Sunday, 16 November 2008

of time and the city (w&d terence davies)

Two weeks without going to see a film seems like something of a hiatus. There are films out there I wouldn't mind seeing, but I think it might be a November thing, a time of year when the mind begins to kick against the habits that have seen it through the best part of the calendar, and a sluggishness sets in. Battling against that, I went with the sister to the Renoir, to catch the lauded Davies's essay on all things Liverpool. Terence Davies, a somewhat mysterious figure, whose films both the sister and I remembered watching about twenty years ago, but about which, save the fact that these too are lauded, and have perhaps grown in stature as a result of their subsequent obscurity, very little came back to haunt.

Of Time and The City is best described as an essay film. It uses found footage and Davies' own narration to compose a picture of Liverpool through the twentieth century. A point of comparison might be Andersen's epic and witty Los Angeles Plays Itself. Davies film is shorter, and seemingly more elegiac. We know the film is supposed to be elegiac from the opening frames, when a stentorian, thespian voice recites poetry over black and white footage. The footage is captivating. The twentieth century revealed as the film documents the poverty of Davies' childhood and the energy of a now-lost industrial age. 

The footage is captivating, but the narration remains stentorian. After not very long you realise the voice is Davies' own. The narrative dabbles with a variety of moments: Davies' discovery of his homosexuality (wrestling and bonfire nights); the Korean War (for no discernable reason); the coronation of the queen, which Davies rails against. And then, finally, tower blocks and modern architecture.

Almost every film I see nowadays has some kind of commentary on the tower block. (As though its a Borgesian subset of 'film', a previously unnoticed genre.) Of Time and The City, following in the footsteps of Import/ Export; Gomorrah and even Dekalog, which I've watched on DVD recently, seizes on the urban alienation of 'The Tower Block'. The film lingers on images of slums being destroyed, and replaced by dystopian blocks. The footage shows them in their shiny newness and then spends an age describing their degradation, the images counterpointed by some pulsating Mahler or Bruckner. To no one's great surprise, Davies doesn't approve of tower blocks and makes sure you get the point. The fact that they replaced the slums he also disapproved of is glossed over. The delight which the film seems to take from its use of these depressing images verges on the sadistic. As though the filmmaker is saying: Can you belive it? People actually lived there! In response to the Tower Block genre there are two things I'd like to say. First, the image of the tower block as symbol of urban alienation from now on ought to be banned. Secondly, I'm biased, as I live in a tower block, with views over South London, and I promise you, it's not that bad. (Dekalog seems to suggest that there's nothing wrong with living in a housing estate, as there really are plenty of other things for people to get worked up about.)

After the tower blocks come... well to be honest it really doesn't matter all that much. Davies has more fun putting images of his beloved city together with some of his favourite tracks, and continues his meandering elegy. Towards the end - (shortly before mandatory helicopter shot, something else that also, sadly has entered the compendium of visual cliche, though that's not to say that hopefully, at some point in cinematic history, someone won't use it slightly better than a stock BBC documentary about rural churches of coastal Britain) - Davies shows lots of pictures of young Liverpudlians out on the piss, and declaims his disaffection and disconnection from the city he once knew. Any sentient viewer must be wondering why this camp old thespian thinks he should feel at home with a group of teenagers out on the lash on a Friday night, but that point seems to escape the film's narrator.

Earlier this year I went to see a play by a respected UK playwright, part of a series of pieces he'd assembled addressing the issue of the Iraq war. A reasonable endeavour, clearly, even admirable. Sadly, the plays were, on the whole, portentous, overblown, and left this member of the audience with next to no feeling of having connected with the war or Iraq. Given one is inclined to berate British art for failing to grapple with ideas, it's obviously churlish to point out that maybe the reason why we don't create more thoughtful art is that we're just not very good at it. Or perhaps we're not very good at it because we don't do enough of it. Whatever the truth, it's apparent in Of Time And The City. A piece which has all the ingredients it needs (footage and music) to create a remarkable piece of cinema about the city of Liverpool, but is let down by the fact that its creator doesn't really seem to know what he's trying to say. 

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