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Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, 2008)


     Of Time and the City, Terence Davies’ autobiographical documentary about his hometown of Liverpool, fails to turn its assemblage of stock footage and sarcastic observation into the grand summation of a place and era it would love to be. From its opening moments, which feature Davies quoting Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, a poem about the hubris that resulted in a lost civilization, there’s a sourness that hangs over the film. Forefronting a confrontation between the elegiac and the evocative, Davies offers a series of anecdotes and aphorisms that are slightly amusing from time to time, but not especially incisive or tied to his images, which often seem randomly chosen.

     In chronicling his past, the director takes an erudite approach, putting his city, its architecture, and its politics before its people. This is probably appropriate for a city symphony film, but nonetheless it distances the viewer somewhat. It is telling that the film grows overtly sappy whenever Davies finally turns his attention to actual people. His treatment of the Liverpudlians often smacks of condescension. For example, when he devotes a montage to the working class’ routines of work and play, he opts to soundtrack the film with a pretentious aria. The juxtaposition doesn’t illustrate their supposed innate beauty so much as it drives home Davies’ fundamental distance from his subjects.

     This gets at the prime problem of Of Time and the City. The director’s pedantic tendencies don’t necessarily make him profound. Davies’ relates his antagonistic relationship with his devout Catholicism and ongoing his struggle with his sexuality, but they conspire to make for a distinctly detached personality. Even in his memories, Davies often seems less a rapt participant than a hopeless outsider. Early on, he makes his distaste clear that a church has been converted into a bar and restaurant, and that initial venom keeps festering throughout. Whatever Davies might be, he’s not loveable, and while that might mean that he offers a distinct take on Liverpool, it’s not likely one that most can embrace.

     The most intriguing passage amid this blather comes when Davies describes his all-encompassing passion for the cinema. “My love was as muscular as for my Catholicism, without any of the drawbacks,” he recounts while describing it. The sight of Dirk Bogarde in Victim made him awaken sexually, he notes. Anonymous extras in found fragments of film begin to function as stand-ins for his mother, brothers, and self. For a few brilliant moments, it feels like Of Time and the City is capturing movie buff Davies’ willing sublimation of the realities that created his memories to the exaggerated filmed images that he can still readily reference. The style of the documentary suddenly begins recounting a life’s story through stock footage, and the effect is exhilarating. It is also short-lived. Before long, Davies drifts from his personal narrative, back to pithy observations about his town’s architecture and pastimes. It’s not exactly terrible material, but the reversion to such sundry topics seems a cruel twist after the film hinted at becoming something much more immediate.

     Throughout, Davies’ raspy, formal voice, remains something of an asset. Like John Hurt’s timber in Dogvillle, Davies’ words are a pleasure to listen to, no matter what is being said. On the rare occasions when the soundtrack replaces his voice with another, or the frequent occasions where a selection of music takes over, there is something tangible lost. Without a doubt, though, Of Time and the City’s strongest asset is the city itself. As an architecture film, it is passable, with some obvious sociological value present in the heaps of archival footage chronicling the city’s ups and downs. In fact, I would attribute most of the poetic impact here not to Davies, but rather to the original documentarians who captured life in Liverpool as it happened. Occasionally an image threatens to pack some emotional punch, but those moments are rare, and isolated. As soon as Davies cuts, the effect dissipates. His contributions add shockingly little.

     Compared to the truly masterful essay films of artists like Godard or Marker, this feels insubstantial. Before long, Davies’ nostalgia begins to feel like a lazy defense mechanism that enables him to retreat from the here and now. The same interior tendencies that felt endlessly expansive in his fictional works turn out to be reductive in the documentary form. While it’s amusing that Davies is still someone who can get worked up about Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, it’s also a bit pathetic. The longer one is exposed to his musings, the less insightful and more bitter they seem. Davies’ attitudinizing merely seems to represent the easiest route to melodramatic suffering. It seems odd to be placed in a position where his disengagement from the world is something to be celebrated. Even more problematic, though, is how little Of Time and the City has to offer on aesthetic or substantial grounds when compared to most films of its ilk. The editing is simplistic and the soundtracking is coarse, at best. Ultimately, this is a movie that feels hastily assembled, no matter how heartfelt it might be. In sum, it feels only mildly personal, only mildly political, only mildly devout, and only mildly interesting.

     It’s rather telling that Davies seems to have no good idea how to close Of Time and the City. This dirge of a film starts with the demeanor of an elegy, so it has little place to go. As it concludes, it offers up a series of lazy punctuation marks, including shots of the modern-day incarnation of the city taken at night, a Sir Walter Raleigh sonnet read while a procession of club kids are shown cavorting, and an absurd montage of baby carriages. Davies’ inability to sum up what we’ve just witnessed drives home the unfortunate aimlessness of the whole project.


Jeremy Heilman