Monday, January 19, 2009

OF TIME AND THE CITY premieres at our own city's Film Forum

It’s a pleasure to see Terence Davies (right) return to something like the style and content of two of his earlier triumphs – The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives – with his new/old look at the city of his youth, Liverpool, England. Although I was one of those who thought his film of Wharton’s The House of Mirth was memorable, I did not feel quite as kindly toward his earlier foray into fiction film narrative, The Neon Bible.

In just 75 minutes, Davies’ new OF TIME AND THE CITY offers up the past and present via black-and-white and color visuals, both still and moving; music as eclectic as it is ravishing, that includes Mahler, the Hollies and Peggy Lee; and his own unique narrative voice (literally, as the senior-sounding, gravel-timbered Davies himself does the uncredited speaking) which he litters generously with relevant quotes by everyone from T.S. Eliot to Carl Jung.
As beautiful to watch (and bask in its soundtrack) as the film is, it is also surprisingly angry, though this unique writer/director never raises his eloquent voice. He traces the poverty he experienced as a child living among those long rows of small flats on streets that look identical from above. These give way to the promise of something new and wonderful that turns out to be sterile hi-rises that too soon become slums. That he shows us all this with an artist’s eye does nothing to conceal its ugliness or the betrayal the filmmaker clearly feels. (The 1953 Coronation of the current Queen Elizabeth provides fodder for some of Davies’ most pointed anger: the material for her dress was said to have come from many, many saved post-war coupons. As if.)

Other once-loved betrayers include The Catholic Church, religious dogma in general, music, youth and even, I suspect, Davies’ own gay identity (that young man who wouldn’t remain outside with Terence a bit longer at the bonfire!). Were it not for the filmmaker’s sure grasp of how visuals, music and words, when well chosen to reflect his theme of time and its toll, can blend to such artful effect, one might accuse the man of being a crotchety old crank -- a state I can identify with quite well.

Though my own father hailed from Liverpool (to which he never returned, once his steerage-level family just missed the Titanic and sailed to America on the next available ship when he was still very young), and though I have tried to follow Britain’s ups and downs over the past six decades, I confess to feeling sometimes at sea regarding a few of the references that pass so quickly in front of our eyes and ears (England was involved in the Korean Conflict? This came as news to me.) I suspect Britishers of all stripes will find much more to love and loathe about the film than will Americans. Yet even us Yanks ought to be entranced by much of Davies’ art.

Of Time and the City opens at NYC’s Film Forum for at least a one-week run, beginning Wednesday, January 21.

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