November 09, 2008

Of Time and the City

Of Time and the City is about a journey- it is not a conventional journey from a start point to an end point- but a journey from birth to death and yet a journey that's circular, that pivots around a series of points- religion, personality, politics, childhood, adulthood and last of all, Liverpool. You cannot separate this film from its director, Terence Davies, Catholic, Homosexual and Liverpudlian nor can you separate the man, lonely in the immensity of the darkness surrounding his voice, lonely in the midst of the images of Liverpool, from his context, from his history. In that sense- this is a repetition- in the best way that art can repeat of the point that Borges made in Pierre Menard- that we are all trapped in our times, trapped in our bodily form, trapped ultimately in history.

Making that impression count, making it work means showing us the history. The most spectacular thing about this film is that it uses a stock of old black and white images of Liverpool- this is worth buying on DVD just to see those images of the Liverpool of the fifties and the sixties- the old streets going down almost vertically, lines of houses marching in parade, the front door steps of working class houses shining in the sun, the docks, the factories. It is a film about the story of Liverpool as much as it is about the state of Liverpool- Davies repeats across the soundtrack the words of Shelley on Ozymandias- the lone and level sands stretching far away for him are the passing steam trains roaring into tunnels. The civic Ozymandii stand at the town hall- their domain Victorian industrialism, their downfall the story of Liverpool since the days when it was the crucial point in a system of commerce binding together the north and the south, the west and the east.

Politics overlays this film in another way too- for if you cannot escape the history of Britain over the last fifty years- from war and coronation to war and Coronation Street- then you cannot escape a more profound story. Across the face of the film come images of a past that the West will never escape- the image of the Cross, that Constantine saw upon the Milvian Bridge and that ever since has dominated Western politics and conscience. This is a film about Catholicism- not only about its pull on the conscience- Davies is quite clear about his own process of atheising- but about its pull on the imagination. For Davies in his historicity is a Catholic- he may be an atheist but he is a Catholic atheist. For him the waters of Babylon are the reminders of loss, the drinkers in the bar of a hotel remind him of the Mesopotamian revellers who disgusted the ancient Israelites and the power of the church remains as architecturally present in this film as any other power. The Church, the building and the faith, dominates his imagination just as it dominates the imagination of any sentient Westerner- we cannot avoid or evade it, we may not live in a society of Christian faith, but we live in a society immersed in the even longer and more important though less eschatological story of Christian history.

History of course is both civic and patriotic- as we are discovering with Livy- but it is also personal. For Davies- like for Guy Maddin in My Winnipeg (a film that this is similar too) our pasts are our presents. For Davies his life coils around the city of Liverpool- it runs through and in and out but it is always present there- but the Liverpool his life is influenced by is both a real place and an imagined place. He shows us at one point images of the present Liverpool- of scummy council houses and graffiti- of the British ability to turn the heights of display into images of disappointment and signs of the dismal. The film has a cutting social edge- Davies reminds us the poor have no time and the rich have the time to make other people spend their time. Betty and Phil (the Queen and her husband) are shown strolling up and waving demurely at the people- and counter posed with pensioners who can hardly find the money to afford a cup of tea and a cold piece of toast.

We must not lose sight though of the personal- for Davies's point is more interesting than most- it has to do with the difference between contemplation and experience (a difference that C.S. Lewis usefully borrowed from Alexander in the 1930s). The point that Davies makes is that we live through our childhood and then we contemplate about it for the rest of our lives- we become an endless curl of contemplation, an endless return. Nirvana in this sense is in our self forgetting. "Is sleep death?" he asks- not so much for an answer but for a reminder that both share the same quality- in both moments we might imagine absolute contemplation (which could well be absolute nothing) fused with absolute inaction. From childhood to adulthood to the dream world where we ourselves dissolve into our thoughts.

