while never patronising. The artistic process is at work in lots of places: in what's included and what, amidst a mass of archive material, is not; in the sheer, glorious inspiration that matches the slum clearance project to the voice of Peggy Lee.

"My farewell to the city" is how the director describes it; the last time he will mine his Liverpool past for cinematic gold. Moreover; this is a laying to rest of ghosts and an emotional parting, on the best of terms, but very much his terms.


Of Time and the City is on general release

Pic of Terence Davies by Stephanie De Leng

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9 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

NevilleOctober 31st 2008.

There's no point in being bitter without twisted, is there? If there are any cliches to be had, they are all neatly wrapped up in "Talia's" considerable and ignorant bile here.

Sir Howard WayOctober 31st 2008.

As there was little kow-towing conformity to the worship of dreary old footie'n'Beatles rubbish in the film, surely there was little there to entertain the monkeymen in any case? It's probabaly why they couldn't get out of the auditorium fast enough to get at the free drinks.

taliaOctober 31st 2008.

Another slobbering, self-indulgent piece of class conscious twaddle from Davies. How does this man find funding? What liberal guilt complexes does he tap into?This is proto-Marxist propaganda of the worst kind. The world he invents never ever existed. There is no virtue in poverty and squalor, there is only poverty and squalor.Please dont watch this film it has no artistic merit and only serves to underline the impression that Liverpool remains selfpity city, and that scousers wallow in degradation and ignorance.

Mike ShielsOctober 31st 2008.

A wonderful film, and your comments about the re-location sequence and Peggy Lee's song are right on the money. Made the hairs stand up (what's left of them) on my head. One caveat: Ewan McColl wrote Dirty Old Town about Salford! Hmm.

PeevedOctober 31st 2008.

Yes, I went to the premiere and couldn't believe the rudeness of the so-called VIPs making a mass exodus as the credits rolled. Maybe in Capital of Culture year,instead of having ballroom dancing classes in Anfield, they should have had etiquette classes for the usual suspect freeloaders on the Culture Co party-time list who turn up to the opening of an fecking envelope. It doesn't say much for Liverpool as Euro Capital of Culture when this self-apponted bunch of luvvie arts representatives can't be arsed to sit through the credits of an internationally acclaimed film that's just been made here.

AnonymousOctober 31st 2008.

What a very good piece of writing which has avoided the nostalgia cliche/misunderstanding about this film. Just saw it today on your recommendation and was moved to tears. A real experience

speechlessOctober 31st 2008.

Interesting story I know to be true about a bloke from West Derby who booked and paid for a "box" at the Philharmonic on the premiere night because he wanted his son to see this film. It was all going well until it all ****ed up when Warren Bradley and family turned up WITHOUT an RSVP. Guess who the Phil usherettes kicked out of the box to make way for the fireman and his entourage. Yes, the people from West Derby. Couldn't make it up, could yer? Anyway, good film!!!

AnonymousOctober 31st 2008.

Oh **** off Talia!

AnonymousOctober 31st 2008.

Talia is a complete dickhead. The whole point is that this is Davies's take. He has no fondness for the city, and that's what this review says (by the way, excellent piece, LC). Take a bow Roy Boulter!!!

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