Right city, wrong time

One of my larger incompetencies during the festival was missing the screening of OF TIME AND THE CITY, Terence Davies’ new documentary, which is serving to remind everybody what a great filmmaker, and personality, he is. But, despite missing the screening and Mr. Davies himself, nevertheless, gentle ShadowplayersI did not fail you.

A Videotheque is a special room designed for watching films under whatever the opposite of “optimum viewing conditions” is. Despite the cool name, there’s usually no dancing. You have a TV and a DVD player and a set of headphones and you’re surrounded by other people similarly equipped. It’s like being at home, only uncomfortable. Actually, home isn’t always comfortable either, especially last night when Fiona, suffering from a killer migraine, accidentally threw a live cat into my face. But there was something strangely appropriate about watching PRIMITIVE LONDON with blood tricking down my chin.

The E.I.F.F. videotheque is located in the shiny bowels of The Point Conference Centre, which looks like an office building out of Tati’s PLAYTIME, all metallic sheen and inhumanity. Adding a welcome note of the organic was regular Shadowplayer Kristin Loeer, who was running the place. Kris and her team sorted me out with various movies I’d been too slack or drowsy to catch on the big screen.

(This is part of why you should never trust professional film reviewers, who won’t tell you if they saw the stuff projected as it should be, or on a poxy monitor inside a strange metal box administered by Germans. And I can’t recall the last time Armond White admitted his viewing of, say, the latest Dardennes brothers opus had been marred by a flying cat gashing his lip.)










The movie, a portrait of Liverpool mainly through archive material, is very attentive to signs and graffiti. Narrated by Davies himself, whose sonorous, rich voice I’ve always admired (it’s how I remember my childhood G.P. Dr. Robertson sounding) this is a moving, passionate, sometimes angry and always poetic vision of a city I normally don’t care anything about, but which is brought to life like a richly textured yet unbelievably screwed-up movie character — perhaps a cross between Auntie Mame and the bad lieutenant.

The use of found footage, and its relationship to the V.O., is often startlingly beautiful. As Davies muses on the vacuum of the great British Sunday afternoon, in which children of both our generations were bored to distraction by a complete lack of anything to do, he shows a little girl skipping across a patch of waste ground, then abruptly stopping as if she’s just realised she’s surrounded by the bleakest stretch of nothingness in Britain.

The movie’s also often funny, with Davies leavening his aching nostalgia with cynicism re the coronation of Elizabeth II (“Street parties were held to celebrate the start of The Betty Windsor Show”) and the Catholic church, whose influence dominated Davies’ youth (“Pope Clitoris the Umpteenth”). There’s also highly emotive music, both popular and operatic, and many many quotations. CARRY ON fans will be pleased to hear Kenneth Williams on the soundtrack (the camp “Julian and Sandy as lawyers” bit from radio’s Round the Horne: “We’ve got a criminal practice that takes up most of out time.”)

The quotes are probably the riskiest strategy, because unlike Godard, Davies is very fond of rather familiar lines, like Ozymandias, and that stuff about the “blue remembered hills”. But it’s such a uniquely personal documentary that this seems fine — Davies “blue remembered hills” are his own, not Dennis Potter’s. And Davies has always been a populist without a popular audience. The sheer misfortune of coming along during a weird bit of British film history has bracketed him amid the artsy, when he desperately wants to address regular folks, to whom he has much to say.

OF TIME AND THE CITY will undoubtedly play many festivals and do well on British T.V. (which should be throwing money at Davies to make dramas — socially accurate, non-aspirational, poetic work has always formed the bulk of quality British television), but the real hope is that it will allow him to make another cinema film.

In its own right, it’s a marvellous example of just that, and hopefully an appetizer for what comes next.

17 Responses to “Right city, wrong time”

  1. Lovely picture of Terence. And yes, he’s definitely a cross between Auntie Mame and the Bad Lieutenant. I wonder what he thinks of Abel Ferrara, pariticularly the film that I think is his masterpiece, Mary.

