Of Time and the City

By John Bradburn

trilogy-terrence-davies.jpgTrilogy, 1983

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation

– opening to Four Quartets by T.S. Elliot

Terence Davies revisits memories of post war Liverpool, this time creating a factual based documentary or visual poem of the city he remembers, using archive material and music to create an ethereal journey through his personal landscape and the influences on him. Of Time and the City is both a love song and eulogy to the director’s birthplace – but it is also a response to memory, reflection and the experience of losing a sense of place, as the skylines change and time takes its toll.

Terence Davies: I was asked by Sol [Papadopoulos] to make a film for The Digital Departures scheme. I told him I was not interested in making a drama but a documentary on the Liverpool I knew and the city that I don’t know, because I left in 1973. The Digital Departures scheme was a competitive event and I think it was 156 entries that were cut down to 50, then 25, then 12, then 6 and then 3, and we found that we were one of them.

John Bradburn: It sounds like a fraught process to be whittled down like that

TD: Well I was working on something else at the time so I didn’t bare that kind of strain. So it was basically Roy [Boulter] and Sol who had to put up with the tension, I’m afraid.

JB: So what are you focusing on in this film?

TD: It’s my recreation of what I remember Liverpool to be and my template is really, because I’ve never made a documentary before. Like Humphrey Jennings Listen to Britain – which is about trying to capture the nature of Britain at war – I wanted to try and do the same thing for Liverpool, to try and extrapolate from my own memory the nature of what the city was like and also in the nature of time, because I’m very much interested in the nature of time passing and the transience of things and my template for that is Four Quartets by Elliot. It’s a mixture of those two things. There is a lot of ellipsis, and quite a lot of music.

JB: How constructed is it as a documentary? Is it the talking heads and clips approach we are used to?

TD: I’m not interested in that. It’s taking found footage of the city and reinterpreting it in a poetic way with a lot of voice over – some of it personal, some of it poetry. It’s a poetic documentary, really. It’s not people talking heads and me saying “in 1956 I was a lad, I had flu etc.” I’m not interested in that at all and I would not have been able to do it.

JB: How does it relate to your earlier films?

TD: They don’t directly relate to one another they indirectly relate to it because it is still exploring the nature of time, the nature of memory, the nature of transience, which those films also explore but I’m exploring it now with found material of what the city was like, of what the slums were like. It’s a reinterpretation of the themes that have preoccupied me always, really.

distant-voices-still-lives-terrence-davies.jpgDistant Voices, Still Lives, 1988 

JB: How have you found the digital process within this film?

TD: It has been fascinating really. I did cut House of Mirth on Avid so I was used to it but what is great is that you can shoot things – because we’ve done some shooting but not a lot – and you can get them the next day, process them and decide what you want to keep and what you want to throw away. That’s very good, but what you have to fight for with Avid is you’ve got to fight for thinking time. There are times when you think I’ve got to spend a day thinking about this sequence, about whether it works or not, and then come back the next day. But it’s very quick and that’s what’s very exciting about it.

JB: So how much has the film been scripted and how much of it has been worked out in the editing process?

TD: A bit of both really. We put a proposal in with the vague structure of what I would like to do, but then of course as soon as you start looking at material that structure necessitates change. The underlying subtextual meaning remains the same but the structure necessarily changes. That’s what fascinated me because it is amazing when you put something together and you think the sequence is right but then come back to it the next day and you think there is something wrong with it and just by altering two shots or adding two shots and by putting a two minute sequence further down you get to that sequence and suddenly it works. Then this found material takes on a new life, and that is fascinating.

JB: With Of Time and the City where did most of this found footage come from?

TD: It’s all sorts of types, it’s from all sorts of places. We spread our net very, very wide. British Pathe, bits of this bits of that. Literally it has come from everywhere.

JB: How many hours of footage did you have to deal with?

TD: Oh God. Well we’ve been through all of the footage twice. Some of it you can fast forward because you know it’s no good. But it takes the better part of a day. We have found wonderful stuff. I mean just absolutely wonderful black and white that is just ravishing to look at. You wonder sometimes who shot it. There was the old elevated railway which ran the whole length of the docks which was, I think, between eight and ten miles long, and it was pulled down in 1957. One of the earlier shots in the film is of the railway, the overhead railway, and it looks like an out take from Metropolis and is absolutely breath taking. You also get this very early colour which has been shot by amateurs and it is just ravishing, ravishingly beautiful. Absolutely gorgeous to look at. I just ask Roy and Sol can you get me this or can you get me that, and the footage comes in and I look at it.

JB: Do you have any thoughts on the possible Digital takeover of cinema?

TD: I don’t know whether it will or not. That I can’t say because I don’t know. Where technology is concerned I am a Luddite I’m afraid. If this were the new cinema, provided you can get good images, and you can, there is nothing wrong with it being cinematic but digital. There is nothing wrong with that, especially if it can cut the costs down on something that would have been enormous. There are certain things you would want to make on film, but eventually film may be superseded by the new technology because it is so much faster, and that you can do nothing about. It is like with the coming of sound they stopped making silent films.

JB: Is digital film making helping new film makers emerge?

TD: Don’t know. What should help new film makers is the fact that it is a lot cheaper than film, but whether you can still get money in this country for a first film I still think it is enormously difficult. You cannot make a film by committee you’ve got to have someone who has an idea and says these are the sort of films I want to make and has a vision. That’s what you need. You can’t do it by committee and that’s the one thing I think will bedevil this country – there are committees for everything. You go to the toilet and they form a committee for it. You’ve got to have someone with vision.

