Back in the 1990s, the filmmaker and architectural scholar Patrick Keiller made a pair of films about Britain. As much video essays as they were documentary films, London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997) were concerted attempts to find the true spirit of Britain that had been buried by a decade and a half of Thatcherite rule. Sensing that the wheels were coming off the Tory juggernaut and that a fresh start would soon be required, Keiller used the eccentric academic Robinson and a wryly-comic unnamed narrator to sift the wreckage in search of gold. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Keiller’s intrepid explorers, the project was a political failure: Britain, much like its capital city, was a place devoid of any truth that could not be measured in pounds, euros, dollars or units of industrial measurement. London and Robinson in Space are films about the defeat of the romantic spirit and the absolute victory of neoliberalism.
Over a decade later, Keiller returns with Robinson in Ruins, an unexpected addendum to the Robinson duology. With the narrator dead and Robinson gone, the narration has fallen to an equally unnamed female public sector worker (voiced by Vanessa Redgrave) who discovers Robinson’s footage and notes in an old caravan on a site destined for re-development. Made at the height of the credit crunch, when the towers of Capitalism tottered and nearly fell, Robinson in Ruins is far less pessimistic than either London or Robinson in Space. Eerily apocalyptic and as visually arresting as all of Keiller’s work, Robinson in Ruins suggests that humanity’s salvation may lie in communion with non-human intelligences.
Both London and Robinson in Space benefit from a distinctive visual style. Entirely made up of footage shot using a single unmoving camera, both films use the compositional techniques of tourist holiday photography as a means of achieving a state of naïve realism, as though both the images and the truths they yield had just been stumbled upon by accident. This accidental method is reflected in the dialectical nature of Keiller’s scripts. In both films, Robinson represents the romantic visionary who flies too close to the Sun and needs to be pulled back down to Earth by the supportive cynicism of the narrator. As though by accident, the films truths emerge from the collision of Robinson’s idealism with the narrator’s cynicism. Taken together, these two accidental forms of argumentation make for an intensely ironic cinematic experience: between the discarded phone cards with images of Hadrian’s wall or the Conservative party poster sitting beside a wasteland, Keiller makes his points through a haze of philosophical caveat and diversionary winks. In London and Robinson in Space, Keiller neither exhorts nor inspires, he lures you into agreement with a joke and a nudge.
Somewhat surprisingly, Robinson in Ruins is a far less ironic piece of filmmaking. Gone, for example, is the interplay between Robinson and the narrator. Instead, the film devotes much of its spoken elements to the thoughts of the narrator alone who, inspired by Robinson’s notes, takes his ideas directly to their logical conclusion. Do not wink, do not nudge and do not collect £200. Also gone is the ironically detached visual commentary, replaced by shots of nature so earnest and straightforward in their beauty that they could have been chosen by Terrence Malick himself. Robinson in Ruins retains the touristic composition of the original films but now the visual commentary is direct: This is a film about an ecosphere that is poised to assume control should capitalism fail.
The film begins with what turns out to be a recurring visual motif. Robinson, it is said, was living in the ruins of an old house. The house, we see, is boarded up and overgrown. Setting out in search of some hidden truth, Robinson circles the suburbs of London and Oxford before latching on to a network of gas mains designed to ensure that military bases and large industrial installations retained their capacity to function. However, as the film retraces Robinson’s steps, it discovers that most of these old bases and factories have been since been shut down. Again and again, we see rusting iron fences barring access to a rolling hillside or a newly formed forest growing from the ruins of yesterday’s weapons of war.
Robinson in Ruins reprises Robinson in Space’s obsession with facts and figures but whereas before, the facts and figures seemed to dominate the landscape, they now sit beside images of nature: Bees, flowers, butterflies. Images of nature that are accompanied only by silence or the sighing of the wind. These long gaps in the film’s narration are like cracks in the concrete bedrock of capitalism. As banks fail and governments spin, the world of facts and figures reveals itself to be only skin-deep. Beneath the concrete, nature is poised for a take-over, a take-over that is already well underway.
