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Interview: Terence Davies on “Of Time and the City”

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01152009_oftimeandthecity1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Just because the Evening Standard once hailed him as “Britain’s greatest living film director,” doesn’t mean that 63-year-old Terence Davies (“Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “The Long Day Closes”) can easily find funding for his audacious screen poetry; each new Davies work should be considered an arthouse event. His first feature since 2000’s “The House of Mirth” (and an official selection at last year’s Cannes Film Festival), “Of Time and the City” is a wonderfully elegiac ode to postwar Liverpool, the place of his birth and a source of memories alternately painstaking and droll. Over a haunting assemblage of ’50s and ’60s stock footage that seems too perfectly curated to have materialized from anywhere but history itself, Davies’ theatrical basso profondo wittily narrates a stream of consciousness memoir — including his first grapplings with his homosexuality and Catholic faith — while eulogizing life as a mid-century Liverpudlian. Enjoying every word spoken from that mesmerizing voice of his, I had a chinwag with Davies about feeling alien in his homeland, a Greek god named Gregory Peck, and why he never cared for rock ‘n’ roll.

There’s a great quote in the film I was unfamiliar with: “If Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented.” Where did you hear that, and what do you glean from it?

Well, in the middle of Liverpool, there’s the most wonderful building called St. George’s Hall, the largest near-classical building in Europe. As you get in, there are quotes about Liverpool; one from Dickens, one from someone else modern, and one from a man called [Félicien de] Myrbach, whom I’ve never heard of, and that’s what he said.

Liverpool is a very peculiar place in England. A lot of Irish people came over after the famine of 1847 and changed the local dialect, which was simply Lanarkshire. It became one of the most important cities, nearly in the world. At its height, in the late 19th century, a fifth of all world trade went through it. As a post-industrial city, it still had that kind of grandeur that a lot of Northern cities have. Huge slums, but a lot of grandeur. I suppose what [the quote] means is that even when you move away from it, it’s still very much part of your imagination. When most Liverpudlians move away, and a lot of them do, they recreate that city as they remember it, and as they didn’t remember it.

01152009_oftimeandthecity2.jpgIn another interview, you said that you felt like an alien when you returned home.

When I go there, everywhere is full of memory. Literally all over the city, I’ve got huge memories of what it was like before it changed. That’s why it’s foreign, because all the places I knew have been pulled down. For instance, where I had lived, just outside the city center, there were eight cinemas within walking distance, and that was without the eight in town. So there were 16 cinemas just in my area. When I went out to show the film there, the last cinema in town was closing down. It was the Odeon where, in 1952, at seven, I had seen “Singin’ in the Rain,” my first film. It really pierced my heart because I had my cinematic education in those cinemas, the ones that were near me. Every time I go back, something else is gone, and I think, “Oh, I remember that when it was…” So it’s completely alien now, but then I also think that my country has become different. When you are a child, obviously, you perceive things with the intensity of childhood, as though this is the be-all and end-all of everything. Certainly, that’s how I was. Perhaps it’s just the quality of getting older. [laughs]

So your feelings reflect the sadness of what has disappeared, not so much the disappointment of what has been built in its place?

Yes, I think that’s true. When I grew up, things changed slowly. They didn’t change quickly the way they do now. You walk past a shop, and then the next week, it’s gone and you actually can’t remember what was there. When I left school in 1960, I was a clerk in a shipping office. There was a building in the center of town called Coopers. It sold food and roasted coffee, so you could always smell this wonderful aroma of coffee being roasted outside. I walk past now, and I think it’s a clothing shop. But on the side of the building, there’s “Coopers,” and as soon as I see it, I smell the coffee from all those years ago.

There’s something rather bland about modern architecture that doesn’t have that feel of being unique. There were lots of little lanes in the business district of Liverpool called Tempest Hay or Leather Lane, wonderful little nooks and crannies which were still Dickensian. Now they’ve all gone, and nothing replaced them because they arose naturally from their architectural time, which I loved, and made the city interesting. Look at New York. You go down into lower Manhattan, where it’s not on the grid system, and it’s full of these lovely old shops which have those metal gates that opened up, and you fed the produce down into the cellar. That’s what makes a city.