JB: What other projects are you working on now?

TD: I’ve written a script which my producer is trying to raise the money for. It’s a set in the present day, it’s a romantic comedy and it has a happy ending. I hope you’re sitting down! I just wanted to see if I could write a comedy with no pretensions to being anything other than entertaining and amusing.

JB: What has inspired you to make that?

TD: I’m inspired by things that are in the 40s or 50s now. When they had really great lines and when they had really fun scripts. People like Eve Arden. Second rank stars who always had the best lines. Those are my templates.

JB: You have said Bergman is a big influence, what other current film makers are you watching and enjoying?

TD: I’ve been so busy over the last year travelling and lecturing that I haven’t had time to go to the cinema and I very rarely go now anyway because I have lost my ability to disbelieve. That has gone. Occasionally I will see something. The last film I saw which I loved was Tavernier’s Laissez-Passer, but to be honest with you a lot of the time I go in to a cinema now and my heart sinks at the thought of 90 minutes. The magic has gone out of it for me. Maybe that is because I make films and possibly it is because I am getting old and miserable I honestly don’t know, but a lot of the magic has gone.

long-day-closes-terrence-davies.jpgDistant Voices, Still Lives, 1988 

JB: Do you think that is because people have too much access to moving images? In both Distant Voices, Still Lives & The Long Day Closes the cinema is a magical place that people go to. Now with YouTube and far too many television channels, are people over exposed to moving pictures?

TD: Well yes. When I went to the cinema it was, well these were huge cinemas. They were grand and they were opulent and you sat very often in a full cinema. You can’t sit in a multiplex, in a small room with 50 people, and have the same experience. Well I can’t. Perhaps younger people can because they don’t know anything else. But the fact that there is so much technology and that you can see films in all sorts of ways – perhaps that will be the death of cinema. I don’t know. Perhaps it may be the only art form that has been born, reached its zenith, and disappeared in 100 years. But if that happens then that happens, and there is nothing you can do about it. What’s far worse, especially in this country, is people thinking that there is no difference between television and cinema, and there is.

JB: Has this documentary approach allowed you more freedom in the construction of the film than a more narrative approach? Frequently we hear stories about the adherence needed to the McKee formula of screen writing.

TD: I think I have been lucky, and I include here that I have never made a documentary before and I wanted it to be a poetic one, but if it were a script and someone started quoting Robert McKee then they would take their lives in their hands. I just would not simply take anybody who quotes that man seriously and you can’t – it’s just idiotic. As soon as you say to someone who quotes it to you alright, you know for instance everybody has got to have a background story. And you say “Well have you seen Singin’ in the Rain?” and they say “Yes” Well do you remember Kathy Selden? What background story has she got? She actually has none and we are still watching that film 54 years later. It’s just a lot of nonsense, and if someone uses that on me then I get very angry because it’s just a lot of codswallop.

JB: It seems that in this age the committee must have a set of rules or criteria to judge things by.

TD: It’s intellectually lazy and creatively lazy, and as soon as you challenge it they can’t counter it and what they do is they fold their arms, go quiet and basically show you the door. They can’t justify it because it is an unjustifiable set of rules.

distant-voices-still-lives-terrence-davies-2.jpgDistant Voices, Still Lives, 1988 

JB: Your early films were made through the BFI Production Board. How does that differ to what we have today?

TD: Well they said if they wanted you to make a film you were given carte blanche to make the film that you wanted to make and to a certain extent when David Aukin was at Channel 4 he did the same. You went out to make the film that you wanted to make and you were allowed to fail. That was what was wonderful about the production board and to abolish it was an act of the grossest cultural vandalism because it was unique in the world. It helped people get their first film and it’s scandalous that it was disbanded. Greenaway and Jarman and Sally Potter and Bill Douglas – it’s not a bad rota is it? And if all of us were starting again none of us would get permission. None of us.

JB: Do you know what the impetus was to close the Production Board?

TD: I don’t know. You’ve got a lot of 25 year olds, particularly women, who know fuck all about anything, and that’s what really ruined it. I’ve had it a million times where I’ve had them tell me about the film they’ve made, these 25 year old women. So you say what’s it about and they tell you and they are advertising something. And you tell them that’s a commercial. I had one woman literally shouting at me that no, it’s a film. It’s 3 minutes long – it’s not a film, it’s a commercial. And this is what you’ve got to contend with now.

JB: Do you see there is a general move for making films for an audience of 18-25 and that’s it?

TD: That’s been there for a long time. But there is nothing you can do about it. The worse thing of all in this country is that we try to do Hollywood on the cheap. And we’re bad at it. They look across, particularly in television, at something like CSI or whatever they are called. It’s popular in the states so we get it here so of course we swallow it whole and then we make our version and imitations are always lousy. We do the same with film. This is what they like in the States, and so let’s make it. And it’s always crap. The only time cinema becomes interesting is if you look to your own country and look to the stories that naturally arise. You’ve got to have the courage to do that and not worry about whether they may or may not like it in mid west America. That should not be the template but unfortunately it is. It is not just film that does that but the country politically does that and looks to America for validation all the time. We’re virtually now another state of the Union. In 20 years time we’ll have no culture of our own. We’ll just be like Hawaii, but with lousier weather.

Of Time and the City is one of three films commissioned by Digital Departures that will screen in Liverpool this autumn as part of the Capital of Culture celebrations.

John Bradburn is a writer and filmmaker. He is based in Birmingham and lectures at Staffordshire University.