Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Liverpool: Of Time and the City

If people know anything about the city of Liverpool, it is probably as the hometown of the Beatles. They might also be familiar with its powerhouse soccer teams (football, whatever) and its distinctive architecture, most notably that of the Liverpool Waterfront, officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Unfortunately, Terence Davies’ highly subjective new documentary, Of Time and the City (trailer here), which opens today in New York, will do little to alter preconceptions of Liverpool as Beatles Town, UK.

The 1998 announcement of Liverpool’s selection as a 2008 European Cultural Capitol provided the original impetus for the documentary, which would be greatly re-conceptualized by Davies. Described as a visual poem, Time is more of a meditation on time gone by, in which we hear Davies’ somber narration describe his early years growing up in the city, superimposed over rare archival film footage and underscored with appropriately sensitive music. The licensed musical selections are overwhelmingly classical. However, in one particularly effective sequence, Peggy Lee’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” poignantly accompanies footage of the civic authorities razing of old but picturesque slums, in order to build newer, more impersonally modern slums.

In fact, for all of Liverpool’s stately architecture, there are as much or more scenes of half demolished buildings and decaying tenements. Thanks to the efforts of archive producer Jim Anderson, Time is filled with such images of an undeniable ugly beauty. However, Davies’ voice-overs, freely blending the poetry of T.S. Eliot and other famous quotations and epigrams, with his own reminiscences is often quite pretentious.

As for the city’s history, we see film of Gregory Peck attending a premiere in Liverpool and hear Davies rather sarcastically recalling Queen Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip. We quickly understand Davies resents the Royals for their wealth and leisure and he disdains the Catholic Church of his youth for being Catholic, but it never really builds to an epiphany about the city of Liverpool specifically or about human nature in general.

Frankly, Time feels much longer than its 77 minutes. There are indeed some arresting black-and-white images married to some powerful musical selections, but the film has little staying power. Despite its artistic ambitions, Time makes about as much emotional impact as the aerial tours of Europe PBS affiliates constantly broadcast on weekend afternoons. Unlike Guy Maddin’s wild mythologizing (presumably) in My Winnipeg, Davies never really connects the audience to the soul of his city. He just provides pretty postcards from a travelogue. It opens today in New York at the Film Forum.