Blink and you’ll miss them

David Stratton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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