Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
—Excerpt from The Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman
Like few others practicing the English language, Terence Davies’s voice is capable of generating visceral pleasure. I can think of two others capable of generating, on their own, such unadulterated delight. And in these moments, it seems appropriate to summon the vernacular of perfume: Morgan Freeman, whose faintly sibilant top note gives way to a sweet heart and a faintly gravely base. Or of wine: Patrick Stewart, full-bodied and oaky, with a soft palate and silky finish. (Indeed, someone very clever once wrote that Stewart swills vowels around his mouth like so much fine port.)
Hovering somewhere between professor, politician, and prophet, Terence Davies’s lightly grizzled timbre is deep, sensual, intimate, confessional, and given over to bouts of throttled passion when the subject is ripe. It wends its way through Of Time and the City, Davies’s own documentary on his boyhood home of Liverpool (and beyond to 50-odd years of British history), a reminiscence heavily mediated through stock and archival footage, still photographs, newsreels, others’ home movies, and newly minted high definition footage of his rejuvenated Merseyside home. Crowded holiday beaches, modded-out hipsters, Beatlemania, single mothers pushing prams are the markers of time’s passage. Davies views that passage with bemused intrigue, as though incredulous that his start in life was in such a down-at-the-heels place, but almost perversely thankful that he’s been given such rich autobiographical fodder. Of these, religion proves to be the most decadent, the source of an unexpected tumble into profanity. The annual Orange Day parade is the occasion for unexpected profanity. “Fuck the Pope and all you Feinian bastards,” bellows Davies, but it’s immediately undercut—“whatever that meant,” he follows on, with measured irony, arising no doubt out of his Catholic upbringing.
The way Davies feels about his youth and adolescence, one that was built upon the four pillars of “home, school, the movies, and God,” is encapsulated in a single image: under a chuffing industrial leviathan, a legion of rowhouse chimneys smoking like Gomorrah’s aftermath. If Forties Liverpool wasn’t the poorest of Britain’s major industrial cities, it was bloody well close, rampant with unemployment, poverty, and violence in a country that was being propped up by the Marshall Plan. It must have been a difficult city to love, and yet the thrall of childhood memories imbues any home with a special, almost sacred grandeur. In unpacking his life, Davies acknowledges this fraught push-pull, proposing that “we hate the place we love,” flee from it, and then spend our entire lives attempting to recapture the feeling of that place we abandoned.
His is an elegant and supple mind, politically astute, compassionate, humane, and staggeringly well read. Davies summons Joyce, Marx, de Koenig, and Meerbach to bolster his meditations on youth, maturation, memory, time, and a broadside of other Big Ideas nearly to dense to enumerate. (Truly, Of Time and the City requires—nay, commands—a second or third viewing just to follow Davies around the room.) He quotes whole stanzas of A.E. Housman (the above poem inaugurates the film) and uses Sir Walter Raleigh to lend poetry to, for example, breathless montages of squat, abandoned cinderblock apartments, a singularly unholy amalgam of “municipal architecture and British ugliness.” Davies breaks up the barrage of witticisms, allusions, quotations, and aphorisms, by letting music do some of the heavy lifting. An unexceptional collection of still photographs: docks at dawn, an empty schoolyard shrouded in mist becomes resplendent and exalted when topped out by the ethereal strains of a boys’ choir. But those musical choices don’t always hit the mark. A vignette on the Korean War set to the full duration of “He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother)” is a little too much on the nose, betraying a calculated sentimentality that ill-suits the gravity of the subject. However, taken in the overwhelming weft and weave of Davies’s poised first-person singular, it amounts to a smudge on the Sistine Chapel.
After a fashion, Of Time and the City has the air of an exquisitely structured lecture or an illustrated after-dinner talk over cigars and brandy. That is, until Davies starts to inject his own wryly impassioned views on politics, sport, art, society and sundry, which is when the film becomes something much more personal. In doing so, Davies hazards views that, if not controversial, are at least slightly out of the main. He disdained for the Beatles and the hysteria they generated, in favor of Stravinsky and Mahler (though Davies docks the seriousness of this revelation by a goodly dose of self-recriminating bemusement). He also condescends to hatred for popular sport, because football (soccer) in the modern age has become too venal, and musters volleys of acerbic scorn for the royal family.
No one is too exalted for Davies’s contempt, nothing too low for his exaltation. To he, Queen Elizabeth II is merely “Betty Windsor,” whose opulent coronation evinces at worst utter disdain, at best naïve misapprehension, for the poverty of postwar Britons. To he, public wrestling’s tensed, muscled, grappling bodies are an unapologetic a source of great voyeuristic and physical—there’s that word again—pleasure. So too is the cinema. “I loved the movies,” says Davies, “loved, them, devoured them, swallowed them whole.” But it wasn’t until he witnessed Dirk Bogarde in Victim, “that I discovered something altogether different” in a manner that rivals Serge Gainsbourg for positively dripping sex. Davies’s sexuality is very much on display here, from his awakening, first realized in the darkness of the cinema and the wrestling hall’s sweaty perfume, and actualized in boyhood crushes. Of these, the remembrance of a single moment stands above the rest: a fleeting encounter when a classmate briefly touched Davies’s arm, and he “didn’t want him to stop.” That such an ephemeral moment should stay with him down through the years is devastating—almost too much to bear. At the same time, though, such glimpses into Davies’s soul are so freely given, that, when he “says goodbye to my girlhood” there’s no sense of guilt at undue prying into private affairs. But there is also an inkling of, not quite performativity but a discrete selection of views to be paraded in front of his audience. Which I suppose is just the same as anyone’s default public persona; Davies has merely seen to have it writ large on the screen.
And in truth, there’s nothing from Of Time and the City’s easy fodder—an awful school system, an obscene monarchy, a hypocritical church, and an oppressed home life—that Roger Waters didn’t take to task in Pink Floyd’s The Wall. But Davies is gifted with a hazardously seductive mind. He finds poetry in the prosaic, and when he turns his mind to poetry, well…it has the effect of something close to intoxication. —JAMES CRAWFORD