Film critic Michael Koresky explores the unique emotional tenor of Davies's work by focusing on four paradoxes within the director's oeuvre: films that are autobiographical yet fictional; melancholy yet elating; conservative in tone and theme yet radically constructed; and obsessed with the passing of time yet frozen in time and space. Through these contradictions, the films' intricate designs reveal a cumulative, deeply personal meditation on the self. Koresky also analyzes how Davies's ongoing negotiation of—and struggle with—questions of identity related to his past and his homosexuality imbue the details and jarring juxtapositions in his films with a queer sensibility, which is too often overlooked due to the complexity of Davies's work and his unfashionable ambivalence toward his own sexual orientation.
"A significant contribution to the field. Koresky is able to both chart the development of Davies' cinema, while convincingly conveying the coherence and continuity of both theme and style at the heart of this very singular auteur."—Duncan Petrie, author of Creativity and Constraint in the British Film Industry.
From Terence Davies by Michael Koresky. Copyright 2014 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. Support your local bookstore, or buy the book through IndieBound or Amazon.com.
The Fiction of Autobiography
It is important to note that even though shame and stigma have necessarily played a role in shaping his cinematic persona, Davies is not easily reducible to the image of the traumatized artist—a filmic Francis Bacon, if you will. As I hope to make clear, the contradictions inherent in his approach to movies flow out of trauma but give voice to an array of richly crisscrossing feelings, crescendos made up of both darkness and light. Davies is undeniably a survivor—of abuse, of crippling religious and sexual guilt—yet his work has never neglected to magnify the losses of queer history, even if implicitly.
In visual terms, Of Time and the City is most fascinated by architecture—how we interact with it, and how it defines landscape, character, and national and local identity. Liverpool's buildings, from its terraced working-class row houses to its municipal establishments, are the clearest evidence of the simultaneous development and decay that are the twinned hallmarks of any Western city throughout the twentieth century, especially those bombarded by the events of World War II. Davies most memorably expresses this ironic reverse development in a three-and-a-half-minute sequence that charts the demolition of the city's slums in the 1960s and 1970s to make way for low-income high-rises. Wholly without narration, and accompanied by Jerome Kern's "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," as sung in an ethereal 1957 recording by Peggy Lee, the sequence at once comments on what Davies sees as increasingly common urban blight, pays tribute to the working class from which he hails, and intimates the erasure of his own past. In fact, it was the conception of this sequence that convinced Davies that he could pursue the project, his first documentary, at all. Says the producer Solon Papadopoulos of this sequence, "Once he'd got that image in his head, he thought there was a film to be made: that was the moment, the catalyst." While he doesn't make the inspiration explicit, this bravura section of the film could be a concrete visualization of the opening metaphor of "East Coker," the second of Eliot's Four Quartets: "In succession / Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended / Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place / Is an open field, a factory, or a by-pass."
The Liverpool of Davies's past is gone. "Now I'm an alien in my own land," he mourns near the end of the film. Liverpool is not only a specific past but also the past for Davies, therefore impossible to recoup as anything but a memory, an ideal, and a fantasy. This distinguishes Of Time and the City as more a work of imagination than a strict documentary. In the absence of a tenable extant connection to the place of his youth, Davies must create a narrative around it—it has to be invented. Though the film was funded to be a celebration of Liverpool on the occasion of the city's status as the European Capital of Culture for 2008, Davies ended up making both a personal film and an occasionally sharp-tongued social critique that didn't honor a city's legacy so much as excavate its ghosts, focusing mostly on its working poor. Furthermore, Davies does not seem interested in providing contextualizing historical information on Liverpool, so the universe as depicted in the film often comes across as mindscape more than landscape. He said at the time of its release, "I insisted on not making a strict documentary, but one based on my emotional memories—a subjective essay, which I discovered after completion was my farewell to Liverpool" (Quart). But what is this place we see onscreen that has haunted Davies's career? The city we see in the film is postindustrial, distinguished by its slums and tenements even more than the municipal grandeur of its landmark buildings, and as memorialized by Davies it seems trapped in amber. But is this a city that hasn't moved on, or is it just Davies who is locked in a moment forever imbued with a complicated nostalgia?
Michael Koresky is staff writer and associate editor at The Criterion Collection and cofounder of the online film magazine Reverse Shot.