Of Time and the City Review
The first part of this review is the same as my earlier cinema review for this site, slightly revised.
Terence Davies was born in Liverpool in 1945. Leaving out two adaptations from novels (The Neon Bible and The House of Mirth), all his films to date have been autobiographical in inspiration, a chapter of his career that closed with The Long Day Closes in 1992. Now, in his first feature film in eight years, he returns to the city of his birth: Of Time and the City is a valentine to the northwestern port where he grew up.
Of Time and the City is a personal history, with emphasis on the personal. Other people would emphasise different things. Davies gives short shrift to the Beatles – his own tastes are for 50s popular music and show tunes, and classical music, and he was never a rock'n'roller – and omits other parts of Liverpool's history, such as the 1981 Toxteth riots, entirely. As with his dramatic features, Davies slips back and forth as if by a process of memory and free-association, touching on scenes and places that were meaningful to him. The great majority of the film is comprised of archive footage, most of it in black and white, with some new material (shot on standard-def video, upscaled for digital cinema showings). Davies's use of music is very apposite: Peggy Lee's “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” accompanies a sequence about the advent of the high-rise housing block. Davies's narration is beautifully read and often very funny.
The film begins with well-known lines from A.E. Housman's “A Shropshire Lad”:
That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
As Davies reads these lines, it's clear to him and us that nostalgia is a dead end: it may console but the past is the past and can only be recreated in memory. Davies may not like some of the changes that have overtaken his beloved city, but he recognises that changes have to happen. But even in the middle of urban blight and delapidation, there is the possibility of renewal. As Of Time and the City shows, you can regret what a loved one has become, but you do not lose that love.
Since The House of Mirth in 2000, Terence Davies has been unable to make a feature film until now, something of which the British film industry should be ashamed. The highest-profile casualty of that period was an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 Scottish classic novel Sunset Song. I'm glad to see him back, though for all its delights, Of Time and the City seems like a pendant to his earlier work. It's enough to keep us going until he makes his next feature.
Of Time and the City is released by the BFI as a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. Despite some announcements and listings to the contrary, there is no Blu-ray edition. The bulk of the film is made up of archive footage only available on SD video, thus making a hi-def edition pointless.
The film was shown in 1.66:1 when I saw it in the cinema (as, for that matter, was Distant Voices Still Lives). The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. The ratio seems fine. The archive footage which makes up some eighty percent of the feature would have been shot in 4:3, but has presumably been shifted up to a certain extent so as not to look unduly cropped. The condition of this footage is inevitably variable, with intermittent damage, but mostly good, and the newly-shot video material is sharp.
The BFI's earlier releases of The Long Day Closes and the Trilogy had PCM soundtracks. With Of Time and the City we're back to a straightforward Dolby Surround mix, with Davies's narration front and centre and the music swelling up in the surround speakers. Hard-of=hearing subtitles are available for the feature and the extras.
There's no commentary, which would seem pretty redundant for a documentary. However, the first extra is a making-of (45:40). There's no on-set footage: instead, Davies is interviewed by an onscreen Geoff Andrew, while we also hear from producers Roy Boulter and Sol Papadopoulos and archive producer Jim Anderson (interviewed by an offscreen Shona Barrett). These take us through the production from its inception as one of many projects competing for funding during Liverpool's year as City of Culture. Licensing of the music and the archive footage was a particular headache. Davies had to write to Peggy Lee's estate to clear “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, which was the starting-point of the entire film. It wasn't known until the last day of the edit if the T.S. Eliot estate would allow the use of the passage from Four Quartets near the end of the film. (Presumably the Beatles's music were unclearable, so footage of the Fab Four is accompanied by Swinging Blue Jeans's “Hippy Hippy Shake”.)
Complementary to this is a Q&A session (19:06), recorded at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. Davies is interviewed by Bill Lawrence, and he also answers questions from the audience.
A major bonus is one of Davies's great inspirations, Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister's Listen to Britain (19:10). Davies provides a short introduction (1:19), in which he describes it, rightly, as one of the great visual poems. Davies had known nothing about this 1942 short film until he saw it by accident, possibly on TV (presumably the BBC showing in March 1982, which I saw as well). Following a foreword by one Leonard Brockington, KC, a Canadian who speaks of how he and other foreign nationals are listening to Britain, the film is a sequence of scenes from around the country, before lifting in the skies at the end. There's no narration and few words spoken on screen. It's quite remarkable.
The final extra on the disc is the theatrical trailer (2:12). However, the BFI, as ever, provide a booklet with essays by Matthew Gandy, Jason Wood, Bernard Fallon (some of whose photograps are used in the film, and also on the poster) and Geoff Andrew. The booklet is completed by a two-page biography of Davies and film and DVD credits.