Festival Daily

Of Film and the City

By Kate Lawrie

Do you remember the lovers perched atop the mountain of plastic water bottles overlooking Bangkok in 2004’s Citizen Dog? How about the depiction of discordant gentrification in last year’s This Beautiful City? If you missed these selections, you most likely heard about Crash, Paul Haggis’s symphonic narrative of urban social disconnection that took the Festival – and then awards season – by storm a few editions back. With every passing year, more people worldwide gravitate toward urban centres (50 per cent of the earth’s population, as of 2008). And with every passing year, filmmakers have brought to the Festival spirited approaches to studying, celebrating or (as often as not) scrutinizing the urban landscape.

This year is certainly no exception, as we have again been invited on a veritable world tour of cinematic cities. See, for instance, Adela, Kisses, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist or – quite aptly – Toronto Stories, to name just a few.

But for total personal poetry and emotional honesty, consider British director Terence Davies’s masterwork, Of Time and the City. To call it a film about Davies’s own memories of his hometown in Liverpool is a gross oversimplification. The filmmaker has woven together a seemingly endless array of archival footage from various decades in the city’s history, creating a visual timeline of the changing urban landscape, fashions and times. But Davies’s individual poetics guides every visual selection, and the film perches on the razor’s edge between nostalgia and rebuttal. If it is in many ways a love letter to the city that defined his youth and identity, it is also a request for an explanation of hurts suffered at the hands of Liverpool, the Church, the monarchy and British society at large.

The archival footage would be compelling enough on its own, but Davies’s soundtrack elevates the work to epic level. He lets pieces of music – everything from classical symphonies to “Dirty Old Town” – play in their entirety while the Liverpool imagery rolls unhurriedly before our eyes. To this, Davies as the unseen narrator periodically quotes thinkers ranging from T.S. Eliot to Friedrich Engels, or contributes his own equally powerful commentary on, for instance, “the British genius for creating the dismal” or memories of “happiness unlimited.”

The overall effect is astounding. Of Time and the City charts Liverpool’s decline from the optimistic hustle and bustle of early modernism, through the dizzying post-war terrain of poverty and endless snaking streets of row houses, and finally to all-out blight, as unseen youth leave frustrated graffiti on every available inch, and foreboding high-rise housing complexes grow out of the rubble. “We had hoped for paradise,” Davies intones. “We got the anus mundi.”

And yet, through all this, there is beauty. In a breathtaking sequence, while Salvador Bacarisse’s “Concertino for Guitar and Orchestra in A Minor Opus 72” plays, three small children in winter coats stand under the frame of a courtyard swing set. But there are no swings, just a lone rope tied in a manner frighteningly similar to a noose. The children, however, smile at the camera and gamely help one of their number into its loop for a ride. It is a moment capturing innocence, optimism, memory and the city, and intensely felt beyond the frame.

Much the same spirit guides the urban romance of Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy. While the style bears little similarity to Davies’s essayistic filmmaking, Jenkins’s debut feature is also a personal coming to terms with a city, in this case San Francisco. In Medicine for Melancholy, two twentysomethings wake up after a drunken hook-up at a trendy house party. As the instantly likable Micah (Wyatt Cenac) hangs around the more standoffish Jo (Tracey Heggins) and persuades her to spend more time with him, we are introduced to their perspectives on San Francisco’s cultural scene and the skyrocketing housing costs that are redefining its social makeup.

For Jenkins, who moved to the city only three years ago, art may be imitating life. After a childhood in Florida, a brief Los Angeles stint and a cross-country train tour, he became impulsively smitten with the City by the Bay. Time passed, however, and as his initial reason for being in San Francisco changed, he also felt some of the sheen come off when he became more aware of the city’s troubled history of gentrification and insidious relocation of the largely African American working class out of the downtown. In the sober light of his own “morning after” in the city, he had the chance to reassess what his true feelings were. 

Though it has shades of a love-hate relationship, on the whole his feelings are positive. There’s “absolutely nothing like it,” Jenkins says. “It felt like a very open city… I felt like I could wake up and I could just start walking in San Francisco, and I would always come across something that was very interesting and very alive. I had never been to a city that made me feel that way.”

This kind of freewheeling affection drives Medicine for Melancholy; while the film asks very serious questions about the city, it is also a love story buoyed by a kicking soundtrack and startling visual aesthetic. The colour palette was deliberately desaturated before selective tinting was painstakingly added in post-production. The outcome is refreshing, simultaneously evoking contemporary art interventions as much as faded old postcards from far-flung remembered places.

Asked whether the narrative could have been transplanted elsewhere, Jenkins hits on something intrinsic to the role of San Francisco in his own film and to the power of city films more broadly. “I think where you live has such a huge influence on your identity,” he says. But “very rarely do you see a movie where the actual city the movie is set in has a huge influence on the narrative, and to me that’s ridiculous. I think when people identify themselves, that sense of place – where they’re from, where they are – is a huge, huge deal.”

Sept. 9, 4:00pm, AMC 2   
Sept. 13, 6:00pm, AMC 1

Sept. 9, 8:45pm, AMC 6   
Sept. 10, 5:45pm, AMC 2