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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, May 09, 2007
    The river and the sea and what it does to its people

    So today on the Tate course Liverpool and the Avant-Garde: From Modern to Contemporary we looked at some 1897 Lumiere Brothers, at C. Frend's Ealing Comedy The Magnet (1950) and at Waterfront, Michael Anderson's film of the same year about the traumatic life of a seafarer's family seen through the daughter's eyes, and we noted that these films looked outwards from the city, beyond the docks to the questing, questioning sea beyond.

    We saw how Letter to Brezhnev made the same stylistic moves as Waterfront (couple in earnest conversation through a dockland fence, sailor crossing vast space towards the enormous ship which dwarfs him as he boards) - devices to express absence and stasis - but noted that while the woman in the earlier film remained trapped in the city, the 1980s Kirkby girl ended up taking a plane to Moscow to be reunited with her sailor.

    We noted the deeply internal world of Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives - no waterfront here, just the rooms and stairwells of terraced houses and courts; and we contrasted the portrayal of Gerrard Gardens in Basil Dearden's Violent Playground (1958, in which a young David McCallum plays the tenement block's chief thug in a world of macho aggression) with the 1938 Corporation/Gas Works film Homes for Workers, a celebration of a truly progressive form of housing for its time.

    It left me thinking that (in contrast to its great TV presence) Liverpool's feature film legacy has been quite thin. Though we might have looked at more recent outings like The 51st State, A Revenger's Tragedy and, erm, Priest, to see how the city comes across in them. I was most interested when the opening shot of Homes for Workers panned over a vast outer housing scheme which may well have been Norris Green... but then it returned to inner-city Vauxhall. I think we'll have to wait for some rebel to do their postdoctorate on the legacy and multiple significances of Brookie before the attention of the city's academics drifts away into territory far more uncharted than that familiar theme of the river and the sea and what it does to its people.