Of Time and the City

Of Time and the City

A bleak vista in postwar Liverpool.

(Strand) Terence Davies, the Beatles, Assorted local figures in Liverpool. Directed by Terence Davies

We are all products of our environment. We feel a sense of keen belonging to a place and time; it is there we feel comforted and where we feel we understand our surroundings at least to the degree that hindsight gives us.

Unfortunately, no place is static; every city changes. Old buildings crumble and new ones take their place, glittering in the architecture du jour of the era. We find ourselves lost in our own homes, unable to make sense at what had once seemed sensible.

Veteran director, writer and actor Terence Davies spent a quarter of a century in the British working class city of Liverpool, starting just after the Second World War. His was a world of compression; row after row of houses sharing common walls, made of brick, smoke curling from chimneys to join that which belched out of the factories and the shipyards.

Like most in Liverpool, Davies grew up in a working class family, the youngest of ten children (two of which died in infancy) in a deeply religious Roman Catholic household. He found the strictures of the Church too confining and eventually rejected Catholicism, becoming an atheist instead.

His budding homosexuality caused him great suffering, trying to reconcile his feelings with societal mores and eventually deciding that the problem was with society and not him, quite sensibly in fact. He considers himself a realist; he prefers to see things as they are rather than what they could be.

This is what puzzles me about the documentary he has made about his home town. He simultaneously labels it a love letter and a eulogy and indeed, it’s both, but it seems fairly certain that Davies prefers the Liverpool of his youth to the modern one. Using archival footage (some of it seems to be home movies; whether they were shot by Davies or other Liverpudlians is not clear), Davies weaves a sense of time and place that has a certain amount of allure.

Davies narrates the movie himself, often quoting from such sources as T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Shelley and Sir Walter Raleigh, among others. This is set to the background of funereal classical music and the occasional pop song (from such disparate sources as the Swinging Blue Jeans and the Hollies).

Most Americans are probably aware of Liverpool, if they are aware at all, for being the birthplace of the Beatles, but Davies gives them little thought, other than to dismissively sniff “they inspired me to love classical music.” Indeed, he has an acerbic tongue but most of his vitriol is saved for the monarchy, which he considers an outdated custom; he was especially incensed at the expenses spent on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at a time when England, still reeling from the damage from the Blitz, was stricken by intense poverty and hunger. He certainly has a point.

My problem with the movie boils down to this; if you are going to take us on a journey to see your home town as you see it, you need to give us a reason for us to go along, otherwise you’re just telling us that things change, something all of us are well aware of. I got the feeling that Davies is truly fond of Liverpool and despairs that the changes made to it are not for the better; that’s all well and good, but if I can’t love Liverpool – if you can’t adequately transfer your own love to me, then those changes aren’t going to feel as immediate to me. In other words, he might have stimulated the mind but not the heart.

In a sense, without involving the viewer in your emotional point of view, you’re making what amounts to cinematic masturbation. While I was able to at least find some of it – enough to make it worth my while – intriguing, for the most part this is ponderous and pretentious, a collection of images that while compelling, ultimately become meaningless without an emotional center to anchor to.

WHY RENT THIS: This is certainly a love letter to Liverpool.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit pretentious and overbearing at times, the film doesn’t give viewers a reason to love Liverpool themselves.

FAMILY VALUES: There isn’t anything here that isn’t suitable for all audiences, although I would think most children might find this boring.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film Davies has directed since 2000’s The House of Mirth and it is also his first documentary.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Stepfather

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