Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Patrick Keiller - 'London'

"It is a journey to the end of the world"

'London' is the first entry in what has become a trilogy of films by British film-maker Patrick Keiller. London is of particular importance to Vectis, more than the other films ('Robinson in Space' and 'Robinson in Ruins') as it was after attending a screening of that film as an undergraduate that I first began thinking of the idea that would eventually become Vectis, and because of its tighter geographic focus. I also feel that, for a number of reasons, London is the most successful of the trilogy; the focus on a more particular area gives the film more depth, more space to explore poetic digressions; visual themes have more time to develop, and the use of sound and music is, to my mind, more interesting. Though I have partly reacted against the work of Keiller (at least in the sense that he represents part of a tradition which sees London as a focus of Britain, though his later films soften this somewhat) I have great respect for his work, and rank him highly. Some of the particular methods he employs (or appears to employ) are similiar to my own. It has been a pleasure to rewatch what I consider his best work in order to make some observations on it.


London builds on the techniques Keiller developed in an earlier sequence of short films, developed and sustained in to feature length. Its formalities are rigidly established from the very beginning, and shared by its later sequels, with some small variation. The most obvious visual element that unites all these films is that the camera does not move within a shot, only when the scene cuts. There are no pans, no zooms, no tracking shots. There is one exception in each film; in London, a scene where the camera travels up an escalator. This functions something like the single moment of movement in La Jetée, a subtle disruption of the film's rhythm that highlights the technical consistency of the rest of the film. It is notable that the camera movement is provided by a thing that is actually present in the films reality. Apart from this, all the multivarious props and techniques of the cinematographer are absent. This creates a dramatic shift in pacing and mood from the normal techniques of modern documentaries, which extend down from works like Dziga Vertov's frenetic Man With a Movie Camera; indeed, it distances these films from the general techniques of cinema altogether. The composition of each shot, on a flat plane echoing the horizon, recalls not the framings of cinematographers, but the framing of landscape painters. This resonates with the repeated references to painters of the 18th and 19th century (particularly Turner and Reynolds) which permeate the work, contrasting past English romanticism with the grim banalities of 90's London, beset by economic recession, IRA bombings and a malignant conservative government. This painterly approach is interesting when approached from the perspective of, for example, John Berger's ideas about the supplanting of oil painting by photography in the 20th century. The shots might be seen in relation to paintings of Paris in the 19th century by impressionist artists like Gustave Caillebotte and Jean Béraud, members of the same intellectual milieu as Robinson's French poetic idols, united for him by their various associations with London: Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Mallarmé and Rimbaud.

Jean Béraud - Les Grands Boulevards Le Theatre Des Varietes

London blends the documentary form with fiction, beginning a story which continues throughout the rest of Keiller's films, and in his 2012 exhibition at the Tate Britain. The story centres around a left-wing academic called Robinson (whose name must be taken as an illusion to Rimbaud's 'Robinsonner', a topic which will recieve its own post in due course), who is both unseen and unheard, never encountered directly; his views and work are related to the viewer through a second character, the unnamed 'Narrator', who intersperses the narrative with his observations about Robinson, his former lover, who contacts him at the beginning of the film in order to assist him with his work as he investigates 'the problem of London'. The film leaves is ambivalent as to whether the problem is with London, or whether London is the problem, or a mixture of the two. The bomb attacks that punctuate the film help to construct a narrative of a city under attack from various political and economic forces that are utterly indifferent to the wellbeing of its citizens. Robinson is a sort of inverse fisher king; his mental and physical health are linked to the health of the city and of the nation, a nation which the narrator, recently returned from seven years abroad, memorably describes as:
"Dirty old blighty. Under-educated, economically backward, bizarre; a catalogue of modern miseries. With its fake traditions, its Irish war, its militarism and secrecy, its silly old judges, its hatred of intellectuals, its ill health and bad food, its sexual repression, its hypocrisy and racism, and its indolence."
 London builds a portrait both of the city and of Robinson as the narrator follows him on three journeys, exploring the remnants of London's literary and artistic past in an attempt to "uncover the molecular basis for historical events" and find some sort of hope for its future. The term 'psychogeography' is never used, though the narrator describes Robinson's "experiments in psychic landscaping, drifting and free assosciation", describing the technique in all but name. His travels develop a particular obsession with several writers, particularly Laurence Stern and Arthur Rimbaud. The narrator describes Robinson's theory that the root of all England's problems lies in the English reaction to the French revolution; thus his obsession with English romanticists of the late 18th century and French poets of the late 19th. He is engaged in 'time travel', trying to create an alternative history in which the cultural results of the 19th century are erased.

