Blink and you’ll miss them
THIS week I’m writing about two films that could not be more different but have two things, at least, in common: they are both made by directors who we could say take a personal — rather than strictly commercial — approach to the medium, and they are both destined for a cinema release so limited that you’ll have to be quick to catch them.
In the case of Ed Harris’s Appaloosa, a thoroughly entertaining old-style western, that’s because it failed at the box office overseas and so is being given a cursory cinema release here before it comes out on DVD, meaning that most people will experience Australian cinematographer Dean Semler’s fine work on a small screen that will do it no justice.
In the case of Terence Davies’s very personal, very poetic Of Time and the City , the problem ( if that’s the right word) is that this is an unclassifiable film, part archival documentary, part autobiography, past waspish critique of what Davies sees as ugly modernity and nostalgia for a time when football matches were seen in black and white and players didn’t feel the need to punch the sky or hug one another when they scored.
Davies was born in Britain’s Liverpool in 1945, a post-war baby raised as a Catholic during a period of austerity and rationing. All but two of the films he’s made have been to a greater or lesser degree autobiographical, most notably his masterly, award-winning evocations of childhood, Distant Voices, Still Lives ( 1988) and The Long Day Closes ( 1992). His subsequent attempts to film literary works — The Neon Bible in 1995 and The House of Mirth in 2000 — met with mixed reactions, and there was an eightyear gap (‘‘ eight very, very lean years,’’ he said in a recent interview) before he was able to raise the small budget to make Of Time and the City , his most personal film to date.
In this cinematic poem addressed to the city of Liverpool that Davies loves and hates in almost equal measure, almost all the visuals are culled from the archives: the imposing public buildings, the residential streets, the shops and cinemas, the ferries and boats and the masses of people are seen first in black and white and then in colour, always accompanied by Davies’s own commentary.
It is a commentary filled with emotion; at times you can feel the director’s yearning for a past that will never return, at others he makes his loathing palpable. He hates the Catholic Church in which he was raised, and notes in passing that a former church is now a trendy restaurant where the wine served is definitely not of the communion variety. He hates the royal family and all establishment tradition. He’s not even a fan of the Beatles, noting acidly that ‘‘ John, Paul, George and Ringo’’ sound like a firm of solicitors. When it comes to music, his preference is the classics: Mahler, Brahms and Liszt are heard on the soundtrack.
Davies’s use of music and songs is, as it was in his earlier autobiographical films, little short of brilliant. There’s a wonderful sequence in which he depicts the destruction of street after street of ugly old terrace houses, with their worn door-steps and smoking chimneys, to be replaced by hideous 1960s apartment blocks, and the images are ironically counterpointed by Peggy Lee’s version of The Folks Who Live on the Hill .
There are also trips to the seaside, to New Brighton and Blackpool, where small beaches overflow with holidaymakers in deckchairs soaking up a little sun between the showers. And of course there is the cinema, where young Terence found a magical Technicolor world of escape with films such as Singin’ in the Rain ; newsreel footage of Gregory Peck and other lesser stars of the period attending a north of England premiere are a reminder of the allure and the magic of the cinema as a means of escape. Davies also explores his own sexuality ( he is gay) with a determined sensitivity, and marvels at the obviously homosexual references featured in popular entertainment in the past with an excerpt from the widely heard and loved radio program, Round the Horne , in which every week Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick played the camp characters Julian and Sandy.
Davies reads excerpts from works by poets he loves — T. S. Eliot especially — to counterpoint images of the city of his childhood, the city from which he is alienated. Images of those same ’ 60s apartment blocks now covered in graffiti and vandalised offer a grim comment on the way of the world. Today’s world may, indeed, be grim ( though surely no grimmer than the past), yet the director’s sly sense of humour and, above all, his passion ensures that his elaborate and strangely beautiful home movie resonates long after it has finished.
* * * ON one level Ed Harris’s delightfully oldfashioned western, Appaloosa, is also a very personal project. It certainly seems to have been a labour of love for the actor and occasional director, whose only previous film in the latter role was Pollock ( 2000), a biography of the painter. Westerns, which used to be a cinema staple, are no longer in fashion, so it’s an act of faith these days to embark on one, and in this case the results were depressingly predictable.
Yet Appaloosa is well worth seeing — on the cinema screen — for a number of reasons, not least the aforementioned cinematography.
In many ways this is a classic story of two brave lawmen cleaning up a violent frontier town. Virgil Cole ( Harris) and Everett Hitch ( Viggo Mortensen) ride into Appaloosa to restore law and order at the invitation of a local citizens’ committee, led by Olson ( Timothy Spall). They are required because the largest rancher in the district, Randall Bragg ( Jeremy Irons), has killed the town marshal and two of his deputies rather than deliver for justice one of his employees, who murdered a visiting businessman before raping and killing the man’s wife.
Western fans with long memories may recall Warlock , the 1959 film in which Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn played gunfighters who are invited to take over a town in similar circumstances and whose authoritarian ways eventually alienate the ‘‘ decent’’ citizens.
Harris, who co-wrote the new film with Robert Knott, draws on that scenario and then adds a touch of Howard Hawks’s classic, Rio Bravo ( also 1959), when Cole and Hitch arrest Bragg and place him in the town’s small jail to await trial, while his angry supporters provide a very real threat outside. You could argue, with justification, that the film is derivative.
The wild card, though, is Renee Zellweger’s Allison French, a widow who arrives in town looking for a place to settle down. Against expectations, she’s soon involved in a relationship with Cole, who is unsurprisingly amazed at his good fortune, but Allison’s motivations prove not to be entirely straightforward.
With its respectful approach to the traditions of a noble genre, the amusing banter between the educated Hitch and his older but not wiser partner, and the dastardly villainy of Irons’s Bragg, Appaloosa , despite some flabby passages in the second half, will be a treat for western lovers, if there are still any out there.
The best advice is to catch it soon before it disappears into your local DVD store.
Love-hate view: A scene from Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City