By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Of Time and the City,Terence Davies’ first film in the eight years since The House of Mirth, is both a return and a departure. It’s about Davies’ native Liverpool, the setting for his celebrated studies of lower-class family life, Distant Voice Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). But this time there are no characters and no dramatic narrative, even of the director’s usual fragmented kind. Of Time and the City is a documentary, and a highly poetic one, reminiscent of the works of such filmmakers as Humphrey Jennings, Chris Marker and Warren Sonbert. Through historical images of the city, combined with sounds ranging from Peggy Lee to Gustav Mahler to Kenneth Williams’ comic radio routines, Davies praises ordinary people while dissing icons as disparate as the Windsors and the Beatles. The filmmaker spoke with me recently, by phone from his U.K. home.
L.A. WEEKLY:From the moment the film premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the acclaim has been universal.
TERENCE DAVIES: I must say I’ve been in a daze since Cannes. I never felt it would get this sort of response. It’s taken us all by surprise.
You could say this film is about your search for yourself, in a more direct way than The House of Mirth.
It has some sort of charm around it. From a woman born in Poland or someone from a mountain village in Italy — they all seem to connect with it.
How did it come about?
Last year, Liverpool was designated the “European Capital of Culture,” and this company called Digital Departures wanted to make three films there in digital video for £250,000 each. One of the producers, Sol Papadopoulos rang me and said, “Would you be interested in making a small-budget fiction film set in Liverpool?” I said no, I’d already done that. What might be nice is if I could do a documentary contrasting the Liverpool I knew with the new one, which I don’t know. He said he’d like to do that but there was one drawback — it was competitive and 157 people had applied. Anyway, there was a long selection process and we were one of the three finally chosen, I’m glad to say.
From what I could tell, the color footage of buildings and a nightclub and some of the people on the street is new.
Only 5 percent of the film is newly shot. It’s mostly archive footage. And we had to do [the new footage] digitally, which is fine because I think digital will probably replace film.
In watching the film, I was struck by how deeply it must have touched you to look at these images, shot by other people, that connected so much to your own life.
It did, because even though I grew up in a working-class district, I didn’t realize how bad the slums were. When you’re born into that environment, you’ve got nothing to compare it with. It’s ironic, but in awful living conditions, people have a much richer street life. It was upsetting in another way too, because half of my family are dead now, including my mother.
There’s a lot of footage of the seaside and fun fairs, which suggests happier times.
That’s true. But that’s why I included that Chekhov quote, “There’s nothing worse than happiness recollected in tranquility.”
Bertolucci called it “nostalgia for the present.”
Oh, isn’t that a wonderful phrase!
Apparently, it works on an audience’s recollections of things from their own lives, which of course have nothing to do with yours.
That’s what seems to have happened. I seem to have caught the Zeitgeist. That’s so gratifying.
I understand you’re thinking about doing a romantic comedy about a bisexual ménage à trois.
Yes. I’ve always wanted to make something that people could just enjoy as an entertainment for an hour and a half. We’ve got most of the money together. It’s one of three things. For the first time in my life, I’ve got three projects on the burners.
You’ve always been a great comedy fan.
I love The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts and Coronets. And there were certain actors that people in my family really adored. My oldest brother, alas, who’s now dead, was a docker — a longshoreman, as you’d call him — and he loved Eve Arden. I was looking at Tea for Two the other day. She plays Doris Day’s secretary. There’s a knock on the door and it’s Billy De Wolfe, who’s always trying to get money out of them. So she opens the door and says, “Well as I live, and try not to breathe.” Imagine being a writer then, knowing your work is going to go to Eve Arden. That must have been a joy.
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