Another of the film’s recurring motifs is that of lichen. We first encounter lichen growing on one of Keiller’s iconic road signs. This post-apocalyptic image links up with Keiller’s use ofa quotation from Fredric Jameson’s The Seeds of Time (1994):
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 that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.
Here Keiller seems to be both acknowledging his own failures of imagination (the downbeat nihilism of both London and Robinson in Space) and gesturing towards those elusive non-human intelligences: Humans may be unable to imagine what life would be like without capitalism, but plants and lichens are happy to profit from the decay of human infrastructure, its imagination (inhuman though it may be) is clearly not as impoverished as ours.
While Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (1976) should probably not be read as a biological vindication of capitalist greed, there is no denying that it is a theory that shares many of capitalism’s assumptions about the state of nature. For Dawkins, the gene sees the world as a field of conquest where opponents are slain and territory in taken and held. The gene, we are told, is psychopathic in its absolute commitment to survival. However, while some Neo-Darwinist interpreters emphasise the competitive nature of the evolutionary process, other thinkers choose to emphasise the importance of cooperation. Keiller cites the biologist Lynn Margulis whose paper “The Origins of Mitosing Eukaryotic Cells” (1967) greatly advanced what has become known as the Endosymbiotic Theory, according to which certain organelles began life as free-living bacteria who fell into a cooperative and symbiotic relationship. These cells suggest that peaceful cooperation is as much a part of the natural world as cutthroat competitive capitalism. Again, just because our imaginations are incapable of stretching beyond the boundaries of capitalism, it does not follow that non-human intelligences are similarly hampered.
One of the more memorable visual motifs in Robinson in Space was that of moving water spanned by bridges. In the context of Keiller’s loss of faith in a deeper, non-Thatcherite Spirit of Britain, these images spoke of capitalism’s absolute dominion over the beauty of the natural world. Robinson in Ruins features a similar motif in the shape of combine harvesters progressing through fields of wheat. Had these images appeared in Robinson in Space then they would have spoken to that film’s vision of capitalist dominion. However, because they appear in a film with a more hopeful theme, their meaning is completely reversed. Indeed, the images of combine harvesters cutting down wheat do not speak of capitalism’s dominion over the natural world but of the effort and resources required of capitalism to keep the natural world in check. Huge machines comb the countryside, cutting down wheat and reducing it first into flour and then into financial statistics but once this process is ended, it must start all over again with more machines, more work, more processing. Nature is implacable. It does not rest. Capitalism simply cannot keep up.
Keiller reinforces the idea of a capitalism that is struggling to retain its grip on the Earth by returning us to Robinson’s ruined house. The trees cut back and a shiny red façade now in place, the narrator innocently informs us that the developers have pumped a fortune into renovating the property despite its structural weakness:
It seems strange that so much effort should be devoted to its preservation.
By referencing the government’s bailing out of the financial sector (a huge chunk of cataclysmic exposition juxtaposed with the image of a spider building a web), Keiller makes his point with admirable clarity: given that capitalism is structurally unsound, why are we devoting so much energy and money to keeping it in place? Why not try something else?
Robinson in Ruins is a film of its time and that time was the brief period between the near-collapse of the global financial markets and the use of government money to buttress capital’s dominion over the Earth. Since then, the hope for rebirth and change has been snuffed out and money previously devoted to helping the poor has been diverted to protecting the entrenched power of the rich. This is a time of crisis… we must cut back, we must not live beyond our means and what means we have must be entirely devoted to ensuring the lifestyles of the rich and the powerful. Why? Because nobody in a position to change anything has enough imagination to apprehend a world where the rich are not rich and the poor are not poor.
While Robinson in Ruins speaks without irony from a fixed place in history, the changes that have since taken place only serve to make it more poignant. Robinson in Ruins was made with the intention of showing us the way forward, now it speaks only of our inevitable end. An end in which capitalism collapses and nature reasserts itself. We may not be able to imagine a world without capitalism but nature can and nature will reclaim the world if we cannot adapt our methods and change our ways. Robinson in Ruins speaks of doom and hope and in that tension lays its simple beauty.