The film-making techniques help to create a number of strange effects with regards to the apparent reality of both Robinson and the narrator as characters. Though he is more present, the narrator seems less real; his narrative voice becoming inextricably linked with the alienating perspective of the camera. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly questionable, how much is 'natural' and how much is staged. Although the style appears to be documentary, and the narrator ties the journey into the real events occuring during the films time frame, there are a number of unsettling things that appear on close viewing. The subject of the camera, almost consistently, is London itself'; individual buildings or wider scenes, locked within the frame. People move through these scenes but, crucially, they never 'break the fourth wall' by looking directly into the camera. Some of this might be explained by long-distance zoom shots, but during other scenes (particularly the scene where the camera ascends an escalator) the people on the downward escalator seem to be deliberately looking away from the camera. This creates a very strange sense of alienation; the camera is the opposite of invisible, imposing itself in to the scene despite the unwillingness of the participants to directly acknowledge it. Whether and what Keiler might have staged or recreated, we have no idea (the film certainly credits no actors apart from Paul Scofield as the narrator); the information is lacking. We may have slightly more reason, from the credits featuring a sound editor, sound designer and sound re-recordist, to give credence to the hunch that all the sound in London, whilst creating the impression of having been filmed on location (seeming to fit with events onscreen) is actually artificial, recorded and composited at a later date and carefully overlaid. Certainly the sounds are strangely distant, and somewhat muffled; this helps create an additional distancing effect that builds upon the films theme of anomie, of a place and people that are coming apart, "a city of fragments no longer organised around a centre". We must wonder if at least some of the shots (the one in which a bowler-hatted man harangues a crowd with conspiracy theories about a bombing, for example) are not the cinematic equivalent of the works of the photographer Jeff Wall; so candid that they can only be staged.

Though occasionally stunning in its bleakness, London refuses to give up on its subject, which it treats tenderly, echoing Robinson's frustrated love for a place that could have been, should have been. One fabulous sequence breaks the classical mould of the music, when Robinson and the Narrator meet up with a pair of Peruvian musicians, and scenes of the interface between rural and urban clatter past to joyful andean music. The film's shots of imposing buildings, monuments and delapidated streets are constantly interspersed with shots of natural objects that coexist with the urban; flowers, ivy covered walls. The camera also lingers for several long, meditative scenes on bodies of water, filmed so closely that their movements become a moving abstraction. The only images that do not actually feature London at all are three shots of the moon, which serve to help link the film in with the passage of time, and perhaps evoke some more poetic imagery. To untangle the choice of images, music and narration function together throughout London is beyond the scope of this piece, and perhaps unnecessary. I would note, however, that Keiller's methods of framing are a strong influence on the photographic methods I have employed in Vectis, and I have even picked up some of his recurring visual motifs (what I term 'diegetic text', for example, and gates).

As the film nears its end, it engages even more closely with wider political events, and large bodies of people, in the form of marching miners, come to dominate the work, echoing earlier shots of distracted looking city workers, cut off from each other, atomised, trudging along. The miners are just as invasive, yet they march together, though their cause is hopeless. Nocturnal shots of Hindus celebrating Diwali, and crowds at Guy Fawkes Night, contrasting festivals of light and fire, punctuate the final montage, during which the narrator recedes, unsure perhaps of what to say (or perhaps knowing nothing needs to be said). Robinson ultimately declares London a failure, unsalvageable except, perhaps, by its destruction via economic or environmental collapse. Indeed, it is already destroyed. "London no longer exists, in this it is truly modern. It is the first metropolis to disappear."

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