Saturday, September 05, 2009

"Robinson told me about his dream"

So, I watched London again the other day. I had bought a copy because it was pertinent to my current writing project - references to the Robinson films are threaded throughout - and it would be easier than getting it out of the university library every time I needed to check a piece of dialogue, or an image. I first read about London in Iain Sinclair's essay 'Cinema Purgatorio', included in Lights Out For The Territory . Watching it again reminded me, in certain ways, of the experience of watching Bela Tarr's later work, particularly Satantango (although obviously not in terms of length). The rhythms and technique of filming Keiller uses are so utterly alien to the world of Hollywood cinema - and its protrubing bunion, the British film industry - as to be almost incomprehensible at first: the shot is framed, and then the camera lingers, unmoving, for what seems forever; we seem almost to be regressing to the earliest days of cinema, when a camera was simply set up and entire scenes filmed in one static take, or audiences thrilled to simply see street traffic re-presented to them; one has to become slowly acclimatised to this sense of tempo, until, eventually, it feels completely natural. Indeed, there's something of that quality in certain moments - as when, inspecting the bomb damage in the insurance district, one or two of the crowd turn to look at the camera glued to them. The film's framing device performs a strange transformation of the material, of the fabric of everyday life being filmed: the ostensible reality of verité cinema is enlisted in the service of a narrative. It reminds me, in that sense, of Sebald's Austerlitz, or, indeed, Sinclair's own Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, records of fictional events in surroundings that are all too real.

The fact that both Robinson and the narrator are invisible - and, as regards the actual camera watching real people in the street, non-existent (there is no-one stood behind it but Keiller - and that Robinson's 'researches' - first into "the problem of London", then, in Robinson in Space, "the problem of England" - take him further and further into a geography of absences and ghosts - Montaigne, Defoe, Horace Walpole, Poe, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Apollinaire's sojourns in London - seem significant. Robinson and our narrator are Proustian ghosts at the feast, waspish, melancholy and bickering lovers. Robinson, withdrawn into his flat ("Apart from his academic work, he hardly leaves... except to go to the supermarket"), is an at best reluctant participant in the modern world, disgusted by the rotten stupidity of those who returned the Tories in 1992. "It is difficult to recall the shock", the narrator tells us, "with which we realised our alienation from the events that were unfolding in front of us", as Major waves to the crowds, the environmental noise muted, the whole vulgar scene seeming disconnected, at one remove from the splenetic commentary of the narrator. Indeed, the geography of their drifts - the lines they take, criss-crossing the map of the capital - is illusory, non-existent; the investment we feel in the narrative of their drift, the sequence of sensation and history as they move through each topography and territory, is fictional. London becomes, through Robinson's hyperstitional schemes, a ghost of itself: "London was the first metropolis to disappear."

The fact that London is so concerned not just with architectural space in the accepted sense (of individual buildings), but the overall effect of buildings together, of positioning, spaces - the Richmond Hill fields, Twickenham canalsides, the "packhorse road to Bristol"; later, the Stowe ornamental gardens and St. George's Hill golf-course in Robinson in Space - the whole notion of psychogeography, as experienced by the flaneur, is almost belied by its methodology. The central paradox of London is that of a film so possessed by the act of walking, that never seems to move. Instead of the imposed motion of the tracking shot, or the short take and jump-cut, each shot swims with an external life, the chiaroscuro of people moving around, of the grey depths of Thames water roiling, of light shifting on the mud of the Channelsea river. These instances, these lingering visions of an unstill stillness, seem to multiply as Robinson and the narrator travel up the River Brent, seemingly never getting closer to solving "the problem of London", when everything seems, for a moment to resolve, before Keiller jump-cuts to another movement. They point towards the paradox of Robinson's position: private visions that suggest a shared dreaming, in space (it's unsurprising that Robinson is nostalgic for the age of collectivist architecture, in the form of "Goldfinger's Alexander Fleming house"). He is a recluse who declares himself "an enthusiast for public spaces", who considers a ranting, bowler-hatted banker, "a man after his own heart, a man of the crowd". After shots of public space overtaken by commercialisation and reactionary stupidity (Smith Square and Downing Street after the Major victory, the Trooping of the Colour in the "acres of space in the centre of the city" occupied by the monarchy, the Lord Mayor's show, the roadside McDonalds with the huge inflatable Ronald on the roof), there is the bonfire in Kennington Park, the flames framing the silhouettes of people conversing, laughing, strings rising on the soundtrack, a public space, like the Notting Hill carnival or Brixton market or Southall earlier in the film, suddenly flickering with an egalitarian life - the free and easy metropolitan life "enjoyed by the peoples of the Continent". It's these moments, more than the desolation, the presence of the past in the film, that are most poignant. In that sense, it is a film about the revolutionary impulse, the impossible (and hence wholly necessary) hopes it embodies, in recession; Robinson's position could be summarised by a variation on Marx's aphorism: I am no-one and I should be everyone.

The complaint about the camera's lack of movement recalls Sheila Rowbotham's recent remarks on Comrades, which I also saw last week. But, in saying that Douglas' compositions cannot "
capture the radical turbulence of a trade unionism that reached out not only to the skilled but to the unskilled, women and children alike", she misses the point: the poignancy, the pain of these men's lives, and the collective totality of the labour movement, resides in the interstices between these pictures that linger in the mind like an image on silver bromide paper, that accumulate in layers. "Robinson believed that, if he looked at it long 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." Psychogeographic exploration is an attempt to alter the fabric of reality, of the history that brought us to where we are now - hence Robinson's efforts to construct an alternate history "in which the 19th century never happened"; it is an act of vision that is also an act of revolution. Robinson and the narrator, consigned to chasing spectres, hemmed in by a built environment squashing them out, cannot manage it any longer; but, in that impulse, the potentiality of the creation of another world remains.