I have rhapsodised on some of Davies's themes- he doesn't make all these points in the same way as I have- but his form is an essay and I feel entitled to run with some of his ideas and see what use I can make of them. His form is an essay I say- it is an essay running through a film- using music and image to suggest and amplify and even define a point. His voice, a soft formal presence, is also there- alone save for a couple of moments (one where Round the Horn comes on) it takes us through the streets of Liverpool. Some people say the voice is sarcastic- I don't think it is, rather I think it is a sad voice- sad not so much that the world is worse than it was but that his world is worse than it was. He has made the transition from youth to age, from the toddlers so wonderfully captured on film (there is one priceless moment where a little girl steps forward, decides to step backwards and then runs to tell her mother of the achievement) to the dignified pensioners also there, with their craggy scouse features, bent on the doorsteps of the industrial remnant of their town.

This is an excellent film- and I have not done it justice- it is beguiling and its imagery is wonderful. Basically an old man's memories, it captures your attention with a wit I have not described fully (tu es petrus does indeed translate as You're a brick Pete, but I'm not sure that is the current official Vatican version)- and it is profound and interesting. Watch it if you are interested in cinema- if you are interested in the history of Liverpool, watch it and I'd even say when its out on DVD buy it.


Dave Cole said...

It's definitely worth seeing, especially for the archival footage that's used. The difference between Liverpool today - in the year when it is the European City of Culture - and the scenes of women washing the doorstep, putting clothes through a mangle and so on are, I think, meant to link the contemporary city with its past, and particularly those parts of the city have not escaped their pasts, in the minds of a metropolitan audience.

The reaction of the narrator against religion is interesting in this time of 'evangelical atheists' like Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennett. Rather than a sharp break, there seemed to be more of a distaste and gentle break away, even though, as the shots of the Metropolitan Cathedral showed, religion still looms large in people's lives.


Gracchi said...

Dave I agree with you- the archival footage does link past and present. And I also think makes a point that the people in teh past are now the people in teh present- by the end of the film I had started to think that the toddler on the steps in the 1950s was the middle aged woman chatting in the road now. There is an organic nature to it- indeed there is quite a conservative nature to Davies's understanding of society as a unity through time.

The reaction to religion is fascinating- what I think is going on there is a contextualisation of the writer's character. We are in a sense our references and I think what Davies is getting at is that sense. Its almost meaningless to be a new atheist in the Dawkins sense- not meaningless to talk of there not being a God by any means- but meaningless to disavow the historical effects of worship upon our contingent selves. I think it is the contingency of self that I really drew out of the documentary- it is one of the most appropriately titled documentaries ever because it is about time and the city- but more than that it is about the way that the city is embedded in this and past times.

Oh and private comment- when are we getting that review of Holy Mountain!

James Hamilton said...

"Its almost meaningless to be a new atheist in the Dawkins sense- not meaningless to talk of there not being a God by any means- but meaningless to disavow the historical effects of worship upon our contingent selves." If that were Dawkins take, that would be true. But it isn't, not by any manner of means.

At some point, there's a good post to be written about criticism of Dawkins, separate from the contents of such criticism - I think it's the best case since the early days of Bush II of people projecting onto a public figure views and intentions that they are sure he should hold without that figure necessarily representing such views at all. Likewise, John Prescott - so many reviews of his recent documentary two-parter take the form of mea culpa or "I never dreamt he was so coherent, genuine or passionate".

You don't, but a lot of people do, describe Dawkins as "shrill" - and, again, one is really pushed to find an example of his being so that is anything like as egregious as that displayed by the name caller.

Sorry for what has been a long digression on a scarcely relevant topic, and I'll definitely track down and watch the film in the post, on which, once again, you have written so well.

Dave Cole said...


I don't think Dawkins does deny the historical effect of religions, even if he does think that the role didn't have to be played be religion.

The more interesting contrast (if you will forgive the Brownisms) is the endogenous rejection of god in general and religion in particular (or possibly a rejection of god consequent to a rejection of religion) on a subliminal level against the exogenous extraction by (say) The God Delusion on a wholly liminal, rational level. The contrast is the Dawkinsian intellect that doesn't necessarily have any emotional implications against, as shown in the Davies film, an emotionally-based obsolensce of god that makes intellectual argument somewhat irrelevant.