Dirty old town

Pub date February 11, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

It’s been eight years since Terence Davies gifted us with his sublime if slightly inferior film version of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. After various false promises from moneyed folks and battles with bureaucratic fools, he’s returned with a largely found-footage documentary — an extremely mouthy one.

Those who’ve seen Davies in-person know he’s far from the shy misery maven one might assume from autobiographical films such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and his peak work, The Long Day Closes (1992). He likes to spout a witticism or three. But even that awareness doesn’t quite prepare one for the full-boar melodramatic recital-ready voiceover of the made-for-TV Of Time and the City. At one point, discussing his first encounters with MGM musicals, Davies declares that he "swallowed them whole." In fact, here, his rich, raspy, megadramatic readings threaten to swallow the imagery he’s gathered just as wholly. He answers a great line about poverty from Willem De Kooning with an equally great insult about rich royalty. At other times he’s simply overwrought.

Of Time and the City is best when Davies lets the montage — or an excellent singer — do the talking. It’s uncanny how he choreographs archival material to perform the same slow retreats that characterize the ever-revealing dolly shots in his movies. As a soundtrack for wartime, the Hollies’ "He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother," is born again, so it’s a drag when Davies stuffily argues that the Beatles are provincial. Davies is a collagist with a strong nostalgia streak. Sometimes it spoils the best of him.

OF TIME AND THE CITY opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters.