Swans Commentary » swans.com March 25, 2013  



Patrick Keiller's Look-and-Think Films


by Peter Byrne





London, U.K., 1994, 82 minutes, color.
Robinson in Space, U.K., 1997, 78 minutes, color.
Robinson in Ruins, U.K., 2010, 101 minutes, color.
(Available on the excellent DVD's of the British Film Institute)


(Swans - March 25, 2013)   How is it that Patrick Keiller, who only makes documentary films, has been called (by Owen Hatherley) "the most original geographical and political thinker in Britain"? It has to be because he makes a new kind of documentary. The old kind has been characterized (by Iain Sinclair) as "print journalism with jump-cuts...not a journey of discovery, but the justification of a script-approved argument... The world is explained (censored) as it is revealed, with language reduced to the function of cement -- holding together disparate elements."

London confronts the viewer with a hybrid that initially raises doubts. The static camera lingers on fussily framed shots of unremarkable corners of the city. The frames look back at us like challenges demanding to be met. At the same time a voice chimes in and begins laying down remarks. The speaker whom we will never see could be paging through an album. He only uses the shot in front of us as a point of departure for comments that tell fragments of a story.

The story is of his fictional friend Robinson whom he supposedly accompanied on the filming. They are a couple of gay flâneurs, all-too-thoughtful idlers beset by big ideas. The hardly-prosperous narrator has come home from a ship's photographer job on a luxury cruiser whose cabins cost £4000 a night. Robinson works a few hours weekly as a teacher in a language school. "His income is small but he saves most of it. He isn't poor because he lacks money but because everything he wants is unobtainable."

At this point the viewer's doubts remain. Is he trapped in a lumbering hour of British camp where he will have to fight off sleep by holding on to sprigs of Oscar Wildean wit? Yes and no. Robinson, whom we never see, is according to his friend a romantic of the left with some peculiar ideas. The time is 1992. I.R.A. bombs are exploding. The Tories have been in power so long that Robinson is deluded enough to think a Labour win at the coming election will bring utopia. The London County Council that gave London its own caring elected government since WWII has been liquidated. London is now run by Conservative bigwigs in collusion with the gamblers in global services in the "City."

When the Conservatives yet again win the election Robinson lists in horror what it will mean to him. His flat will deteriorate, rent go up, vandalism and petty crime increase, traffic and noise pollution grow. His income will decrease and his job be at risk when not interfered with. Social security will be threatened and hospitals closed. "There would be more drunks pissing in the street when he looked out of the window and more children taking drugs on the stairs when he came home at night."

Pathetic, two-party Robinson lost in romance! His fears were justified but, looking back from 2010 after thirteen years of New Labour, all these evils had grown. He could predict today as he did then that, "He would drink more and less well. He would be ill more often. He would die sooner. For the old and anyone with children it would be much worse."

Wounded and deprived of a Labour New Jerusalem by the Conservative victory of 1992, Robinson grasps at literary straws. He spends much of London enquiring how various free spirits of the past, marginals like himself, especially Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, made out in the tentacular city.

London was first screened at the Berlin Festival of 1994. Keiller started to work immediately on Robinson In Space, which would come out early in 1997 and so incapable of reflecting the return of Labour to power in May of that year. Robinson, a flâneur still, leaves off to some extent trying to transform gray reality. The memory of creative outsiders who did the vagrancy turn before him no longer appears to be a model for personal fulfillment.

London left him curious about a whole range of economic activity that no longer went on there. He sets out with his camera to read the Southern English economy. Prosperous people driving foreign cars live there. Where does the money come from since the natives have lost their taste for producing their own artifacts and appear to export mainly financial services? Again the viewer tolerates a lingering over landscape and objects not always beautiful in themselves because they are beautifully presented. Revelations come like afterthoughts. The history of a thing is within the thing, busy making still more history.

We gaze at a commonplace sign at St. George's Hill, Wesley. It says "private property" and lists the equally private amenities of a golf course and tennis court. It requests respect for its security personnel. Our dawdle before the sign is rewarded by learning that this private estate was established in 1911 on common land. Further probing reveals that the Diggers, those agrarian communists, had a camp here in 1649. Now on St. George's Day a group of campaigners occupy the land declaring, "We are challenging the government's whole philosophy about the preeminence of property rights."

The same voice-over, his friend's, continues with a delicate irony to follow Robinson's fastidious and grandiose thinking. In fact the voice is that of a great actor, the late Paul Scofield. Anyone who feels that reading a text aloud needs no art should listen carefully to Scofield. Comparison can be made with the accomplished Vanessa Redgrave, who will do the voice-over in Keiller's third Robinson film. For all her skill and sensitivity, she fails to suggest dimensions of commentary that Scofield gives us by a simple pause, a brief acceleration, or a shrug in his tone.

