We saw the documentary “Of Time and the City” last weekend. It is down to one showing a day at the Nova, which is a fairly good indication that it’s about to disappear soon.
It is a strange film about the changes wrought in Liverpool since the 1940s-50s. It is narrated by its director Terence Davies, who speaks in fruity, world weary and very-English tones. To my shame, I am not familiar enough with 20th century English poetry to recognize when he was quoting, and when it was his own sardonic, wistful, elegaic commentary. Whether they were his own words or others’, what came through was a mixture of regret and a shuddering distaste for what had passed away, bitterness over the struggle between his Catholicism and his homosexuality, and a deep ambivalence over what has replaced the Liverpool of his childhood.
In the same way that the voice-over is a mash-up, so too are the visuals. Much of it has been taken from documentaries and photographs in the past, and you find yourself wondering WHY film was ever taken of an older child fitting socks over a sibling’s cold hands while standing under deserted play equipment in a bleak and snowy playground. Why were street scenes taken, from a car, of row after row of terraces with a door and single window facing out onto a street?
What struck me from the footage from the 1950s was the sheer number of children, and the stultifying boredom of such poverty. Mothers sat in the weak sunshine on their front steps, chatting with neighbours, while children would play in prams or run on the street. And so many people- streaming off a steamboat to lie on the beach like corpses in a row; crowded into the shallows splashing and laughing; stacked into the football grounds with bobbing heads and flags, wreathed in cigarette smoke and gloom. And the rain, the dirty snow, the puddles, the washing hanging cold and clammy.
Davies admits that the excitement of the Beatles and the 1960s escaped him completely and he immersed himself in Mahler and other more lofty pursuits. There’s footage of the Cavern Club (and my claustrophobia mounted as I gazed on that curved, tunnel-like roof and the clouds of cigarette smoke and fug) overdubbed with a soundtrack of the Hippy Hippy Shake performed not by the Beatles, but the Swinging Blue Jeans. I wonder if it was a matter of cost in getting access to a Beatles soundtrack, or whether Davies particularly wanted to portray the Beatles obliquely by showing a band that was not the Beatles, and featuring a song linked with Beatles, but not performed by them. At times the music chosen jarred: film reel of young English soldiers going off to fight in Korea in the 1950s- ( and what a distant and truly pointless war that must have seemed to a nation still suffering from World War II damage) – was accompanied by The Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” from 1969.
There were many visual juxtapositions: the wealth and arrogance of the Liverpool city fathers in constructing such grand public buildings, contrasted with the meanness of the terraced streets; the beachside scenes contrasted with the gloom of misty rain; the teeming crowds disembarking from ferries on the river compared with a small knot of children walking along a deserted, pock-marked area after the demolition of the neighbourhood.
And yet some images were more familiar than I would have anticipated. Melbourne has its slum images as well, but somehow the light is different and you don’t get the same sense of settling, bone-deep damp. I was amazed to see exactly the same high-rise buildings erected after slum clearance as our own Housing Commission towers.
Above: Liverpool hi-rise
Collingwood, Melbourne hi-rise
Then, gradually, we emerge out into Liverpool of today. There are children in prams, but this time well-fed, indulged children in huge engineered contraptions, hovered over by parents and with the handles of the pram festooned with shopping bags. People eating, people buying – so much consumption compared with the hungry-looking footage of the 1940s and 50s.
There’s no plot at all to Of Time and the City. It’s a bit like being behind someone else’s eyes, watching and observing, and someone else is telling you what you see- someone who both loves and hates what he is viewing, who wants to mock but wants to grieve as well. An unsettling experience.