Remembering Liverpool: An Interview with Terence Davies
by Leonard Quart
Terence Davies has made a number of visually stunning, emotionally penetrating films. His masterpiece, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), was an autobiographical film whose every strikingly composed frame was built on the most primal and personal of memories of growing up working class with a brutal father in Liverpool during the Forties and Fifties. The memories he resurrects are chilling, but there are also times of genuine joy—both communal and private. Davies recreates their getting together in the local pub and at family gatherings where they sing popular American songs of the period like “Buttons and Bows,” and the painful burden of their daily lives is temporarily forgotten.
Of Time and The City covers some of the same ground, but it’s structured as a film essay in the tradition of Humphrey Jennings, whose lyrical Listen to Britain (1942) used contrasting images of mine, mill, field, and sea, and linked them with the overlapping natural sounds and music of wartime Britain. It’s a film that captures the poetry of people taking pleasure, stoically sitting in the sun in Trafalgar Square, as they are enveloped in great national anxiety.
In Of Time and The City, Davies eschews the actors and dialog of his earlier films to create the texture of his past out of archival footage of Liverpool and the Merseyside area, combined with some new footage Davies has shot. He also juxtaposes it with a soundtrack of himself reading, in a wry and melancholy voice (filled with cutting asides), his own words and poetry and quoting great writers like Chekhov, Joyce, and Eliot; fragmented recordings of Liverpudlian voices; a trace of old radio shows; and a wide selection of music ranging from Peggy Lee and the Hollies to Handel and Mahler. The film is the work of a unique sensibility (poetic not analytic)—that both evokes Davies’s growing up a gay, Catholic, movie-besotted, working-class outsider in Liverpool, and provides an unsentimental portrait of his beloved hometown.
Of Time and the City has as much to do with Davies’s psyche and sensibility than with Liverpool itself. Still, Liverpool is what the camera focuses on. We see a tough working-class, heavily Irish Protestant and Catholic port city dominated by railways, factories, sulfurous air, and longshoremen in cloth caps. The film’s imagery barely touches on the middle-class sections of the city, except mentioning there were parts of town where “people sounded their Hs and knew what sculleries were.” What Davies repeatedly evokes are the mean smoke-filled, narrow cobblestone streets (of his boyhood) where working-class families lived in back to back row-house terraces (with their outside toilets) and in decaying brick tenements, and their children sometimes played in squalid, rubble-filled lots. But these images of communal streets with eternally wet pavements, of house-proud women on their knees scrubbing their stoops or doing the wash at the municipal laundry, of “I cash-clothes-men”
making their rounds, and young girls and boys innocently playing street games (the street was an extension of the home) are put together in such a vivid way, with a soprano singing incandescently on the soundtrack, that Davies’s memories become sublime.
Davies also remembers a Liverpool where soccer matches attracted immense crowds, and the Orange Parade marchers howled against Papists. There were also simple pleasures like funfairs, and day trips to the beach at New Brighton with its bathing-beauty contests, deck chairs, and dancing, and there were the movies that he attended regularly, especially the Hollywood musicals that he loved and “swallowed whole.” He also recalls scandalous priests and corrupt officials who were never punished, while gay men were persecuted and imprisoned. For a boy who knew he was gay, that left its mark.
Davies’s narration doesn’t always follow a linear course, but can go back and forth in time, contrasting the old and new Liverpool. He has no illusions about the past, but he is clearly turned off by modern Liverpool whose less economically desperate inhabitants he finds wanting. It’s a city whose churches have been turned into discotheques, whose promenades and streets are empty of people, and much of its new construction consists of sterile office buildings and parking garages. His boyhood world may have been constricted, but the film declares that modern Liverpool has demolished both its history (e.g., the dockside’s warehouses are now empty shells), and the communal warmth that once existed.
Using a set of telling, striking images—he vents his greatest antipathy towards the public- housing towers that promised a paradise to the working class and turned out to recreate the slums. Davies doesn’t need any narration here—the images convey all. The new homogenized buildings—beer cans in the elevator, graffiti in the halls, grass growing through the cracks in the pavement—emanate only despair and desolation. With the best of intentions an antiparadise had been created. His other villain is the Catholic Church—the center of his life as a boy. But he feels now that it was all “a lie,” and that he wasted years in prayer. He views the church as an unforgiving institution, for he was so desirous of grace that he could never confess his homosexuality to the priest.
Of Time and The City is above all a film about memory itself, and the passage of time. Davies’s images are acutely conscious of aging (e.g., innumerable shots of old men and women), and what is lost as the years pass. Davies refuses to yield to the night, but he is profoundly aware of his mortality. Consequently, the film’s ambiguous conclusion, where fireworks accompany Davies’ “Goodnight, Goodnight, Goodnight.”
Terence Davies has fashioned a melancholy love letter to the city that shaped him, but one he had to leave. He has an exhilarating gift for constructing luminous, visual, and aural images, whose effect is as much emotional as esthetic. Of Time and the City takes the reality of the “dirty old town” and turns it into painting and poetry, something larger and more radiant than just the warm memories and stark facts of a city’s life.
Cineaste: What prompted you to make a documentary film for the first time?