The space Robinson surveys in the southern counties and excursions farther afield is a new mix of what Keiller calls "dereliction and emergent prosperity," or "extreme dilapidation plus conspicuous wealth." There are vast retail sheds with global connections. Commercially-run prisons are hard to distinguish from the supermarkets nearby. Private or privatized institutions dominate with a variety of barriers, razor wire, and security cameras. Enclosure, the theme of British history for centuries, continues. There is no visible presence of the state such as Robinson delighted in and found reassuring when traveling on the continent. The great ports from which British exports once flowed have gone quiet.

However, he also finds that his eyes can mislead him. For instance, there are many thriving smaller ports. They are overlooked because they are mechanized, using containers and employing few workers. Arms and much else are dispatched at surprising profits. The economy may have changed but is not in decline. The appearance of poverty that shrouds modern Britain isn't due to capitalism's failure but to its success. The general impression of decline has unfortunately convinced the public that the state can no longer deliver education, health care, and pensions. In other words, the economy works effectively while at the same time making life unbearable for the bulk of the population.

Traditional manufacturing may have disappeared but manufacturing continues. The travelers come across many instances of thriving companies owned by non-U.K. interests. There are a surprising number of military-industrial sites, often part of U.K.-U.S. collaboration. The Anglo-American Mutual Defense Agreement of 1958 seems to have made the U.K. an American client state.

These revelations are too much for Robinson, who considers the pre-Thatcher system of local manufacture a sign of social health and the growing commodification -- now trading in carbon! -- as abjection. The evidence that American military domination extended to Southern England brought him to the verge of a mental breakdown.

When Robinson in Ruins arrived after thirteen years of New Labour, everything had changed, which is another way of saying nothing had changed. Neoliberal culture had simply been consolidated. The banking crisis of 2008, the "credit crunch," suggested the end of something and brought talk of radical new departures. But it turned out that the global one-ring circus would stand pat in denial. Keiller is weary of his plummy character but Robinson is like a tiresome old uncle who can't be cut loose. His substance is woefully reduced by the absence of Paul Scofield. Thinking of the hope that the younger Robinson placed in the Labour Party, we would expect his older self to be the ruin of the film's title. However, the ruins being interrogated are still those in the UK landscape, which is seen as completely saturated with politics.

Keiller has thrown the fading Robinson in with a research team that for the first time isn't fictitious. They will root around the U.K., murmuring shocking Fredric Jameson quotes like: "It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps this is due to some weakness in our imaginations."

The approach has become more ecological. Politics have not disappeared but are looked for at a deeper level, we might say at a Jameson level. The two-party charade is passed over. Robinson is concerned with "The possibility of life's survival on the planet." There is talk of his exchanges with "non-human intelligences," which turn out to be not New Age creatures, but plant life of the sort that preceded humanity and will outlast it. Voice-over now stops for intervals while the camera fixes on a spider spinning, a bee hard at work in a flower, or a plant simply growing. We are being told that there is a larger life than that beamed at us by the fixed smile of Tony Blair.

The film's method continues to be that of staring and discovering, of looking beneath one surface to find another that also must be upended. Eschewing heritage, it is history about the present. The Pelican Inn at Speenhamland on the road from London to Bristol captures the camera. In 1795 magistrates met there to devise a system of poor relief based on the price of bread. It gave landless farm workers succor in the face of the Settlement Act, which had uprooted them from the land to drive them into the new labor-hungry factories. The Speenhamland relief provoked a thunderous denunciation by Edmund Burke who, logically, was a darling of American Neocons and foreshadowed not only today's anti-welfare policy but that of austerity in the face of depression:

We, the people, ought to be made sensible, that it is not in breaking the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God, that we are to place our hope of softening the divine displeasure to remove any calamity under which we suffer, or which hangs over us.

Karl Polanyi, reflecting in 1944 on these events, pointed out that Speenhamland relief was society's spontaneous reaction to the Settlement Act, which had nothing spontaneous about it at all. It was a planned move by the new capitalism to create a proletariat. "The idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society." Polanyi would not be surprised to learn that the Pelican Inn subsequently housed a bank and that in a U.K. plastered with memorial plaques nothing marks it today as the scene of an historic event.

Robinson's friend, returning to his country in 1992 after seven years away, had this to say of it:

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.

Two decades later, he would have to change some of the wording. However, considering his and Robinson's discoveries in the three films, his judgment could only be more scathing. It would make the perfect contradiction to the 2012 PR representation of the U.K. as the genial host of the Olympics, full of unanimous hurrahs for Elizabeth II on her diamond jubilee and the buoyant optimism of the "City" trading floors.

Pace, Frederic Jameson. There has been no weakness in Patrick Keiller's imagination. As for Robinson, we overlook the dilution of his presence because he can still stand in a vast urban car park and sum up current social organization in a telling phrase: The parking lot, he says, "is a center masquerading as a margin."


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 25, 2013