This blog was written by Nick Shaw, a member of the Chocolate Films team
An impossibly wide shot of Tower Bridge on a grey London day. Something about the 16mm film image looks grainy and old. Nineties. A voice, elderly and authoritative: “Dirty old Blighty. Undereducated, 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. It’s so exotic, so… homemade.”
This list of sins comes from 1994, and Patrick Keiller’s first feature documentary London. The words of the film’s never seen nor heard fictional protagonist Robinson – Keiller’s vent for a variety of ideas – in a chapter of the film entitled “The Great Malady: The Horror of Home”. Hardly tourist board stuff.
Robinson’s musings on urbanism, modernism, politics, urban decay, history, art and philosophy are chronicled in London (1994) and later in the following films Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010). The character’s thoughts are meandering, inquisitive, forthright and yet ironically distanced by Keiller’s way of making films. An unnamed narrator, heard only in Paul Scofield’s voiceover, acts as companion and diarist to Robinson, and his is the only voice you will hear in the film. The narrator claims that Robinson is not poor because he cannot afford what he wants, instead that he’s poor because the things he wants are not available to buy. A sense of civic identity for his city. The modernist dream of work and play at one under a benign government. Accompanying the voice is a montage of selected still vignettes of London, often innocuous scenes of everyday life. These shots are sometimes framed at random, the camera come to rest as if selected by a roulette wheel – but also sometimes in self-consciously beautiful or painterly compositions, only occasionally chiming in content with the words we hear. Robinson is a flaneur of early 1990s London. His politicised strolls around London’s inner and outer districts are charged with an acute sensitivity to change and to injustice. He complains of how expensive London is and the government’s failures over the Troubles and Maastricht in the halls of Whitehall.
London. What a title. Is it arrogant to suggest that one film can encapsulate the city or distil its essence? We don’t even know what the real London actually is. So how can we claim to make its film? Nevertheless, Patrick Keiller tried to do this twenty years ago and the time has come to see if the crisis of civic identity observed by his protagonist Robinson, has come to bear. Let’s reflect on his attempt to reimagine the capital’s urban spaces with an artist’s eye, and a storyteller’s ear.
So how did Keiller see London? Let’s start with the archetypes, such as ‘foggy London town’. Robinson evokes French writer Apollinaire visiting a loved one in Clapham North, whose view of the south London suburbs, seen from the train, was of ‘wounds bleeding in the fog’. On how to shoot his film in London, Keiller states that ‘a McDonald’s, photographed in black and white might have looked a bit bleak. In colour it got a laugh… In the absence of traditional fog perhaps the traffic fumes had possibilities. I wondered whether to make the film in colour, which might be more suited to the haze.” Indeed the peasoupers are long gone but then again, perhaps Oscar Wilde was right when he said that “there was no fog in London until Whistler started painting the Thames”. If the Victorian Thames ought to be foggy, and 1994 ought to be hazy, what is it in the air today that could become a new archetype? New languages? Free Wifi?
London’s ‘London-ness’ is not tied up in fog alone. Keiller reckons that its very lack of a consistent identity is what makes it different. In the north of the UK it might have been some time after the war in the 1950s when a single industry could hold sway over entire towns, offering in return identity and consistency. In the film London, the narrator observes: “For Londoners, London is obscured, too thinly spread, too private for anyone to know, its social life invisible, its government abolished… Its historical centre is filled with nothing but a civic void populated by clerks and dealers. Mostly citizens of other towns. The true identity of London is in its absence, it is a city that no longer exists. It is in this alone that it is truly modern. London was the first metropolis to disappear.” We walked home across Southwark bridge in silence.’
Why not choose the Shard as your modern geographic centre? Today it rises like an enormous exclamation point to a sentence that reads “London is modern”. In 1994, Robinson imagined an alternate future: “As this city decayed, it would be reclaimed by artists, poets and musicians, the pioneers of urbanism. As the docks and markets had been 20 years before.” 20 years hence, what has come to be? It requires a titanic sense of perspective to imagine the Shard as an artist’s co-op any time soon, greened over complete with permaculture and beehives.
For me personally, Keiller’s Robinson represents an unfocussed stab at intellectualising how London can make you feel small, and sometimes lost. He is a handy device for the filmmaker to cast out some unrelated ideas about place and cities, and is not to be taken at face value as a pontificating know-all. London is a wry, humorous and intelligent film that asks us to take a fresh look at our city, and consider its urban landscape as we would the paintings in a gallery or the poems in a book.
No wonder we have trouble pinning down what we are when there are so many of us. It is a struggle even to find each other. Euston Station, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar square. Places with a profusion of sheer humanity, of swarming bodies and urgency, industry and intent. What identity can an individual have in a place with so many people? It is so easy to be lost here. Let’s say I’m meeting an old friend in one of these places, Euston. How will I find them? I mentally recap their, face, clothes and gait. Scanning the crowd, they may never appear. What interests me is the moment of recognition. We must see our friend, otherwise we would look away. But somehow the mind recognises them before the eye, and the eye then follows. And then the body moves towards them. The potency of our emotional memory of times spent with this person floods us. Reunion, longing, laughter. The enormous statue of the reunited lovers at St Pancras is London’s monument to this moment in time. My own favourite moment of city life, full of the identity of the city. It can only exist in a place that resists everyday chance encounters. It reminds me of how the city can accommodate such a myriad of lives, rarely intersecting, and how our individual path through it is at the mercy of the tender connections we make with others. Without our loved ones, we really are just faces in in the crowd.
Watch the film here: