Posted in: Documentary, DVD

Of Time and the City and Alexander Korda – DVDs for the week

Of Time and the City (Strand)

timeandthecityIf Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented. And in some ways, that’s what Terence Davies does in his cinematic essay, a personal remembrance of a city that he recalls from his ambivalent perspective of troubled affection and critical commentary. Freely mixing history and remembrance, documentary and commentary, Davies offers up a very personal look at his hometown of Liverpool and the age in which he grew up in England. Though only brief moments of the film are actually shot by Davies himself (the rest is a mix archival newsreel clips, documentary footage, TV news clips and home movies), this is as personal as filmmaking gets and he personally narrates with a witty collection of literary quotes, song lyrics, movie titles and snatches of poetry delivered with a twist of his own sardonic humor. The port city and industrial center on the northwest coast of Britain is best known in America as the birthplace of the Beatles. They have little place in Davies’ remembrance. Though his commentary is backed by a collection of popular songs and snatches of classical music, it’s not the music of the culture so much as of Davies’ life, and by the sixties he had tuned out with the coming of The Beatles and the Mersey Beat and turned to classical music. That was also the time he discovered that he was gay and the culture that he thought was his turned out to be quite hostile to him.

It’s chronological, both temporally and personally, from the post-war years to the present, and he takes us from B&W to color in a particularly delightful transition involving the crowds taking the ferry to Brighton. “They got on in black and white, but they got off in color,” he deadpans, and from that moment the film remains in color. It’s the modern world and nostalgia is gone as Davies recalls his coming of age in every way. His view of the church shifts to one of suspicion and distrust and a class consciousness seeps in as he observes the royal family (“another fossil monarchy”) and its lavish pageants of marriage and coronation while millions lived in poverty, destitute in slums all over Liverpool. He reserves his most caustic commentary for royalty and the national obsession with the royal family.

As the film arrives in the present with original digital footage of the Liverpool docks, with huge ship derricks and giant windmills off the shore, Davies remarks that he’s an alien in contemporary Liverpool. That’s not a rebuke to change – there’s no nostalgia for a lost innocence here – just desire to hold on to his memory of the past, a personal observation rather than a critique. Or at least that’s how I read it. There was no golden age of better times yet there is a comfort in memory just the same and Davies offers an observation, whether he intended to or not, on the way we hold on to certain epochs as defining for us. Of Time and the City is a wistful, funny, satirical, angry and forgiving portrait. It’s less about the city and more about time and life and growing up, and less about Liverpool than of the artist who came of age within the city and learned the lessons that shaped his life and his art, notably Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, his nostalgic yet mournful portraits of working class life in post-war Liverpool. Strand’s DVD includes a collections of brief interviews with Terence Davies and the film’s producers and editor and even briefer featurettes consisting of behind-the-scenes footage of Davies on the set and in the editing room.

Alexander Korda’s Private Lives (Eclipse Series 16) (Eclipse/Criterion)

Alexander Korda’s reputation as a producer and Britain’s pre-eminent film mogul overshadows his minor talents as a director. His studio was the standard-bearer for classy subject matter and production value in British cinema and films he directed for his studio reflected both his refined sense of taste and his producer’s sense of showmanship. Not that Korda was British – he was born in Hungary, where he directed his first films, and went on to make films in Hollywood and France before settling in London – but he essentially adopted England as his new home and christened his studio London Pictures. Big Ben was prominent on the logo.

alexanderkordaThe Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) was the film that launched his company and his success as a film mogul. Charles Laughton stars as the boorish, gluttonous king as famed for his appetites as for his many wives. Laughton takes Henry from a boorish, gluttonous figure (the two-fisted gusty with which he attacks his meals, tearing apart a capon, gnawing on drumsticks and tossing them over his head before grabbing a goblet of wine to wash it down, remains one of the film’s most memorable scenes) to a melancholy mature monarch whose appetite for sex has evolved into a longing for love and companionship to, finally, a harmlessly mischievous child of an old man, sneaking food behind the back of the hectoring but protective Katherine Parr like he was a boy sneaking candy. Along the way he becomes an astute statesman who understands the future of England is tied to the political stability of Europe.

It’s a choppy, uneven film, to say the least, more designed than directed, but it is grandly designed and tastefully executed. Korda takes a quintessentially British subject – the reign of the colorful and quite probably mad King Henry VIII – and works it into a series of dramatic scenes and comic tableaux with both elegance and humor. He suggests opulence and spectacle through a judicious use of the evocative but Spartan sets created by his brother, the gifted set designer Vincent Korda. A bare throne room dominated by an impressive throne and a few choice furnishings (some of them genuine antiques borrowed by Vincent from museums and private collections) stand in for the castle. It became the first British film of the sound era to become a hit in the United States and earned Laughton his first and only Oscar for Best Actor. It captured both popular success and critical respect, boosted both Korda’s and Laughton’s careers and made Korda’s fortune. Korda immediately started looking for a follow-up project with Laughton.

They finally settled on Rembrandt (1936), on a biography of the legendary 17th century Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. Financial success eluded Kordo on this production, which is just as stiff and stagey as Henry VIII, but Korda’s tableaux composition captures a handsome, often painterly visual canvas. While he resists showing the paintings of Rembrandt, he evoke the painter’s subjects, compositions, and lighting through the film’s imagery. And Laughton’s Rembrandt is an amazing marriage of magnified naturalism and intense theatricality brought down to screen dimensions, like one of Rembrandt’s own paintings come to life: soft, indefinable, full of vivacity and melancholy and mystery behind those heavy eyes.

There are four features in the Eclipse box set Alexander Korda’s Private Lives, a quartet of historical productions in the “Private Life” produced by Korda in the thirties. Paul Czinner directs Elisabeth Bergner and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934) and Korda again directs The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), a comic romance with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Merle Oberon. (I didn’t have time to review the latter but Dave Kehr wrote a marvelous appreciation in his New York Times DVD column here.) The four-disc set comes in a collection of four thinpak cases in a paperboard slipsleeve. No supplements, but it features informative liner notes by Michael Koresky.

Supplemental notes:

It’s a given that the majority of filmmaker commentary tracks on DVD new releases are unnecessary and fairly useless, mandated by commercial imperatives (buyers expect commentary as part of the package) or filmmaker ego (damn it, I want to give commentary!) and offering the listener little in the way of creative insight or production process. Only the most dedicated fan could possibly want to sit through anyone rambling on about Hotel For Dogs or The Fast and the Furious sequels or any of the scores of horror movie remakes clogging sales racks, and director commentary on such films as The Spirit or Frost/Nixon tend to simply reiterate information delivered with more clarity in the accompanying documentaries.

Imagine my surprise at becoming hooked on the screenwriter commentary on Taken, a B-movie Euro thriller from the Luc Besson factory. Robert Mark Kamen delivers a real primer in screenplay construction and development. Kamen takes you through the process from the basic elements of the initial idea through the hatching of a narrative around the elements and the creation to the characters to the fine-tuning of plot points and cinematic beats. This is not Shakespeare, folks, and Kamen doesn’t make an pretense that it is. But Taken is the kind of simple, brutal, stripped-down action film on a budget that Hollywood forgot how to make years ago and that kind of B-movie alchemy seems to be a lost art, but for the productions from Luc Besson, and Kamen gives plenty of credit to Besson and his gift for thinking of story in terms of the physical and the filmic. This may be the best lesson in genre screenwriting you’ll get on DVD all year, and Kamen delivers it with the clarity of a master class lecture and the modesty of a minor craftsman who loves his work and is happy to share his process in great detail.

For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.