The Land of Lost Content
I am here or elsewhere. In the end is my beginning.
“We love the place we hate, then hate the place we love. We leave the place we love, then spend a lifetime trying to regain it.” Terence Davies’s description of his relationship with Liverpool, his hometown, at first sounds vague, even abstract. The images under his poetic invocation seem perpetually transitional—the camera travels over streets and down alleys, into tunnels and out again, stretching over generations from black and white to color and back again. In motion, the shots here are both generic and particular, unfixed, roving memories that resist the limits of time and place.
And yet, the very fluidity of these images is already compromised, set up by the first frames in Of Time and the City: a movie theater, with red curtain opening and stage established. Here, on a screen within the screen, Davies begins his meditative documentary on his past and former place, a gesture announcing its own artifice and underlining the forms of art that have shaped his self-understanding. These influences, as Davies goes on to enumerate, include the movies he loved as a child as well as Catholic rituals and architecture that inscribed themselves on his very soul. If he fell in love with Dirk Bogarde (in whose figure, Davies says, “I discovered something entirely different”), he was also deeply affected by the “Angel Eyes” looking down on him from the Cross. “Here I wept,” Davies recalls of the church, “Wept and prayed until my knees bled, but no peace came.”
Seeking peace as a boy and something more elusive as an adult, Davies uses the film to recover experience and expand on possibilities. The film combines archival footage and photos, personal laments and public excoriations. “Come closer now, and see your dreams,” he urges, “Come closer now and see mine.” The potential likeness between these dreams is partly a function of cultural homogeneity, both the enforced conformity of local subcultures and the seductive marketing of Hollywood and Catholicism. As the film itself reflects on the power of film, a power both overwhelming and insidious, it begs comparison with Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, another tour of a mediated, simultaneously melodious and dissonant past. Both films explore the connections of time and place, the ways each informs the other: like Maddin, Davies looks back and revisits, recovering memories and slipping in pictures, linking sites and moments.
The effect of these movements in Of Time and the City is fantastic. Even as it documents urban life and recalls events, it also offers Davies’ analyses of the history that has shaped him. He exults in memories of Christmas tangerines and pomegranates, a holiday in New Brighton (“Only a ferry ride away, but happiness on a budget,” he sighs, over shots of Ferris wheels and archaic, “harmless” bathing beauty competitions). And from his changing perspectives as an underclass child and gay young man, he also remarks the self-congratulatory excesses of Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation (while “the rest of the population survived on rationing in some of the worst slums in Europe”) and post-war efforts to police gay men in parks (he recalls the judge’s comment after one notorious arrest, that, “Not only have you committed an act of gross indecency, but you’ve done it under a beautiful bridge”).
The narration borrows language and metaphors from Eliot, Chekhov, Joyce, de Kooning, and Myrbach (“If Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented”), integrated with a musical track ranging from the Spinners’ “Dirty Old Town” and “Hooray for Hollywood” to Peggy Lee’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and Mahler’s “Resurrection.” The camera peers up at broken windows and dilapidated apartment buildings, cathedral apses and elaborate museums, watches women push strollers and kids make faces in schoolyards. The visible disconnectedness of these images seals their contiguity, their association as diurnal, shared experiences.
Over roving shots of the bleak streets of Liverpool, Davies reflects, embracing a heritage that remains daunting. “Municipal architecture,” he observes, “dispiriting at the best of times, but when combined with the British genius for creating the dismal, makes for a cityscape that is anything but Elysian.” Each combination of image and sound rearranges meaning, in effect rejiggers memory. The process of making history, of documenting experience, is always a matter of artifice, of imposing order and imagining sense. Of Time and the City exposes that process even as it rehearses it. Commemoration and recovery project, retaliation and recognition, the film is as much about itself—about its own constant becoming—as it is about Liverpool, Davies, or the passage of time.