Revisiting Invisible Cities

Cross-posted at More Intelligent Life.

For viewers unfamiliar with the baroque, Shakespearean quality of Terence Davies’ films, a perfectly natural response to the first five minutes of Of Time and the City, Davies’ most recent work since his 2000 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, is this:

Jesus. Is the whole thing going to be like this?

That, at least, was my reaction.

The documentary, Davies’ first, opens with no shortage of grandiosity on Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral, a meditative camera gazing solemnly at the church’s central altarpiece while Davies’ narration rolls in slowly and theatrically as if he’s channeling the voice of God. Brilliant, he may be, but aesthetically modest, he is not.

Of Time and the City, Davies’ “love song and eulogy” to his hometown of Liverpool is just as masterful as he intends it to be, if slightly funnier than the somber crowd at Film Forum was willing to let on. A pastiche of Liverpudlian history mixed with Davies’ own, the documentary chronicles the evolution of the city from the early 1950s (poverty, Catholicism and the Korean War) to Davies’ teenage years in the mid-60s (burgeoning homosexuality, the discovery of film, and to his horror, The Beatles) and beyond, eventually culminating in a return to the hometown that Davies no longer recognizes as his own.

Liberally interspersing Eliot and Marlowe quotes over archival footage, Davies’ cinematic bildungsroman aspires to Joycean dimensions, and surprisingly, often reaches them. After casting the tragedy and exaltation of youth within the stoic march of history, the final scene has Davies filming spectrally over today’s Liverpool, a hub of enlightened capitalism long removed from the memory of its decrepit, mid-century charm.

Towards the end of Of Time and the City, Davies muses that “people often meet their destiny on the road they take to avoid it,” and in My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin’s contribution to the genre of urban homage/auto-documentary, Maddin seems to have taken this notion literally. The film, which has been described as a “fugue to origins,” a “docu-fantasia,” and, most spectacularly, “a deranged post-Freudian proletarian fantasy,” begins with a half-asleep actor proxy named Guy Maddin leaving Winnipeg by train in the midst of a snowstorm. This bizarre, somnambulant moment sets the pace for the rest of the film, a rewriting of personal and public histories with the city at “the heart of the heart of the continent” as palimpsest. For, Maddin, an experimental filmmaker best known for 2003’s The Saddest Music in the World – a Great Depression era musical comedy starring Isabella Rossellini – My Winnipeg is a somewhere between an homage to his hometown and a desperate attempt to bury it through fiction and sleights of hand.

Unable to escape Winnipeg, Maddin layers over the memories of its past with fiction, treating the city as a canvas for his own feverish visions. Unmarked alleyways constitute a secret city within a city; homeless Winnipeggers, banished from the streets, create an alternate society on the city’s rooftops; and Maddin’s own childhood memories are starkly reenacted in black-and-white by a team of actors hired specifically for the occasion. “What’s a city without its ghosts?” Maddin asks, and so constructs My Winnipeg around them.

While both Of Time and the City and My Winnipeg deal with returns to hometowns once happily abandoned, they’re also elegies to cities lost. From the vantage points of a self-willed exile and a prisoner to history, each film commemorates the past with such grace and nostalgia that they achieve a sense of intimacy rarely captured in film. As such, the documentaries are less about escape than discovery, and regardless of how the directors return home – through Sibelius or surrealism – in doing so, they reveal what happens when we finally do encounter our destinies while attempting to avoid them. To paraphrase Davies’ beloved Eliot, it is to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

~ by Jessica on February 26, 2009.

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