Liverpool's "Time:" When it premiered at Cannes last year, this little 74-minute documentary ("Of Time and the City") was more raved over than many a bigger, hype-heavy title. It opens at Bay Area theaters this Friday. (Photo courtesy Strand Releasing)

Terence Davies' 'Of Time and the City' is Poetic, Personal

Dennis Harvey February 10, 2009

One might assume from the unhurried meticulousness of his features—and the fact that there have only been four of them over the last 20-plus years—that Terence Davies is simply a slow worker. But the truth is something much worse, at least for those of us who think he’s one of the greatest living filmmakers: He apparently just has a hell of a time getting his productions funded.

It’s been almost a decade since the brilliant Edith Wharton adaptation House of Mirth, and Davies has been quite public of late about his frustrations in getting the money people to commit. Such travails collapsed his plans to film the classic 1930s Scottish novel Sunset Song with Kirsten Dunst, amongst other fine fits. The BBC, Channel 4 and UK Film Council all declined his proposals—and what the freak should take priority for such institutions over supporting a national treasure like Terence Davies?

Ergo he has occupied his recent time with radio plays, and a documentary about his home town from which little was originally expected. The latter was commissioned on a miniscule budget as part of Liverpool’s selection as the 2008 "European Capital of Culture." Yet when it premiered at Cannes last year, this little 74-minute documentary was more raved over than many a bigger, hype-heavy title. It opens at Bay Area theatres this Friday.

Just what is Of Time and the City? A poetical and personal documentary that in some respects recalls the autobiographical narratives—the shorts trilogy known as The Terence Davies Project (1974-1983), features Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992)—but is also unlike anything Davies has done before, being nonfiction. It is primarily an assemblage of archival materials, albeit with beautifully shot new footage. (No matter how miserabilist his chosen stories—and arguably they’re all tragic—Davies has always had an aesthete’s eye.)

It’s his most nakedly personal work, without actors and drama to hide behind—and indeed, a few naysayers have wished it were a little less about his somewhat myopic world view (and a little more about Liverpool). Davies is a former actor, and the plummy tones of his voiceover narration here can seem stuffy and grandiose, whether he’s quoting (Joyce, Engels, Jung etc.) or being quotable.

He grouses about persecution of gays, yet at the same time is oddly old-fashioned: Dismissing biggest-Liverpool-export-ever The Beatles in preference to prior days when "pop music was still demure." He admits his "illicit" desires watching wrestlers at the local stadium, but regards other archival displays of youthful vigor and sexuality as vulgar.

If Davies occasionally comes off as a pompous crankypants (don’t even get him started on the Royal Family), however, he’s still an artist with a primary penchant for ennobling grace notes. As the youngest of ten children (hell yes they were Catholics), he evinces a bittersweet nostalgia for the poor but unpretentious working-class city of yore that’s now largely been paved-over and built-up. While he might despair of today’s physical and social landscape in many respects, a late sequence of contemporary elderly and toddler residents—those old enough to remember and those too young to be tainted—brims with sheer love of humanity.

This documentary-cum-memoir-cum-essay is a model of elegant assemblage, with its unerring editorial choices and adventuresome, sometimes eccentric musical ones. The latter range from Mahler to a haunting Peggy Lee track ("The Folks Who Live on the Hill," accompanying footage of the garish 1960s cement housing projects that replaced quaint row homes) to vintage cheesy soul-rock "classic" "He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother." Which last does prove that Terence Davies has a sense of humor, after all.

So in the end Of Time and the City is sort of a high-end British garage sale (they’d call it a jumble sale). Full of beauty and kitsch, things sorrowfully lost and some never much wanted, sold for a good cause but with perhaps some seller regret. But everything on display once meant something to somebody—and especially in Davies’ hands, there’s no end of poignance to the ghosts such humble historical mementos summon.