Went to see Of Time and the City by Terence Davies on Sunday. I never know quite what to make of his films. The first one I saw, Distant Voices, Still Lives, in 1988, I reviewed for the university newspaper. “This is how to make films,” I wrote. “Cinematic concentrate. It’s an autobiographical picture of the lives of a Liverpool family in the forties and fifties; as remembered at the funeral of the violent and tyrannical father, then as the family ages and the children get married. If this sounds unpromising matter for a yarn, then you have in fact struck on the film’s weak spot. Its considerable strength, on the other hand, comes from Davies’ direction; the scenes succeed in the chronological disorder of memory; user-friendly features such as introductory and explanatory bits and references to other scenes are scornfully eschewed. The effect is exposure to the dramatic, emotional and aesthetic content of each scene in undiluted essence. The brew is not so strong and bitter as in Davies’ previous black-and-white Trilogy; but what does it profit him to distil it to such a purity if he will not add a tinge of soul?”
I think I have become less pompous in the past two decades. Not much, though.
I saw Distant Voices, Still Lives again a few years ago (when it was on at what we must now call the BFI Southbank even though it is still the national film theatre (just as there are no longer any hospitals, only NHS Foundation Trusts and University Teaching Health Campuses). I felt much the same. It’s a succession of beautifully staged and observed moments, indeed just like the sounds of memory whispering in your head, drenched in a quantity of sentiment that makes sense when you hear Davies explain, as he did last Sunday, that the happiest period of his life was between seven, when his violent and tyrannical father – “I’ve been in therapy so long even my analyst hates my father” – died and his mum and nine older brothers and sisters could begin to live properly, and eleven, when he began to desire men and in some way consequently lost his faith.
Since then, it seems, he thinks his life has been a disaster. No wonder his ears strain for the echoes of the tunes of his childhood. No wonder the classical music and poetry he discovered as an adolescent seems to have become a sort of liturgy hard-wired into his soul, always the same, Shakespeare, Eliot and Bruckner, always the same, known cadences, to return to again and again and again, to contemplate again and once again learn the same lesson as before.
Which is why I think Sukhdev Sandhu is being too harsh – that is, when he’s not being plain stupid:
The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives play like art-house versions of Bread.
Odd that he closes his review accusing Davies of snobbishness. I think he’s missing the point. The reason Davies opens his film with celebratory, rising crane shots of the magnificent neoclassical St George’s Hall, not hiding the now-embarrassing triumphant imperialist statues that surround it, and the equally grand library and art gallery across the road, and zooming in on a detail of the hall’s huge metal doors that I’ve never noticed before – “SPQL”, a variant on the motto of the Roman Republic with L for Liverpool instead of R for Rome stamped on the end: the reason for all this is not to satisfy the “regional PR” motivation that Sandhu gives the film, but to show how a poor boy from Liverpool could come to dream of grandeur. Davies follows this with the cold, gold lavishness of a Catholic church interior, the candles, the Latin, and you can see why only Mahler and the sonnets could fill the gap that God left.
Peter Bradshaw is rather fairer:
Its effects are forthright and arguably unsubtle. Davies hits you with Housman and Eliot. His musical choices are familiar, and the images and newsreels he selects are not novel in any strict sense of archival discovery. But the juxtapositions deliver an intravenous jolt of rapture and sorrow, all at once.
Putting the Resurrection symphony over shots of poverty, dereliction and hopelessness is not subtle, but it makes some points that are hardly ever made. For one thing, it says that classic high culture is not the preserve of the higher classes and is not all about delicate sensibilities and posh ladies in fluffy dresses prancing about on stage like dressage horses and people in black wearing angular glasses sipping white wine while striking a pose in front of a painting in a white room. For another, it says that mythic, overwrought, overripe soul struggles may have been invented by the Romantics but they’re still with us, and however risible they may seem in a Mahler exegesis they’re pretty real to the people who experience them.
Typical Liverpudlian self-pity, you, or Boris Johnson, might think. You might say the same thing about Boys From the Blackstuff. More kindly, you might talk about Celtic melancholy. You might, more realistically, think of a provincial city sinking into pointlessness over decades before waking up to find itself haemorrhaging on Thatcher’s operating table. Maybe we might be forgiven a little self-pity. Maybe Terence Davies might be forgiven his narrow little world of memory and The Classics in return for his astonishing frankness and for being one of the few people around who seems to take film seriously.