How can a city be unlivable and un-leave-able at the same time? British filmmaker, Terence Davies was born and spent his first 28 years in Liverpool, the city that also spawned The Beatles. After moving away, he has spent much of his writing and directing career returning to that city on film, most famously with 1988's Distant Voices, Still Lives. Of Time and the City is Davies's latest trip home.
Expressing the impulse to flee and the equally strong urge to return to the place of one's childhood, Davies states, "We love the place we hate, then hate the place we love." The filmmaker's portrait of that place is woven together from various bits of archival footage, representing the first 28 years of his life and ending in 1973, when Davies left the city for good. The portrait is sometimes loving, but often brutal, populated with gray air, iron schoolyards, and grim buildings black with soot. Liverpool is a hardscrabble place, built upon the kind of industrial production that used a man's back in concert with the might of the machine -- both man and machine end up broken and crumbling. The film has the feeling of a modern Dickens, "wet shoes and leaky galoshes" -- a flickering, black and white yesteryear covered in row after row of row houses, children playing in the streets, in the dust and garbage that is held aloft by what looks like a cold wind.
It's a personal story -- an autobiography of place -- told with the voices of many, through a collage of radio broadcasts, classical music, pop songs, literary quotes and grounded by the filmmaker's narration. The many voices of Liverpool weave together to form the filmmaker's own, and his singular vision becomes the experience of many. It is a portrait of the modern urban, of a population coagulating around resources, industry and commerce to create goods and services for the benefit of others that develops into an environment that is anything but beneficial. As time passes, the stark, Stalinist architecture of modernity crams itself into the skyline, concrete apartment buildings become brutal affronts to the living. Davies describes it as "municipal architecture combined with the British genius for making the dismal ... anything but Elysian." One can see the progression of various recessions written as graffiti along the city walls. The crush of poverty crumbles the brickwork into a dust that clogs the city's lungs.
But like in any city, there is also respite -- the early glamour of 1950's film premieres, the rise of The Beatles "screamed away on a tide of Mersey Beat," the diversion of football, a trip to the beach. Perhaps this is the most magical sequence: what looks like a whole nation deprived of luxury, a crush of the working class boarding a ferry in black and white and disembarking at the seashore in color. It is the magic of Oz, an escape from color-free Kansas. Happiness on a budget, a simple day at the beach replete with colorful bathing suits and contests of skill and beauty ends with a setting sun, a deep, amber dusk. Making fun and making do are the only other constants to a life of work, struggle and procreation. DeKooning said, "The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time." Narrating images of the Queen Mother, Davies replies, "The trouble with being rich is that it takes up everyone else's." In early 2009, with the TARP half spent and the rest about to be, these are sentiments we can all appreciate.
Of Time and the City is a film of mindless building and inevitable decay, a broken everything contemplating the wrecking ball. One hopes it is also a portrait of the slow death of an idea as well, the end of a particular kind of industrial production, one that uses up and throws away, one that spoils the land and makes the habitat uninhabitable.
One can understand why Davies had to and why he can never escape his hometown. It is the place that formed him. Just as anything else produced by the city's industry, Davies is also a product of Liverpool and from there he must have learned how to create things of great beauty, insight and compassion. We shape the city just as the city shapes us. Quoting Jung, Davies says, "We meet our destiny on the road we take to avoid it." But what if we turn instead to face our destiny -- can we have a hand in shaping it?
Of Time and the City opens Friday, February 13, 2009.