Of Time and the City revisited

online poster

online poster

This screening took place at the Hyde Park Cinema and was one in a series of films organised with The Culture Vulture, celebrating 100 years of the Leeds Society of Architecture. The film was introduced by Ronnie Hughes who authors the ‘A Sense of Place’ Blog. The film came out in the year that Liverpool celebrated its status as City of Culture (2008), a title that bought European funds into the city. Ronnie is a life-long Liverpudlian who ‘walks round the city regularly’ and who believes that cities need to be loved by their people. The film, directed by Terence Davies, is a poem or eulogy to the city by a filmmaker who was born and raised in the city but who has not lived there for some considerable time. As Ronnie noted, city lovers has their sacred places and the film presents us with those of Terence Davies.

The film is composed of a wealth of archive footage accompanied by music and a commentary by Terence Davies. The film footage has been researched by archivist Jim Anderson. He performed a similar role for Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45, and his results for this film speak just as eloquently as they did for Ken Loach’s project.

The music includes popular songs from the 1940s and 1950s, but predominantly one hears classical music, especially Davies’ beloved Mahler. The commentary stands out because Davies no longer retains any semblance of a Liverpool accent. Ronnie Hughes pointed out that in his youth Davies organised his own elocution lessons from Newsreels and the BBC Home Service, acquiring a pronounced ‘received pronunciation’ of the period.

Davies uses poetry frequently in the commentary, and like the music, much of it is from ‘high culture’. This is interspersed with his own comments on his memories and experiences of the city. These are often best described as choleric: [the S&S review makes a comparison with Philip Larkin]. There is little sense of empathy in much of this. There are a few inserts of voices of ordinary people from the past. And the archival extracts also offer a sense of empathy for the people of the city, but one strains to find this in Davies’ own voice.

The film moves over time and there is some chronology in this, but there is also much cutting between periods. This is not a history but a journey through a collection of memories. Towards the end we get film of the contemporary city and its people. Starting with children this has a warmer and slightly less pessimistic feel.

The film opens with shots inside an old cinema and this is soon followed by shots inside several churches. These are the two abiding images of Davies childhood seen in his other films – cinema and religion. He tells us later that he has become an atheist, yet religion seems to still loom large in his life. He also later came out as gay. One senses that the repression of the times and of religion has left a large mark on the filmmaker. Yet surprisingly in this film and in some of his features it is these early years that loom largest. And it is only in the 1940s and 1950s that he seems to have any feel for popular culture – something that is powerfully important in the history of Liverpool.

I was concerned about the treatment of the archive footage in the film. The sources seem to be 35mm, 16mm, possibly 9mm or Super 8 and even DVD. The early film has been cropped or at some points stretched to fit the 1.78:1frame. And the smaller formats appear to have been blown up so that the grain is extremely noticeable. The film is partly funded by the BBC, so some of this is presumably down to the demands of television. Whilst this is justified for the occasional pan across an image and for the rostrum work, it does rob much of the footage of its sense of authenticity.

This was the second time that I have seen the film at a cinema. But my impression remained the same: of a rather bitter portrait which lacked empathy. There is no sense of the famed scouse humour, or of the resilience that must have enabled the city’s people to survive and adapt through the years of extreme hardship. Both those qualities can be found in the interviews with Liverpudlians that grace Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 [though that film has serious political problems].

There was a Q & A following the screening. A couple of people seemed fairly impressed with the film. I raised my problems with the film. Ronnie remembered being strongly moved when the film was premiered. He was especially struck by the footage of the city and the grand music that often accompanied this. However, he admitted that there was a sense that Davies had left the city for years and then returned. It seems that the film did not have a general run in Liverpool, just special screenings. Ronnie had met people who had not seen the film, partly because it sounded like an art movie.

Ronnie Hughes added that he would like to make a film using the footage but with different sound, music and commentary. Apart from the comparison with Ken Loach I also thought of other filmmakers. The film is extremely well edited by Liza Ryan-Carter. Much of this is effectively montage. However, the blend is closer to the abstract treatment in Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin: die Symphonie der Grosstadt, 1927) than to a documentary with a greater feel of humanity such as Man with a Movie Camera (Chevolek a kinapparatom, 1929). Still, it was good to have the opportunity to see the film again and in the context of a very interesting discussion. Note, my colleagues seem to have rather different views on the film.

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