Of Time and the City is a wonderful film and it should give a great amount of pleasure to cinephiles and more general audiences. I watched it with friends unaware of other work by Terence Davies and they enjoyed it. However, I think some of the publicity for the film is misleading. The official website (in every other way a fantastic resource) gives two very important statements about the film and then suggests:
Liverpool’s phoenix-like rise is portrayed like it’s never been seen before; how a city can change itself and the people under its influence . . .
If you are expecting a documentary about change in Liverpool, you may be disappointed. There are images of change certainly, but they aren’t presented as part of an historical survey. This, like the early shorts and first two features from Terence Davies, is about memories from boyhood and adolescence between the early 1950s and the time when he left Liverpool in the early 1970s. Most of it refers to the period 1955-65 with some backward glances to a time when Davies would have been only a few years old. Davies despaired at the success of the Beatles and was not interested in football, so Liverpool’s pop culture renaissance is not celebrated here. Instead it is memories of church, gradual awareness of a gay identity and the magic of movies, ‘well-made’ pop songs, classical music and poetry set against a backdrop of images of working class Catholic life in the 1950s.
The model for the film, according to the press notes, is the classic ‘poetic documentary’ Listen to Britain (1942) by Humphrey Jennings. Unlike Jennings, who filmed in different parts of the country in an attempt to show the resilience of British culture in the face of German victories, Davies had to rely mostly on found footage, augmented by a limited amount of new material he was able to shoot on his return to a city he left many years ago. There is footage I recognised from Denis Mitchell’s prizewinning Morning in the Streets (made for BBC North in 1959) and several other images which seemed familiar. There are also three memorable still images taken from the work of Bernard Fallon.
Morning in the Streets was itself an innovative form of poetic documentary and one which drew on Mitchell’s radio experience. I was a little surprised that Davies did not make more use of radio on the soundtrack. Apart from a very funny clip of Round the Horne, I can’t remember any other radio references – certainly nothing like the emotional charge that the Shipping Forecast delivers at the beginning of Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, 1986).
The emotional charge of the film comes from the meeting of visual and sound images. The music is primarily classical but includes five popular songs, each of which in different ways carries an emotional response to Davies’ Liverpool background. They all work very well in this personal sense, although I’m slightly puzzled about the choice of the Hollies’ 1969 hit, ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother’ – only because of Davies’ real antipathy towards the music that consigned Lita Rosa and Alma Cogan to history. It doesn’t matter that the song dates from 1969 as precise chronological mapping is never a Davies aim and the message is very appropriate since it is a Vietnam era song used to invoke memories of an elder sibling going off to the Korean War. More sophisticated in meaning is the use of the fabulous Peggy Lee singing about the ‘Folks Who Live on the Hill’ who want to build a cottage with a view – as the montage shows the rise of flats and the demolition of back-to-back houses. It’s a show tune that Davies would have heard, in the Peggy Lee version, in the late 1950s.
Terence Davies is a private person who has exposed his personal memories, fantasies and beliefs in his films. He isn’t in any conventional way interested in politics, though he makes some comments that are witty and perceptive about social class and attitudes towards sexuality. I’m bemused about what younger audiences will make of the film, although Mark Kermode – barely old enough I would have thought to recognise the fifties material – has been rapturous about the film since its Cannes screening. Perhaps the use of sound and image does indeed work to release the inner cinephile in audiences who recognise the universal qualities of the Davies vision. I hope so. But considering the audience prompts me to reflect on the production and distribution of this film.
I think it is generally accepted that Davies is a film artist of distinction and that it is something of a scandal that such a filmmaker has found it virtually impossible to get funding since his adaptation in 2000 of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Of Time and the City is a ‘microbudget’ film that was selected as one of three films to be funded as part of Liverpool’s City of Culture in 2008. (The process is described in some detail on the official website.)
I’m guessing that ‘micro-budget’ means around £250,000 or less and I think this shows in the finished product. We watched it on the big screen at the National Media Museum, presented on a digital print. The new footage seems to have been shot on a relatively lo-res digital format (if you know the technology, you will probably be able to work out the camera from the location stills.) The result looks pixellated to me. The archive material is often grainy and blurred – not surprising given the problems of collecting local archival material and the original formats in which it will have been shot – but I wonder if with more money, something could have been done to restore some of the images. My overall impression was that, despite the great skill and artistry shown here, a bigger budget could have produced a richer film (i.e. with more material to choose from, more music rights etc.) and a higher quality of presentation. On the other hand, audiences may respond more to the ‘authenticity effect’ of the low-res material. I think I’d argue that the film may look better on a smaller screen. And my beef is not with Davies and his crew, but with a UK film sector that won’t find money for projects like this. Ironically, when the film received very positive coverage at Cannes it helped get a better distribution deal for UK screenings, with help from the UKFC P&A fund. The distribution support has been great and Davies is being promoted. I hope the audiences come and he gets the chance to make something else.