Davies: I had waited a long time. My last film, The House of Mirth, was made eight years ago. What happened was that there was a contest to make a documentary designed to mark Liverpool’s brief period as European Capital of Culture. 157 people applied for that money, and I thought, “Why would they give money to someone who's never done a documentary before?” But they gave me the modest sum —£250,000—to make the film. I didn’t have great expectations, so when it took off, it came as a surprise to us. Now eighty-seven film festivals want it! I also felt I’d completed making fictional films about Liverpool, and I didn’t want to retread the same ground. So the documentary form would provide the opportunity for a fresh look at the past. But 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. My template for the film was Humphrey Jennings’s nineteen-minute-long Listen to Britain.
Cineaste: Did you choose the images to fit the commentary or do they precede the spoken text? And did you choose particular musical pieces to reinforce painful and joyful images of Liverpool?
Davies: The images preceded the text. I wrote the commentary as the images unfolded, while I was cutting the film. I felt at times that I didn’t need a text at all, that silence was sufficient. They didn’t want me to do the narration at first. I was told to find someone else but I wanted to narrate my own poetry and T.S. Eliot, and I did the narration in one day. Among the extracts I used were lovely tracking shots of street life from a documentary, Morning in the Streets, that I would have shot in the same manner. I am also a natural worrier so I did have anxiety about clearing copyright with some of the archival material.
My choice of music for any particular image was always instinctive. There is no thought process that kicks in. I saw an image, and my choice of music just responded to it. The music and images moved in counterpoint to each other.
Cineaste: You have stated that, “I’m very black and white, I either feel great passion or nothing at all. I am moved by the poetry of the ordinary.” How does that perspective color your film?
Davies: My point of view comes from instinct and heart. I try to be as truthful to memory as possible. I remember the intensity of those moments, which I still reverberate to even today. So I have no esthetic distance from the material.
Cineaste: What works of art have had a profound influence on you?
Davies: Of course, there were the movies that my sister took me too when I was a boy—especially musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, whose color, vitality, and life I loved. And in 1962 I heard Alec Guinness recite from memory Eliot’s “Four Quartets” on television, and I now read them once a month. I also discovered Bruckner (my great love), Sibelius, and Shostakovich, and they worked into my unconscious—so when I look at images, I think of music.
Cineaste: I know you are not an explicitly political director, but the film does attack monarchy, privilege, and the church.
Davies: I am an intense republican, and I see the monarchy as callously living off the people’s money. And the church did me a great deal of damage. For somebody like me, who discovered at puberty that they were gay (it was then a criminal offense in Britain), the church offered no succor. I felt then that if I prayed and was really good, God would make me like everybody else. Those years when I prayed until my knees bled were awful. I finally realized the priests were just men in frocks, and I dropped the church when I was twenty-two. It left a deep emotional hole in me—a sense of chaos.
Cineaste: Given that your portrait of Liverpool is a subjective and poetic one, are you wary that you may have distorted the nature of the city in some way?
Davies: The Liverpool I knew has disappeared. I’ve recreated a city that is no longer there. The last cinema in my old neighborhood, the Odeon, has been pulled down. The city is now a mythical city for me, because memory is myth. I love the city, but have no illusions that there isn’t a great deal wrong with it.
Cineaste: Some of the most powerful images in the film are of children playing. Do they sustain you, as you grow older?
Davies: I remember all the children’s street games, and skipping songs. So much of our life as children was lived on the street. It’s utterly different today—the street life is gone. No the images don’t leave me with a feeling of unrequited regret. They don’t console me.
Cineaste: There are also many images of the old and the bent in the film. Are they images that you sympathetically identify with?
Davies: Of course, the film is about time and mortality, and I find some of the aged in the film—like the old woman who has lived a very hard life, who says God has been good to me—heartbreaking. People like that were common in my neighborhood, where young and old often interacted. So, subconsciously, given that the only people who speak in the film are older women, you may be right about the images.
Cineaste: I know you see the pulling down of row houses and tenements, and their replacement by sterile council estates as soul-destroying, but was there anything positive about the demolition?
Davies: People thought the council estates were going to improve their lives, that a New Jerusalem was going to arise. But they were built shoddily—demonstrating the British genius for creating the dismal. They were slums in the making, despite the government’s commitment to improve lives. The government also had the illusion that they could create a community instantly. The old neighborhoods of terrace houses took two to three generations to evolve. With the destruction of the old city neighborhoods, the country began to socially and culturally implode, accelerated by Thatcher’s pernicious reign. I am not under any illusion that the terrace houses and tenements could be preserved, but there were ways to keep the communities intact, while upgrading the housing. But it wasn’t done.
Cineaste: The passage of time plays a profound role in the film. How do you respond to it?
Davies: We are at the mercy of time, but it’s also an abstract idea. In my film I try to create a sense of the randomness of time remembered by moving from emotional moment to emotional moment, instead of depicting, in a linear fashion, what literally happened. In the last stanza of “The Four Quartets,” Eliot achieves some kind of resolution of the relationship between time and mortality:
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Cineaste: Do you see Liverpool as a world you had to escape?
Davies: The environs I grew up in were tiny. It consisted of house, church, street, and the movies. I felt I had to leave. I wanted a creative life, rather than becoming an accountant, which I did for twelve years, and I detested it. It was like a slow death.
Cineaste: Did making the film have an impact on your feelings about the city?
Cineaste: It may have sharpened them. But returning to funerals and walking around the city made me feel how alien I had become there. Liverpool is filled with memories for me, but much of what I remember has been pulled down.
Leonard Quart is Professor Emeritus of Cinema Studies at the College of Staten Island.
Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2