  2. I kind of meant the Mame/Liuetenant thing to apply to Davies’ Liverpool, but you’re right, in that the man and the city are closely intertwined.

    It’s nice to see him much happier now that he has another film under his belt, and the chance of more.

    I somehow can’t imagine him responding to Ferrara. Even the Beatles are too abrasive for his tastes!

  3. Oh, rather tangentially — I found someone with a copy of Sparrows Can’t Sing. He’s really looking for somebody to record films from TCM for him in the US (he’s in Australia) but I think I might be able to arrange a swap with him.

  4. Fabulous!

    Barbara Windsor is an axiom of the cinema.

  5. Glad to feel the love for ‘Mary’, a film that has yet to find US distribution, as you’re well aware, David. But which, as you’re also well aware and probably have a copy of, available on a very fine French DVD (as long as one remembers to press the “audio” key on the remote, and switch over to the original non-dubbed default French audio track.. while turning the optional French subs off). But we can’t dismiss any Ferrara — ‘ ‘R Xmas’ is the gift that gives and keeps on giving. Then there’s ‘Go Go Tales’ (which is supposed to be coming via IFC…… although Abel told me that ‘Mary’ was as well, and that was Easter of 2006 or 2007-like). ‘Chelsea on the Rocks’ is another keep-the-eye-on film, which simply MUST find US distribution, and which holds a very personal grip on my heart.


  6. Ashamed to say I’ve yet to get into Ferrara. Bad Lietenant impressed me on many levels, but I also felt a considerable distance from Ferrara’s worldview. Which is interesting to experience, but kept me from being as moved as I wanted to be. What would be the recommended Ferrara films for someone still agnostic?

  7. Chris B Says:

    Excluding BAD LIEUTENANT and the classy cheese of THE DRILLER KILLER, I like MS .45, BODY SNATCHERS, THE FUNERAL (<–my favourite), THE ADDICTION and the hugely underrated NEW ROSE HOTEL. His take on Romeo & Juliet is interesting in CHINA GIRL and KING OF NEW YORK is ok on a superficial level. Probably best to avoid THE BLACKOUT and DANGEROUS GAME.

    I still have CAT CHASER here to watch and I would love to see MARY if someone would be so kind. ;)

    Did y’all hear the quite comical, recent controversy over Herzog “remaking” BAD LIEUTENANT?

  8. Chris’ read-out is pretty much my own. Ms. 45 totally blew me away. I reviewed it when it was released and went on to watch Ferrera direct an afternoon’s worth of Fear City. The key to Ferrara is that he embraces tawdriness — which is to be expected from a deeply Catholic heroin addict.

    Everyone kept expecting Mary to get u.S. relase in light of The Last Temptation of Christ and more recently La Vie en Rose. But this coutnry is culturally stunted in ways that continue to amaze me. Suffice to say it deals with the fact that Mary Magdalene was a disciple and in her gospel Jesus declares that he is NOT the “Son of God” but simply a rabbi. It is for this reason that her gospel was expunged from the “new testament “and she was called a prostitute.

    A familair scenario for intelligent women.

    Juliette Binoche, Forrest Whittaker, Matthew Modine and Oscar-winner Marion Cottilard give superb performances in it. That information, plus $1.25, will get you a crosstown bus ride in L.A.

  9. Well, Mary sounds VERY interesting. I knew The Funeral is a must, and maybe that’ll help me make the leap to Ferraradom. Couldn’t stand The Addiction’s constant sophomoric quoting, but it has a few outstanding scenes.
    I think AF disowned Cat Chaser, which is somewhat incoherent/generic, apart from some unpleasant stuff that’s sometimes cut by various censors.
    Unfortunately, I saw The Blackout.

  10. I meant to say here, re: the French ‘Mary’ DVD: “available on a very fine French DVD (as long as one remembers to press the “audio” key on the remote, and switch over to the original non-dubbed default French audio track..” — “switch over to the original English language soundtrack, from the dubbed, default French soundtrack..” Anyway.

