Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Analyzing a master of big-screen poetry

British director Terence Davies just might be the cinema's greatest living poet. Davies, whose films include "Distant Voices, Still Lives" and "The Long Day Closes," hasn't made many films, but he's proven himself a master of memory, a filmmaker who captures the exquisite sadness that accompanies our awareness that time has passed, and, in some cases, passed us by. Davies' films are entirely personal but, at the same time, they tap into a universal sense of loss and longing that's carried to the screen in a wealth of beautifully observed detail: mothers doing the weekly wash, anonymous crowds filling the stands at football matches or row upon row of Liverpool council houses in which thousands of lives played out.

Burdened by memory, betrayed by his own desires and bristling with idiosyncratic judgment, Davies once again has given us a film that defies classification. "Of Time and the City" can be described as a visual tone poem that makes brilliant use of current and archival footage; it is also an ode to Liverpool, as well as a testament to the difference between a black-and-white world and one dominated by color. The 63-year-old Davies, who grew up in Liverpool, offers a series of personal memories and quotes from poetry, all punctuated with a litany of pet peeves. The Beatles rode a wave of popular culture that sapped both craft and elegance from pop music; the monarchy is an expensive joke played on the ever-gullible lower classes; unacknowledged poverty underlies Britain's claims of imperial splendor.

"Of Time and the City" is also the story of a lonely gay boy who found solace at the movies, but, more than that, it's an expression of the deep loneliness of all sensitive souls -- and, in Davies' case, of sensitive souls who harbor class anger and simmering grudges. He narrates the film, lacing his eloquence with bitter asides and sardonic jabs. Davies' art does not float on a calm sea of memory. Rather, it rises and falls like waves that thrill and terrify. He describes a family trip to an amusement park in New Brighton that's capped off by cocoa and toast, exoticism followed by the soothing comforts of home.

Raised Catholic, Davies drenched himself in youthful piety, although he makes it sounds as if he prayed with clenched fists. He wanted to turn out to be "normal." His prayers went unanswered, and he became an atheist, albeit one who'll never shake the majestic, threatening hold of the Church that dominated his young consciousness. The world of gayness has become easier with itself these days, but maybe not for Davies, who too keenly remembers past torments -- his and the public humiliations of men who were outted and then criminalized.

"Of Time and the City" is a journey home, to a city Davies loves and hates and loves again. The movie is full of old black-and-white footage that seems to have been excavated from Liverpool's collective consciousness. As we watch faces in the streets, we know -- without Davies' having to tell us -- that most of them are gone, replaced by other faces in other crowds. In that sense, "Of Time and the City" is a cinematic requiem with Davies leading the service.

Art is always a dangerous term to apply to movies. For reasons that no longer make sense, we refer to certain of our theaters as "art houses." If it this description ever had meaning, it no longer applies. The so-called art houses of the still-young 21st century too often attempt to seduce us with low-budget versions of the kind of fare that wants to grow up, sell itself for a higher price and join the multiplex barrage.

Davies does not play this game: He refuses to tip his hat or shuffle his feet for our amusement. In "Distant Voice" and "Long Day Closes," he staged scenes from his youth, and sometimes allowed characters to break into song. He re-creates the community that simultaneously nourished and depleted him. Davies' romance with Liverpool is not (and never was) blinded by nostalgia, although traces of it pop up now and again. With few exceptions, Davies' best movies are about how he feels about his past, as much as they are about the past itself.

And why not? Is there such a thing as objective memory? If so, who possesses it? Not the camera, certainly; the movie's documentary footage has been re-purposed and put to poetic use, assisted greatly by Davies' use of music as ironic counterpoint -- from Gustav Mahler to Peggy Lee.

"Of Time and the City" ends with a bit of a wink -- Davies saying "goodnight, ladies" as images of Liverpool fade to black. But the wink can't disguise what has preceded it. "Of Time and the City" allows us to see the world as the strange, forbidding and sometimes loving place that Davies discovered as he grew to maturity. As we see and hear Davies tell it, we all grow up yearning for paradise before finding ourselves in quite a different reality. The life of the past once seemed vivid and indestructible, but now has vanished. Still, its yearnings may not be as far removed from us as we imagine. Our longing remains close to us -- as surprising as a random thought and just as fleeting.

Davies' understands that each generation has a particular moment -- it can't always be precisely identified but we know when it's happened -- at which everything changes and all that preceded it seems to have evaporated. The people. The feel of a city. The old arguments. The old dreams. The faces of old men in the street. The living present becomes the remembered past and a dual sense of sadness and beauty arises, something to be discovered in Davies' cinematic poetry with its ungraspable beauty and piercing rue. Stay through the credits, even if you don't bother to read them. Listen to the music and allow the movie's dust to settle. Then get up, walk out into the sunlight or into the dark of evening. See if you're not met by your own flood of memories, visitors from a past you, too, never will regain.

You can see "Of Time and the City" beginning this Friday at the Starz FilmCenter on the Auraria campus. If you can't catch it there, be sure to look for it when the DVD becomes available.

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