Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Patrick Keiller’s London

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th June, 2012

It was a smart move of the Stratford Picture House to screen an avant-garde full-length feature film on London just a javelin’s throw away from the Olympic Stadium, though I was surprised and saddened to find only half a dozen or so other people in the audience. The film was Patrick Keiller’s ‘London’, made in 1994 and set two years earlier. It is the first of three ‘Robinson’ films that he has authored. Robinson is the companion and sometime lover of an unseen narrator, voiced by actor Paul Scofield; together they trudge round London’s gloomier parts, bemoaning how inferior it is to continental Paris, with the latter;s good food and proper outdoor life. The pair certainly find desolate and inhuman vistas aplenty in London, redolent of urban blight and the legacy of industrialisation. They make a pilgrimage to various sites connected with Rimbaud and Verlaine, though the transgressive poets’ main abode in London was apparently knocked down to make way for the Post Office Tower (cheekily shown as a phallic innuendo is intoned). But to describe the film in this way is not to do it justice, as it is at heart a series of static images, rather as if an alienated but literate observer is stood still, just staring ahead. Trains (and one cruise liner) provide the greatest movement throughout. The narrator at one stage declares that Robinson (equally unseen) ‘believed that, if he looked hard enough, he could cause the surface of the city to reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events, and in this way he hoped to see into the future.’ There  is one scene where the flaneurs chance upon a hallucinatory street at the side of St Paul’s cathedral, still frozen in the 19th century. But essentially the viewer is being challenged, the over-riding sense of melancholy punctuated at times with bursts of sardonic humour. It’s not an attractive portrayal of our capital, which was indeed rather dull in 1992, though even worse in 1972 and infintely worse in 1952. One could hardly call it dull now. But I wonder if Patrick Keiller — who currently has an exhibition on at Tate Britain, called ‘The Robinson Institute’ — did foresee what things would be like now?


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