Of Time And The City is Terence Davies’ wry, profoundly moving essay on memory and history, on the nature of change and, most importantly, on his self-understanding as formed by his hometown of Liverpool, England. Creating a collage of personal recollections, romantic poetry, dazzling quotations, classical and popular music and archival footage of a once glorious industrial city falling to pieces, Davies uses the past and memory like black and white clay, molding and shaping his story into old-time heartbreak. The result is absolutely dazzling scrapbook, ideas and images overlapping with one another, fading in and out of our experience and always, always dressed in the syrup-thick voice of Davies’ distinctly un-Liverpudlian accent. Oh, that delivery. Perfection.
What is most impressive is the way in which Of Time And The City seeks to replicate the experience of life, the texture of memory; small, mundane routines pile on top of one another, passing without comment until a certain image or historical moment grabs Davies’ attention and inspire his poetic, irreverent analysis. Coronations and wars command acid-tongued commentary, while the sight of collapsing buildings, impoverished neighborhoods and yet, despite it all, a true vision of community provides the details that remain close to Davies’ heart. Oscillating between the rhapsodic lines of verse that provide a frame for the industrial landscape and a cutting critique of English culture and the Catholic faith, Davies’ delivers the film’s dialogue with such relish, you can’t help but give a smile. An example? Over a scene of the crowds gathering at Windsor Palace after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, Davies opines:
“The problem with being poor is that it takes up all your time.—Williem de Kooning."
A pregnant pause.
"The problem with being rich is that it takes up everyone else’s.”
This is great stuff, elegiac and profound, and Davies’ belief in the dignity and integrity of this working class community is a testament to his complex world view; A gay teenager who fell in love with movies, with other boys and the strong physiques of the professional wrestlers who came to town, there is an assumption that Liverpool might be the type of community from which one would want to escape. And escape Davies did, to the Coventry School of Drama and then to the National Film School, where he went on to make his signature films. Despite his international success, it is clear that Davies was always looking back with great longing to Liverpool, to the cranes and shipyards, the workers and the rows and rows of their interlocking houses, to community. Like the giant Liverbird that guards Merseyside, standing atop its giant column with its chest defiantly thrust forward, Of Time And The City is English to the core; It is a statement of pride cloaked in wit, self-deprecation and an unwavering understanding that even the best of our ideals will fall away with time. In keeping with the spirit of things, let me quote Davies as he quotes Shelley;
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
As it is with empire, so it is with Liverpool, so it is with Davies, so it is with memory, so it is with life.