Monday, November 03, 2008

"Of Time and the City": A Terence Davies take on Liverpool

The National Film Theatre (NFT) at the BFI Southbank is arguably my favourite cinema theatre in London (see, for example, here (in Turkish)). The venue sits beautifully on the South Bank of the River Thames, directly connected to the city centre via Waterloo Bridge and the nearby favourite Hungerford Bridge. It is the primary venue for the London Film Festival, as well as the BFI (British Film Intitute) Headquarters, the BFI IMax Cinema and is part of the wider South Bank arts complex consisting mainly of the Southbank Centre, Hayward Gallery, the National Theatre. The frontal BFI Southbank cafe opens right into the Jubilee walkway under the Waterloo Bridge and a stroll around there is a great joy, with an occasional stop at the 2nd hand, cheap book stalls located in front of the cinema.

If BFI Southbank is a decent depiction of many of the qualities of London, then it is arguably a prime venue to host films portraying homelands of many other cultures. BFI Southbank usually holds film series of famous filmmakers (recently, Wim Wenders, Coen Brothers), actors, countries, film cultures or genres. 3 major film halls (NFT 1, 2 and 3) screen for large audiences, while the Mediatheque and Gallery cater for a much smaller crowd in the shape of screenings of experimental films or video. More video installations or exhibitions can be visited in the decent gallery, BFI Southbank Gallery, which currently holds a Pierre Bismuth and Michel Gondry exhibition.

One of these special events was the screening of "Of Time and the City", the first-ever documentary by the famous British filmmaker, Terence Davies (1945 - ). The film was screened on 2 November 2008, on a nice, partly-cloudy London Sunday afternoon. After the screening, Terence Davies came up to the stage for a conversation with the head of the BFI and the audience.

"Of Time and the City" is a documentary about Liverpool. It is rather a subjective documentary through the eyes of Terence Davies who was born in the city and lived there until the age of 28 (1973). Davies had never done a documentary before, and this was his first film after being away from the industry for 8 years. This was rather a special commission, in part with the Liverpool '08, the European Capital of Culture, project. In stead of depicting a Liverpool of what most non-UK citizens associate the city with; the Beatles, Liverpoool FC, Liverpool dock-workers, Davies has followed a quite dramatic approach, almost denying the existence of these institutionalised aspects of the city and taking a very personal approach to it.

Majority of the picture consists of archival footage, bought from BBC, Liverpool Council and many other sources. There is very few contemporary footage, a few scenes of city-life of today, shot by Davies. Other than that, Davies's main involvement has been to prepare a working script, cutting through the scenes and installing the soundtrack. It is quite unique in the sense that, a contemporary document on Liverpool, especially given the current Liverpool '08 project make so less use of contemporary images or references to widely-accepted cultural notions of the city, as described above. But, this is precisely what makes the film more interesting.

A strength of the film lies in the poetic nature of it. Terence Davies uses his own voice as the voice-over narration and extensively reads into the images from literature. Homeros, T.S. Eliot, classical music, hymns from church music and his own poetry blend with the recurring black and white, and color images of life in and around Liverpool.

The film begins with a graphically filling shot of an empty theatre hall, drawing its curtains into a grimmy Liverpool scene. Church images, loud hymns and extremely sarcastic narrative of Davies flow in. It is this extreme sarcasm that creates the working tensions and the conflicts of the film. Archival sound from a BBC Radio show from the 1960's, or jokes that Davies makes about his time and his city are not completely graspable for non-UK, or even non-Liverpool audiences. At the Cannes Film Festival, the UK side of the theatre at the film's screening was reportedly giggling while some were puzzled. However, the conversation with Davies after the film at the BFI clarifies many questions.

There are extensive references to religion and Davies' conversion from a devout Catholic into an atheist. As a life-time skeptic, Davies' was challenged further by his father (died when Davies was 7), after whose death, Davies started to indulge in conflicting realities of life. At a very early age, he discovered interest in the same-sex and came out as a young gay man in the mid 1950's, having to wait 12 years (from ages 11 to 23), until homosexuality was no more illegal in the UK (1967). The years 7-11 play a significant role in his development where he was taken the films quite extensively and the 'awakening' to the non-existance of god, and turning an atheist simultaneously with discovering homosexuality seem to be main elements of why Davies chose ballet over Beatles or classical music over hooligan chanting of Liverpool fans.

He is the youngest of 10 children. I don't know about the others in the family but he may as well be the most enthusiastic and entertaining. It is easy to see the fragility in the man when he blushes as he is applauded by the full-house crowd of the giant NFT 1 Theatre, or in the use of gestures, the non-stoppable movements of his hands and arms in excitement when he tells a story from childhood. He told about a funny incident he has recently encountered, in order to give an example of the "northernly humour" that he cherished a lot about the Liverpool culture:

He has recently given a lecture at Harvard. Harvard gave him a jumper with the "Harvard" text over its chest. Davies was wearing this one day when he was back in Liverpool. A street beggar saw him and stopped by him asking:
"Hey mate, do you have some spare change? I am going to go to Yale".

It is much more than to Davies that these funny incidents came across his way. Although not peaceful with his childhood traumas and his sexuality, this is a man, grasping the world, and 'his city' of his first 28 years with full enthusiasm, arms and eyes open wide. And there comes the "Of City and the Time", maybe a slightly difficult piece to get into in the beginning, but a sheer joy of classical music, folks on the hill, decaying housing estates, the Cathedrals and fighting for a place in the Liverpool crowd of 1960's and early 70's.

I suggset the 70-minute long film screened with a 20-minute cut from a Terence Davies interview. It adds so much more to Liverpool and the city, knowing this interesting and remarkable person.

Further reviews on the film can be found at the following links:

No comments: