When Terence Davies' voice is first heard in his new film Of Time And The City, anyone who's never heard him speak before may be a little surprised. It is an uncommonly deep voice—authoritative, mellifluous, a touch, for lack of a better word, macho. In a British way, of course. Not a voice one would necessarily associate with the delicate sensibility from whence, say, The Long Day Closes sprang from. Am I saying that one expects Davies, who is gay and whose work often touches on the gay condition and other vicissitudes of Otherness, to sound more fey than he does? I don't think so. I am saying, though, that I did not expect Davies to sound as old and weary as he does—in the first few minutes of the film, he sounds as if he's maintaining a cool front as he desperately seeks breath. It's as if someone had heaved some ancient mariner from the depths of the sea and demanded of him, "Start talking."
Does Davies quote Coleridge in Of Time and The City? I can't quite recall. In this spare, sardonic and beautiful "love song and...eulogy" to his home city of Liverpool, he quotes pretty much everybody else, from Chekhov to Jung to Joyce to Eliot to, most sardonically, The Beatles. Very shortly after catching his breath and relaxing into a slightly less portentous tone than he opens the film with, he quotes, of course, Shelley's "Ozymandias." "I met a traveller from an ancient land/Who said: two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert." (Whenever I hear that poem, I always think, "Is that really the first thing the guy said? He didn't introduce himself, or say, 'How are you?' or anything like that?" But I digress.) "Nothing beside remains."
T'was ever thus. Or, as Run-D.M.C. (a conglomerate which would surely give Davies the horrors, given his clearly still-thriving dyspepsia concerning the aforementioned Beatles) would put it, "It's like that." Glory fades. Personal reminiscences and sometimes delightfully snarky observations aside (Queen Elizabeth II's coronation is referred to as "The Betty Windsor Show," and that's only one of the zingers he gets off on the Queen), Of Time and The City doesn't tell us anything we don't know, or anything the literary men Davies cites didn't know. One could call it an "essay film" but unlike the wry intellectual explorations of Chris Marker, it's practically devoid of ideas. That's not a knock. No, this is truly, finally, a cinematic poem, the whole of which beautifully transcends the sum of its parts. It's all about the play of the rhythms, the way the sound brushes up against the image. For instance: The screen is full of a montage of screaming teenagers as Davies laments that the Fab Four's screams rendered the well-crafted pop song "as antiquated as antimacassers," and the alliteration hits you first, but then you get the mental image of maybe an antimacasser, maybe an antimacasser on a chair, maybe an antimacasser on a chair in a fully furnished Victorian drawing room, and that mental image now contains the screaming teenyboppers and it's a funny juxtaposition. Davies works this particular alchemy throughout; you mourn his Liverpool as deeply as you wonder about the babies in the prams he shows being pushed around the city of today: what will be the Liverpool that they come to love, and what will become of that Liverpool? And all the while knowing the answer: "the lone and level sands stretch far away."
Of Time And The Cityopens at New York's Film Forum on January 21.