"The golden moments pass and leave no trace," says writer/director Terence Davies in one of many quotes (this one from Chekhov) that stud his voiceover in Of Time and the City. It's an odd thing to say in a you-can't-go-home-again film that's all about revisiting memories, especially one from as ardent a movie-lover as Davies: Isn't stopping time in its tracks one of the things film does best? But logic isn't the strong point of this highly personal and poetic film essay.
It starts slow, relying too much on too-generic quotes about the movie's main subjects, the passage of time and the city of Davies's youth: "If Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented." But things soon get interesting as the filmmaker, then 63 (the film came out in 2008), touched on some personal landmarks (falling for the movies, realizing that he was gay, becoming "a very happy, very contented born-again atheist—thank God") and then unsheathes a waspish stinger. As he traces the changes that make him feel like "an alien" in his hometown today, his plummy Oxbridge tones turn downright venomous at times.
Davies makes it clear that his family was poor without making poverty his subject, but a strong streak of working-class anger emerges when he talks about the money "wasted" on Queen Elizabeth's wedding and coronation, sneering at how "yet another fossil monarchy justified its existence by 'tradition' and deluded itself with the notion of duty" while the rest of England got by on rationing "in some of the worst slums of Europe." He's equally acerbic in limning his city's degeneration, as the stately buildings he grew up with are replaced by brutalist high-rise projects that turn into half-ruined, trash- and graffiti-filled wastelands. "Municipal architecture, dispiriting at the best of times, but when combined with the British genius for creating the dismal, makes for a cityscape that is anything but Elysian," he notes tartly. And later: "We had hoped for paradise. We got the anus mundi."
Davies's irreverence is exhilarating when he takes on institutions as powerful as the church or the Beatles, a homegrown product he's less than impressed by. "Not so much a musical phenomenon, more like a team of provincial solicitors," he sneers of the Fab Four before mourning the death of "the witty lyric and the well-crafted love song," which he blames on the Beatles and their rock brethren.
He occasionally lapses into sentimentality (a heavily earnest "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" is sung in full as we watch footage of soldiers in the Korean War) or too-obvious irony, like when he plays a tender Peggy Lee rendering of The House on the Hill to a montage of blighted neighborhoods. And now and then he simply sounds peevish, like when he complains about how soccer was better when the players wore short shorts and didn't exult after scoring points. But he achieves pure, shimmering poetry when he touches on specific memories from his youth, describing little bits of time like a visit to Brighton Beach ("Happiness on a budget"), a local fair, or the special treats the family indulged in at Christmas over beautifully edited montages.
The movie's deliberate pace pays off here as the camera lingers over the images, which are usually in gorgeous black and white, long enough to pull you into each little world in passing, finding a basic humanity that turns this personal essay into a meditation on universal milestones and the nostalgia we all feel for our youths as we get older. I was particularly moved by a narration-free homage to the spirituality of everyday life in Davies's neighborhood, in which choral music plays over shots of women cooking and cleaning, men shaving, children going to school and playing games at recess, and men at work. It's when it's preserving golden moments like these that this movie is at his best.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.