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.
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The ending of Patrick Keiller’s London (1994) saw the fictional academic Robinson and his loyal but un-named narrator (voiced by Paul Scofield) drowning in a sea of absence. Having criss-crossed the city of London in a desperate search for its hidden nature, the pair eventually collapse. Exhausted, deflated and defeated. London, they announce, is a city without essence. Devoid of any underlying meaning or fundamental essence, Britain’s capital is a hermeneutic desert. A space in which no meaning can grow and into which visitors are forced to carry any truths they may need in order to keep themselves alive.
Robinson in Space marks the return of London’s intrepid duo. This time the pair are hired by an un-named international advertising agency to produce a similar report on the unspecified ‘problem of England’. However, despite travelling further and further across the country, Robinson’s initial romanticism about England proves to be just as deluded as his romanticism about London. Indeed, neither an enchanted kingdom full of art and fellowship nor a gothic landscape full of dread and oppression, England reveals itself as a land of facts. Tedious, maddening, preposterous facts.
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It is difficult enough to try and capture the meaning of a book or a film, but how about attempting to distill the essence of a particular time or a particular place? How about an entire city? Travel writing is an attempt to do exactly this. To take the experience of a particular place at a particular time and distill it down into the collection of sounds and symbols that make up the written word. Thought of in these terms, the task seems onerous. After all… books are creatures of words. Even films are beings of language once you bear in mind their scripts, their budget meetings and the attempts by directors to tell actors and technicians alike exactly what they want from a particular scene. To write about the meaning of words is one thing but to write about something bigger than language is another. Something like the city of London.
Patrick Keiller’s London is a combination of documentary film and extended essay. Its un-named narrator (voiced by Paul Scofield) tells of his cross-London walks and expeditions in the company of a quixotic academic known only as Robinson. Robinson has a very particular vision of London. A vision he desperately wants to be true, and if it cannot be true then it must be about to come true. But as the pair cross and re-cross the city of London along with its suburbs, financial districts, parks and run-down estates, it soon becomes clear that London will not conform to any single vision and that this refusal to conform is the very essence of the Mother of All Cities.
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