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Echoes of Distant Voices

Of Time and the City (2008)

Grain Barge - Bernard Fallon
Hurricane City Films and Digital Departures

"Of Time and the City" had another good festival in London this week to add to its respectable tour through Cannes, Edinburgh and Toronto, among others. Terence Davies’s return to filmmaking after an eight-year absence is being hailed as an extraordinary comeback for the almost forgotten arch British miserabilist.

Estimable critics at Cannes were reportedly moved to tears by Mr. Davies’s heartfelt cine-poetic soliloquy to his native Liverpool, and it’s being whispered that the film (along with another LFF and Cannes hit, "Hunger") might herald a return of sorts for the kind of uncompromising highbrow filmmaking that flourished in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s. Long since thought dead, the cherished era of the Greenaways and Jarmans could be due for resuscitation. But one might not be so convinced that Davies’ film should be regarded as a significant breakthrough in those terms.

"Of Time and the City" was commissioned as part of the city of Liverpool’s award of the European Capital of Culture 2008, and it is a nostalgic history of the city expressed mainly through the use archive footage from the post-war years of Mr. Davies’s childhood up until the present day. Mr. Davies himself narrates the film and romanticizes about forgotten institutions like the washhouses and heroic dockworkers, while city themes such as football, architecture, music and modern regeneration are all touched upon.

Much has been made about how the film fascinatingly progresses the deeply personal themes of Mr. Davies’s oeuvre so far, rooting them in the impersonal buildings and streets of the city. But in many ways Mr. Davies’s passionate defense of the 1950s feels like a contradiction of the seemingly brutal era he depicted in previous films such as "Distant Voices, Still Lives." The least that can be said is that "Of Time and the City" displays the director’s ambivalence and conflicted emotions about this period.

In other ways, Mr. Davies proves that the passing of time has made him more comfortable with aspects of his past, but the way he now overtly presents his idiosyncrasies is less interesting than his allusions of old. For instance, the lustful awe that his adolescent self had for wrestlers is obliquely referred to in his early short "Madonna and Child," but here Mr. Davies returns to the theme and expounds on it freely, perhaps denigrating some of the previous mystique and symbolic power of those images (even if it is a humorous sequence in the new film).

Much has been made of Mr. Davies’s narrating voice, all grandeur and controlled disdain, and he does offer some wonderful comic moments and thoughtful prose. But his constant contempt for anything modern becomes grating, as does the fact that he champions the 1950s working class while seeming to hold his nose above the obese teenage mothers of 21st century Liverpool.

Enjoying cinema is often about emphasizing with the filmmaker, and I have the impression that I personally wouldn’t like Mr. Davies very much. Many great directors have used the medium to express their disappointment with humanity, some of them with a particular bilious manner. But there’s something about Mr. Davies’s deep dislike of virtually everything in the modern world bar the classical arts that doesn’t chime with me. It feels like Mr. Davies really does feel that he’s better than most of us, unlike other misanthropes such as Fassbinder, Bergman or Haneke, who seem well aware of their own limitations.

Much as I found elements to admire in "Of Time and the City," I couldn’t say that I enjoyed it or adhered to its worldview. In the latest issue of Sight and Sound, Ryan Gilbey at least becomes the first major critic to admit that the film might be divisive in this regard.

Certainly the film’s fawning critical reception seems strange given that it peddles the kind of nostalgic conservatism and contempt for contemporary humanity that the liberal, artistic commentarist usually abhors in the English right-wing press.

As for the film signposting a return of the anti-commercial, publicly-funded personal works of previous decades, that would seem to be a premature assessment based on this film. As a 75-minute documentary, this is surely the kind of piece that, say, a Lindsay Anderson would have knocked out for a BBC Arena special on television without so much of a thought about film festivals and the like in times gone by. Steve McQueen’s "Hunger" does manage to successfully mix art and message in a way that might (hopefully) be appealing to audiences beyond the art houses. But if some critics are hopeful of a return to the era when the BFI bankrolled Mr. Davies, then they might be indulging in a wistful nostalgia of their own.


Opens on Jan. 21, 2009 in New York and on Oct. 31 in Britain.

Written, directed and narrated by Terence Davies; director of photography, Tim Pollard; edited by Liza Ryan-Carter; produced by Solon Papadopoulos and Roy Boulter; released by Strand Releasing. Running time: 1 hour 14 minutes. This film is not rated.


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