Big Shot: Of Time and the City

“If Liverpool didn’t exist it would have to be invented.” – Myrbach

In Of Time and the City, director Terence Davies sets out to invent his birthplace through the lens of his autobiography. Davies is better known for his fictional representations of his hometown as it was for working-class Catholic youth in the 1940s and 50s, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. Both films document a family that resembles Davies’ own, particularly adolescents who find refuge in popular culture and the cinema in particular. Of Time and the City is the director’s only foray into documentary, using stock, historical, and contemporary footage of Liverpool to tell the story of his youth. Quotations like the one above are interspersed throughout in Davies’ own solemn drawl, his personal reference points guiding the monologue. Add Myrbach to the long list of obscure allusions I have to run and look up post-viewing.

Davies is well-read with high cultural tastes. Images of Liverpool steam past to strains from deliberately chosen religious hymn, folk songs, popular music, and select classical pieces (Shostakovich, Bruckner, and Mahler were much more suited to the teenaged Davies who is nostalgic for a time “when pop music was still demure, before Presley, before The Beatles”). With such particular preferences, this film comes from a very specific point of view. Unlike so many other ‘autobiographical’ films (see Tree of Life), this is not a universal experience posing as an individual experience. Every scene, each location, the songs, the churches, the architecture – it all evokes very specific and visceral memories for the filmmaker.

To watch this vaguely chronological game of free association without sharing any tenderness for Mahler, without my own experience of Catholic guilt, is a surprisingly detached endeavor. Without anything to lure me in, the film is a series of unrelated scenes documenting unknown locales and strange children singing unfamiliar songs, complemented by a soundtrack of pretension and nostalgia. I have no idea what it feels like to grow up a gay, Catholic schoolboy in Liverpool in the 1940s. Davies provides almost no guidance as he delves into his own psyche, and as a result I am left with no entry point.

Davies is a skilled director. From the opening shot – interior cinema, the curtain rising on a big screen – through to the final moments – Davies murmurs “Good night ladies. Good night sweet ladies. Good night, good night, good night” – he maintains a certain lyrical rhythm that sets just the right tone of soothing, bittersweet, and unapologetic nostalgia. Through his voiceover he is able to develop a certain curmudgeonly persona. He is likable and, even when I didn’t get the jokes, his tone implies a sense of humor (“I was now a very happy, very contented, born-again atheist… thank god”). Still, Of Time In The City is probably better discussed with Davies than viewed. Without the luxury of a traditional narrative to guide his story or offer an emotionally universal hinge, the logic behind Davies’ collage of memories and stock footage is hard to follow. An essay film through and through, the ideas he develops are not fully realized without the accompanying footnotes.

 

June: Self Portraits

self-portraits

It’s time to embrace navel-gazing with an appreciation of the cinematic self-portrait.

We’ll start by contemplating the beginning of the human species as a parallel to Terrence Malick’s birth in Tree of Life.

Follow that up with Of Time and the City, a study of Liverpool and Terence Davies’ youth in black & white.

And finally we’ll contemplate Agnés Varda’s adorable wrinkles in The Beaches of Agnes.

It doesn’t get more self-involved than that.

Crazy Horse: They Drive Me Crazy

What does the Crazy Horse have in common with popular 80s new wave songs besides the wigs? Philippe Decouflé, the intrepid choreographer of the Crazy’s imaginative shows also is responsible for the oh-so-of-their-time dance moves in this little VH1 classic. Since I first found out this uncanny coincidence, the song has definitely been repeat in my house.

Big Shot: Lenny

We hear about Lenny Bruce before we meet him. A woman lists his criminal convictions, then laughter and applause carry us over onto a stage where he stands leaning against a microphone stand in  silhouette. The message is clear: Bruce’s legacy was, first his fight against the penal system, and second, his act.

Despite this pointed beginning, the first half of the film focuses primarily on his love life. The woman in the beginning is Honey (Valerie Perrine), Bruce’s wife. Unlike his life, in this film, Bruce’s story starts with her. He meets her, they fall in love, get married, have a car accident, move to California, get hooked on drugs, get clean, have a child, split up, get into trouble with the law, get back together and back on drugs… But Lenny Bruce’s life was rich with eccentricities and juicy details before Honey came along. His mother was Sally Marr, a popular nightclub performer provided him with a rich childhood and the inspiration for his early standup. So why does she show up in Lenny only once he brings Honey home to meet the in-laws? Because Honey is the only one of the two of them still alive to tell the story.

Perrine is lovely as Honey, she even won the Cannes prize for best actress. But her domination over the first act of the film is frustrating. In a film that is supposed to be about a groundbreaking stand-up comic’s life and work, she gets an awful lot of screentime. The film’s fascination with their clichéd romance detracts from the discussion of him as a performer and as an individual, reframing this film as a trite love story.

There is so little of Bruce’s own point of view in the film. His absence is a gaping hole, made all the more clear through the faux-documentary technique employed by Fosse and playwright Julian Berry. Tearing a trendy page from D. A. Pennebaker’s’ book the film is shot in black and white, with roving cameras and idiosyncratic framing, the film takes on a beatnik tone. The score is a jazzy as the rhythm of the film which alternates between interviews with those who were close to Bruce, recreations of fly on the wall footage of filmed performances as interpreted by Dustin Hoffman, and the reenactments depicting key scenes in the man’s life. Fosse’s voice can be heard offscreen asking Lenny’s loved ones to tell the story of his life. But Bruce can’t chime in to correct these unreliable narrators. All we get is their story.

With Honey in the slammer, the film picks up. Finally, Lenny and his act take center stage. And as soon as “he stopped doing that crappy – um – imitation stuff and he started to… improvise,” as his mother (played to a T by the Palmolive lady, Jan Miner) puts it, Hoffman finally begins to shine. The role is perfect for him because it showcases his uncanny ability to inhabit when many would imitate. He transforms into Lenny Bruce but tailors it for the camera. Hoffman is an actor and the film is slick and produced, whereas the video footage that remains of the real Lenny Bruce is grainy with degraded sound quality. In these videos, he is is not performing for the camera, but for the crowd in front of him. His concern is to earn his audience’s affection not posterity. Hoffman’s job in Lenny is to bring Lenny Bruce to the many that never saw him. And as a result, despite abundant film clips and audio recordings of the real Lenny Bruce on YouTube, for a whole generation of people who were not alive to see Bruce in the flesh, Hoffman’s portrayal is definitive.

At one point, a police officer on the witness stand recounts the salacious details of Bruce’s act that led him to trial. This enrages Bruce who insists that he should be allowed to do his own act; the cop is butchering it. “He’s doing a terrible job. I’ve been doing me my whole life.” But really it’s Hoffman who wins the contest. He’s a better Lenny Bruce than even Lenny Bruce was, at least when judged through the lens of a camera.

Bruce’sdeath is a tragedy and Lenny makes that clear. He shines when he is shouting at the judge, giving the courtroom some of his best performances. But then, onstage he is depleted. The penal system sucked the life-force out of him. So it is heartbreakingly unsurprising when, just as it seemed things were just getting started, it’s all over. The system bore down on him, trapped him, and kept him from telling his story, speaking his own words, sharing his point of view. He couldn’t take it. Flash, he’s dead on a bathroom floor. The film makes it clear, through it’s structure, that in death, he was stifled and that is the true loss.