Of Time and The City sees acclaimed director Terence Davies explore his native city of Liverpool over the 20th century – but the film ends up being as much about his own transformations as those of the city. Charlie Giggle examines how Davies deploys archival footage, personal memory and an eclectic soundtrack to explore breaks with faith, and new beginnings through a distinct brand of cinematic ‘necromancy’.
The principal difficulty in talking about Terence Davies’s 2008 collage masterpiece Of Time and The City in the medium of text, is the complete inability to weaponise onomatopoeic devices to sufficiently encapsulate the way he pronounces the name of the film’s primary antagonist: God. After days alone in the desert, screaming at the sun, the creative spirits have brought me to ‘Gohrd~’, although I partly suspect using the tilde is cheating.
The film can be accurately described as a eulogy, or a love song, but this does a disservice to the different forces at play. It is about history, and the city of Liverpool, but it’s also about so much more. To me, it’s the pure cinematic quality of the overall project which attunes the true magic of the film.
In my early twenties I went through a very odd phase, in that I became obsessed with Victorian charlatanism and the occult. This era was almost entirely a waste of time, with the only real benefit in the long term being a cheat sheet into some Sylvia Plath with my new-found knowledge of Tarot Cards. I bring this up because the atheism homilised in Of Time and The City is extremely reminiscent of the experience of Derren Brown, detailed in his autobiography. Both men wrestled with their Christian faith and homosexuality throughout their developing years, and at a certain point there was a clean break.
Forget the funeral scene in Pan’s Labyrinth, where the lack of God forms a void wherein faith can be placed and cultivated, reaffirming the Christian connection through a sort of Un-God. Forget Žižek’s reading of The Last Temptation of Christ, where he posits that Christ, himself, becomes an atheist on the cross, through a process of subjective destitution. As Davies puts it, suddenly he simply realised “it’s all a lie”. The attack on religion in the film is succinct, sardonic and brutal. It ends (for the first time, anyway) with Davies’s barely contained joy at the sight of a ‘de-sanctified’ Catholic church turning into a chic modern bar. Cocktails in Babylon.
For Davies, at least, it seems that his process was not so much a loss in faith as it was a direct conversion from Christianity to Cinema. Swiftly after quoting Engels, he brings together the main players on the field. He takes the Marxist position here, the ‘opium of the people’ idea specifically, positing that the function of religion is to distract the poor from their state of poverty and despair. He also talks here about football and wrestling, outlets for community and enacting the battles of good and evil. His opium of choice, however, was Cinema, his love for it becoming as muscular as his Catholicism.
Unable to connect his libidinal drive with his faith, the sheer weight of life crushing him, the break came. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where either Brown or Davies land once their faith disappears, but both seemed to fall into magic.
The most metaphysically imposing force at play in the film is nostalgia. The device which separates ‘nostalgia’ from pure recollection in this sense is the voluntary subjectivity of the narrator’s stories playing out over historical footage, which both builds a bridge between and separates the fields of nostalgia and memory. I’ve heard it suggested that nostalgia is a form of grief, and certainly there are points when Davies’s narration is positively eulogistic. I think there’s something deeper at play, though, something the magic of cinema brings to the magic of memory to create something extremely special.
The difference between memory and nostalgia is the difference between the dead and the undead. There’s a war memorial I walk past almost every day. It’s tall, imposing and strong. Its function is to make sure we remember those who gave their lives in war for our country, to keep them alive in memory. Nostalgia for me is the occult accompaniment to this process, it’s the weird witch shop next to a bank or a bakery. Of Time and The City doesn’t just remember the dead, it resurrects them. It isn’t a repeating of a diary entry, it is the wilful suspension of the field which unites us to our past, in favour of highlighting the process of nostalgia itself. If memory is something like embalming, nostalgia is something like necromancy.
Watching the footage is eerie and at times unsettling. There are long stretches of film watching people, especially children, living their everyday lives in tough, tough circumstances. There’s an iconic sequence in the middle of the film wherein visual scenes from the Merseybeat 60’s are accompanied by the classical music Davies preferred. There are scenes of happy people celebrating the Queen’s coronation accompanied by radical republican rants. These kinds of dissonant elements being used together speak to the inability to truly revive the past, but also communicate the mindset of our wonderfully unreliable narrator, our tour guide, and our ferryman.
The overall effect is strikingly similar to the old Hitchcock story about film being obsolete once machines which directly change the emotions of a user are invented. On the surface, you could describe the film and make it sound like something to be projected onto the saddest wall of a museum café, but in reality, the film is cinema at its absolute purest. You’re dragged, kicking and screaming, through love, religious torment, political angst, inclusion and exclusion, disgust, respect, sadness and joy, and sometimes even complex mixes of different emotions overlapping. It’s a tour de force of self-indulgent manipulation, and any cinephile would lap it up gratefully. It really is magical.