By Howard Feinstein
British filmmaker Terence Davies pulls no punches. 'I do not celebrate being gay,' he says, adding that he has not had sex for 30 years. While that may be a generational phenomenon -- Davies is 62 -- some of it surely has to do with his home country and its culture. Britain was particularly unkind to gays in the '60s, a sexually formative decade for Davies. He says he only began to grasp what he was in 1961 when he saw the British movie Victim, about a blackmailed, closeted lawyer (played, apparently without irony, by closeted matinee idol Dirk Bogarde). 'When the word homosexual came up in the film, you could have heard a feather drop in the sixth balcony,' he says. 'That was a word that you never, ever heard.'
In his latest film, the exceptional documentary Of Time and the City, Davies recalls a court case at which the judge roundly scolded two men caught having sex outdoors: 'Not only have you engaged in an act of gross indecency, but you did it under one of London's most beautiful bridges.'
'That can only have happened in England,' Davies says tartly.
The youngest of 10 children in a working-class Catholic family, Davies connects his inner gay with everything else in his life in a small, melancholic body of work that is decidedly against the grain -- no false joyful climaxes or happy endings, a focus on characters, little plot -- set during his childhood in the '40s and '50s. An innocent adolescent gay-to-be is at the center of his early projects, including the epic Terence Davies Trilogy; Distant Voices, Still Lives; and The Long Day Closes. Throughout each film Davies observes an extended Catholic family living, as his did, in a Liverpool slum.
He notes that, ironically, Hollywood films in the '50s acted as a palliative for the poor: 'We thought every American lived like that: wonderful hair, dressed beautifully, wraparound teeth, and they had fairly big kitchens. When you came out of the theater, you didn't think, Oh, I'm depressed because I am living in a slum. Somehow it transformed the way you looked at your street.'
Of Time and the City is constructed entirely from archival footage and punctuated by Davies's dry, campy commentary. He skewers 'the Betty and Phil show' -- the lavish 1947 royal wedding of Elizabeth and Philip amid postwar rationing -- and mocks the cardinal's 'new frock.' A classical music buff, he spends just two minutes on Liverpool's most famous native sons, the Beatles, whom he likens to 'provincial solicitors.' The film is a love letter to more anonymous Liverpudlians -- washerwomen, schoolchildren, wrestlers, and jockeys -- who have kept a bleak industrial metropolis going.
Davies's next project, assuming he gets the necessary financing, is titled Mad About the Boy, from an original screenplay. 'It's a romantic comedy featuring a m'nage ' trois set in present-day London and Paris at a fashion magazine,' he explains. 'And it has a happy ending. I hope you're sitting down.'
Of Time and the City is currently playing at select theaters.