    ‘The Addiction’ is a complex masterpiece, and needs to be seen by everyone. Unfortunately, this is mostly impossible; when it was released on DVD, I believe it was pan-scanned. The copy I have comes from a videotape-to-DVD dupe, with the source a recording of a broadcast on the IFC Channel, which showed it in 1.85.

    One of the Ferraras which is very underrated is ‘China Girl.’ It’s like a cross between ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘The Last Dragon,’ but its intelligence is closer to the Donen side of the equation than to the Michael Schultz one (although respek to ‘Krush Groove’ and all).

    I love all his films deeply — and one of my most cherished is his ‘Could This Be Love’ from 1973, available on the second disc of the Cult Epics release of ‘The Driller Killer.’ It is hushed, and beautiful as a pool of spilled ink.


  11. Some great recommendations there, thanks!

  12. Chris B Says:

    >Unfortunately, this is mostly impossible; when it was released on DVD, I believe it was pan-scanned.

    Annoyingly, I placed an Amazon marketplace order for the 1.85 Spanish DVD of THE ADDICTION and in return received the 1.37 hack job. Even sent a lengthy e-mail to the supplier accusing him of false advertising (the page had the Spanish cover on and there were NO indications in the seller’s text about it being A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT PRODUCT!). All I got in response was “thank you, in order to improve my services in the future, I will take your comments on board”.

    I should also point out that if you should acquire some Ferrara from your rental queue, Monsieur Cairns: CAT CHASER, CHINA GIRL, THE FUNERAL, THE ADDICTION and THE KING OF NEW YORK are all cropped to academy ratio.

    Ahh, bugger it, apart from Antonioni’s IDENTIFICATION OF A WOMAN, I haven’t ordered a DVD in almost two months… MARY is now on its way from France! Thanks for the disc info, Craig.

  13. I saw The Addiction at the cinema. Amazing central perf, great support, and some really really superb scenes. But the dialogue irked me quite badly. At first I thought, OK, the girls are studying philosophy, it’s acceptable that they communicate mainly in quotes. But then everybody else they met did so too, and it started to feel like the writer was just flipping through a copy of Harrap’s Dictionary of Quotations.

    I’ll be sure to avoid those pan-and-scan discs.

  14. But Chris B., (and all), note that you can order the American Region 1 release of ‘King of New York,’ from Artisan, in a great two-disc edition, and in the correct aspect ratio. Mark Rance, who has done great work with us at Masters of Cinema, made the ‘A Short Film About the Long Career of Abel Ferrara’ film on the disc, (also the Schoolly D film), and recorded a classic commentary with Abel on there…


  15. I bet Chris has that already, knowing him. But I might need to see it.

    If I asked very nicely, do you think Masters of Cinema would send me review copies? Am very psyched about the forthcoming Vampyr disc!

  16. Chris B Says:

    I knew of its existence but never purchased.

    I think asking MoC for a copy in exchange for a review on your fine blog would be an excellent idea. The worst they can say is no but it would be good publicity for them, so.

    Btw, forgot to mention that I now have (and enjoyed very much) THE BED-SITTING ROOM. Unfortunately, my best guess is that the source is either a). Recorded from Bravo TV onto VHS (maybe 2nd gen), and subsequently onto digital OR b). Recorded from Bravo TV onto VHS, converted to Xvid and finally transcoded to VOB, either way; the quality is not great and I found myself shrinking the window in order to get as much from it as I could. Here are 5 caps from the first 10 minutes (click on each image and make sure you hit the ‘full size’ button in order to see what I mean):


    If you still want it, no problem.

  17. That looks about the same as my copy (2nd generation BBC2 VHS – DVD-R) so I’ll pass. The film itself suffered technical flaws as the lab managed to destroy the negative for the last reel — Lester had to make a dupe from the cutting copy, which was scratched to buggery by the rough-and-tumble of editing, so there’s neg damage AND the loss of a generation, just where the film is supposed to blossom into glorious colour.

    Maybe Criterion should release it and do a drastic reconstruction on that reel?

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