01152009_oftimeandthecity3.jpgIn the narration, you chronicle how you fell in love with filmgoing, but then seemed to fall out of it again. What ended the affair?

Someone once said that the best way to cure you of a hobby is to actually do it for a living. [laughs] Once you start making films, you know how they are made, that magic goes. Inevitably it does, except for the films that you actually adore. There are still films that I’m seduced by, and some of them are not great. By no means is “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” great, but it’s well-crafted, and it’s got two very dignified performances from Jennifer Jones and William Holden. I remember being taken to see that, and so that colors it. Whereas, when you see modern cinema, I’m aware of it being cut and acted. That’s kind of deadening.

Also, what I just find unattractive about modern cinema is that you can say and show anything. The first thing that goes out of the window, the first thing to be sacrificed, is subtlety. Going back to “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” when Jennifer Jones goes to the cocktail party, there are four shots. In four shots, you know that she’s going to fall in love with William Holden, which is very succinct. It’s attractive because nothing overt is done. You supply not only the ambiguity, but the explanation of that ambiguity. That’s what I miss. And I don’t like violence because I had a very, very, very violent father, and I can’t watch it. I just can’t. It opens up too many horrible memories, but perhaps it goes back to just getting old. [laughs]

Your childhood thoughts and memories come across very nakedly. Did you experience any specific kind of catharsis by recording them on film?

I thought at one time, when I started making my films, particularly the early autobiographical ones, that I would reach some catharsis. But I haven’t. All it has done is highlight that which has been lost. The implication behind that is, of course, sadness. But there’s also an element of ecstasy, the fact of going to the pictures. I can’t tell you, in this little accommodation called Merseyside, Gregory Peck came! In those days, stars were demigods. They didn’t come to Liverpool, you know? [laughs] They just didn’t. It was like someone coming down from Mount Olympus. He came the following year as well to actually go to the Grand National, which is the [horse] race. The streets outside were [overrun] with people just to see him. That kind of ecstasy is gone. You know, because we didn’t know about stars, their private lives, and all that in those days. You didn’t believe that these people actually existed. They certainly didn’t go to the bathroom. They were far too sophisticated for that.

01152009_oftimeandthecity4.jpgSo if it’s not catharsis per se, what is it you’re chasing by recalling these intimate milestones?

I suppose it’s made me say goodbye to Liverpool. It’s a farewell. But it has also given me a wonderful sense of freedom because we were cutting it together daily. I was writing the commentary on a daily basis, and that’s the odd thing, I never thought that this would come about. I can’t explain it. My next one, which will be a comedy, I feel that I’ve now got that sense of liberation of being able to say, “Let’s just go with it. Let’s see what happens,” which I’ve never been able to do before because I was so anally retentive. [laughs] I never thought that would happen. Truly, I didn’t.

Speaking of comedy, one of the funniest moments for me is your dismissive, monotone dub-over to a Beatles performance: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” What is it about rock ‘n’ roll that you had no patience for?

It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have any patience for it. You must remember that I grew up at the end of that wonderful tradition that I called, I suppose, the [Great] American Songbook, that begins with Gershwin and goes right down to Cole Porter, who was still alive in ’56. You know, he wrote the score for “High Society.” It’s poetry for the ordinary people, and that American Songbook is unequaled throughout the world. The very best of it is as good as Schubert or Mahler, any of the great song cycles. There were crafted, beautiful lyrics, and they expressed what people felt. In fact, I just have an enormous admiration for it now. [My feelings about] the rise of rock n’ roll began with Elvis Presley. I was taken to see “Jailhouse Rock,” and quite honestly, I was only 11, and I cringed all the way through it. I thought, “Doesn’t he look silly? The silly twitching around, what is he doing?” Then I started to discover classical music. So that’s where the change began. But if I found Elvis Presley pretty resistible, which I did, I thought the Beatles were even worse. I just found the lyrics banal. You know, “money can’t buy me love.” God almighty, that’s hardly an insight, is it?

[Photos: “Of Time and the City”; Terence Davies; Strand Releasing, 2008]

“Of Time and the City” opens in limited release on January 21st.

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