08 December, 2011

Puppy Film Festival 9: Of Time And The City

This is the first half of an intended Terrence Davies double bill, with his Edith Wharton adaptation, House of Mirth. I have found this 2008 documentary so contemplative, so generous in the spaces it allows within itself to absorb the string of moments that Davies constructs carefully in his collage / essay, that I felt that I should allow it an external space of its own. So I'll be diving into Gillian Anderson tomorrow.

Ostensibly a reflection on Davies childhood home of Liverpool, it touches on both social and personal history. He charts his disaffection with Catholicism, his emergent homosexuality, his growing love of the perfect world of cinema. He takes sideswipes at rock'n'roll (including the local Merseybeat), municipal architecture ("the British genius for creating the dismal"), and deconsecrated churches repurposed as night clubs. He doesn't just kick at modernity, he puts the boot into the monarchy ("The Betty Windsor Show") and the empty pomp of the church. Apart from these bitchy forays, the majority of the tone is lyrical, elegiacal, but without the moribund tone from the graveside.

The film is composed mostly of meticulously put together archive footage with a lush soundtrack of classical and gentle late fifties pop. Terrence Davies provides narration in his own velvet voice combining poetry recital, personal memoir and literate quotes. Images of poverty over time as old slums are replaced with their contemporary tower block equivalent. New footage shows Liverpool as it is now, a place he barely recognizes, yet retains fragments of familiarity, not merely in hoary landmarks, but in the people he lets his camera linger over in the coda before his Odyssean, oddly triumphalist, firework strewn finale.

At times it seems to be a film of exile, he quotes Joyce and Psalm 137 (By the rivers of Babylon). I do not know whether Davies is in any kind of self-imposed physical exile from Liverpool, nor whether he has ambitions in this film, as Joyce allegedly did, that his home could one day be reconstructed from his words and images. Davies is at the very least, as are we all, an exile from the past. His memories here are intricate stamps in a passport to that unrecovered country.

Near the end, I began to feel a bit lost, unsure of what Davies is driving at, if anything, beyond a mere but deeply thoughtful paen to Liverpool gone, but at the same time, I felt compelled to start it again, almost immediately, from the beginning. If not to watch it more closely, but to spend more time in Terrence Davies' palace of memory, to wander it aimlessly like a beguiled tourist. Though billed as "a love song and a eulogy", it is much more, a gallery of memento mori, a cinematic monument, a place to inhabit in a dream detached from the place and time, the city in Terrence Davies' mind's eye.



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