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.
They had so many great character comedians back then.
Oh, yes, Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton, and in Singin’ in the Rain, I live for the moment when Jean Hagen says, “I have more money than Calvin Coolidge — put together!”
In Of Time and the City, as soon as you mentioned radio comedy, I knew it was going to be the “Julian and Sandy” routines from Round the Horne with Kenneth Horne, Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick.
You know them?
Oh, yes. Considering the times, it’s amazing they got away with gay humor like that. Williams’ career was so amazing, and his life was so sad.
Well, he didn’t like being gay, and I don’t like being gay. It does ruin your life to a certain degree, because it’s something you have to fight against every day. A “Julian and Sandy” sketch I wanted to use but didn’t was one where Kenneth Horne goes into their shop and says he wants to go abroad. “I fancy Greece,” he says. And Kenneth Williams says, “I wouldn’t go to Greece if I were you, Mr. Horne. Julian had an experience at the Acropolis.” “How about Malaga?” “Don’t go to Malaga, Julian got stung there.” “Portuguese Man-of-War?” And he says, “Oh, I didn’t recognize the uniform.”
I love that bit you put in the film about the men arrested for “gross indecency” and the judge who complained that they did it “beneath one of the city’s most beautiful bridges.”
It’s true. That’s exactly what he said.
Yes, but it’s so absurd. Like something in a comedy.
British judges today I’m sure are different, but back then, they were living in the past. The prosecutor in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial said, “Would you allow your wife or your servants to read this?” And this was 1961!
The church, your old adversary, appears to be sinking now.
The sooner it sinks, the better.
Great sets, great costumes. But the book needs work.
No gags! Plenty of unintentional humor but no gags of its own. But I fear, like the monarchy, it will be with us forever.
Of Time and the City opens in Los Angeles theaters on Friday, January 30. For J. Hoberman’s review, see New Reviews.