PRINT February 2017


Patrick Keiller, Robinson in Ruins, 2010, 35 mm transferred to HD video, color, sound, 101 minutes.

IN PATRICK KEILLER’S FIRST FEATURE, London (1994), an unnamed, unseen narrator articulates a theory of landscape on behalf of the film’s equally invisible presiding spirit, a spectral figure named Robinson. Flaneur, aesthete, researcher-for-hire, Robinson believed that “if he looked at it 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.” Within this curious-sounding assertion lies the very promise of the landscape film, a genre with both materialist underpinnings and mystical overtones, endeavoring a study of place that can also be a form of time travel. To look “hard enough” at the spaces captured by the camera is not just to see what is there but also to discern what once was there, and to imagine what will or what could be there.

Keiller, who trained as an architect, came to filmmaking through architectural photography. In his earliest shorts, Stonebridge Park (1981) and Norwood (1984), mundane, marginal places—a network of footbridges, a drab and sleepy suburban neighborhood—are imbued with a sense of the uncanny through first-person narrations that combine tales of noirish intrigue with bouts of introspective digression. In the films that followed—The End (1986), Valtos (1987), The Clouds (1989)—the itineraries expand and the voice-overs become more mannered, anticipating the Robinson films, Keiller’s three features revolving around the fictive character Robinson and his far-flung research.

London, on first encounter, could be mistaken for an exercise in cozy nostalgia. Fixed-frame images of the metropolis are narrated in a soothing tone of wry amusement by the Shakespearean actor Paul Scofield, and the diagnosis of late-twentieth-century urban malaise is pitched in a recognizably British register of sardonic self-loathing. Over the opening shot of Tower Bridge—one of the film’s few touristic vistas—our guide enumerates the “modern miseries” afflicting “dirty old Blighty”: “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.” But as the film takes shape—as a series of excursions in which the narrator accompanies his friend and ex-lover Robinson on a quest to explore the never-quite-specified “problem of London”—it becomes at once more eccentric and more political.

Keiller’s method, which involves an estrangement and a transformation of the everyday, is a principally French tendency, most closely associated with the urban wanderings of the frisson-seeking Surrealists and with the Situationist practice of the dérive. London is a fairly Francophilic enterprise, its narrator citing Montaigne and Baudelaire and recounting past visits to the city by Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Apollinaire. Robinson believes that “English culture had been irretrievably diverted by the English reaction to the French Revolution”; as Keiller has noted, a chief “problem of London,” going by Robinson’s complaints, seems to be that it is not Paris. London also emerged as part of a 1990s groundswell of British psychogeography that encompassed such perambulating writers as Iain Sinclair and Will Self, though of this group Keiller alone harbored some semblance of the Situationist belief in the revolutionary potential of critical spatial engagement.

Shot in 1992, London plays today like a time capsule of a queasy epoch, marked by IRA bombings, the shuttering of most of Britain’s coal mines, and the improbable reelection that year of John Major as prime minister. Robinson bemoans the parochialism of early-’90s London, “a city under siege from a suburban government.” A more fashionable and prosperous London was just on the horizon (with the advent of New Labour, Cool Britannia, and the YBAs), though the rampant privatization, deregulation, and inequality to which Keiller points have only worsened in the years since. Similarly resonant today, and equally applicable to many other modern cities, is Robinson’s conclusion that London, lacking an identity, a self-image, public space, and a public sector, is defined above all by absence. It is no wonder Keiller favors compositions in which human figures are marginal or absent altogether: City symphony as elegy, London positions itself as a portrait of the first vanished metropolis.

Keiller’s urbanist analysis is compelling, but the film’s most arresting aspect is its distinct mode of address, achieved through a vertiginous interplay of word and image worthy of Chris Marker. Scofield’s placid delivery contains an incongruous barrage of facts and figures, and instead of fostering the contemplative mood typical of landscape cinema, the static shots are set against a dense, fast-moving weave of associations. The opinionated Robinson is somewhere between foil and mouthpiece; this allows Keiller, as writer, some useful comic and rhetorical license. Never seen, Robinson is also never directly heard from: He is a third-person presence whose copious theories and suppositions are relayed to us secondhand. Robinson’s incorporeality—and the notion of these journeys as hauntings—would become even more pertinent as the later films moved into more abstract terrain.

The sequel to London, Robinson in Space (1997), takes further Keiller’s conception of landscape cinematography as spatial research. It announces itself as an explicitly political project, opening with a quote from The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem’s 1967 Situationist text about the necessity of bridging imagination and reality. Now teaching at a language school in Reading, Robinson has been commissioned by a “well-known international advertising agency” to conduct a study on “the problem of England,” again never identified. If Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) was an ostensible model for London, his Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–27) is an acknowledged inspiration here. No less relevant, given the journey’s increasingly pronounced paranoid dimension, is Defoe’s sideline in espionage.

Like London, Robinson in Space is an attempt to see through landscape, to grasp the invisible forces that have shaped it. But while the earlier film sought out forgotten and secret histories, here the focus is on global trade flows and financial networks. Exiled from the city to the hinterlands, Robinson and his sidekick (again a character given voice by Paul Scofield’s vivid narration) visit sites of contemporary economic activity: container ports, warehouses, industrial parks, shopping malls, superstores, and automated factories, including plants that produce plasterboard and latex sheets for fetishware. Complicating the standard narrative of the decline of British industry and the decimation of its manufacturing base, Robinson in Space finds an economy that is functioning perfectly well on its own new terms, and that has spawned a very particular and decidedly alienating built environment.

Still from Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins, 2010, 35 mm transferred to HD video, color, sound, 101 minutes.

The Robinson trilogy can be aligned with the political wing of experimental landscape cinema, along with such films as Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late (1981) and John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007). But Keiller also exists within a rich tradition of British landscape artists and polemicists. Each Robinson film makes explicit and implicit allusions to J. M. W. Turner, who was in his day the foremost chronicler of landscapes in a process of profound transfiguration and who is credited in London with “the first attempts to transform the world by looking at the landscape.” The confluence of lyricism and Surrealism in Keiller’s work can be traced in part to the pioneering British documentarian Humphrey Jennings (1907–1950), who also undertook an obsessive study of the Industrial Revolution and the history of modernization in his epic annotated scrapbook Pandæmonium, 1660–1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers (published posthumously in 1985). Among contemporary film-essayists, despite their vastly different sensibilities, Keiller shares compatriot Adam Curtis’s penchant for big-picture vantages and knack for locating hidden nodes of history—put to especially striking use in Robinson in Ruins (2010).

The interregnum between the second and third Robinson films coincided roughly with the Tony Blair years, and Robinson in Ruins concludes the trilogy by taking on the smothering specter of neoliberal capitalism. Ruin is something of an idée fixe for Keiller: In 2000, he made his most straightforward film, The Dilapidated Dwelling, which supplements his usual landscape imagery and discursive narration with the talking heads and archival footage of the conventional documentary. The argument here is relentlessly clear-cut: The UK’s housing stock is in a woeful state of irreversible decline. The ruins in the third Robinson film are manifold: architectural, ecological, and—not least, given that it was shot in 2008, the year of global financial collapse—economic. A quote from Fredric Jameson’s Seeds of Time (1994) sets the tone: “It seems to be easier for us 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.”

Robinson in Ruins is a markedly wearier and more somber film than its predecessors. Robinson, we learn, spent most of the intervening years in open prison, perhaps (as we hear at the end of Robinson in Space) for having stolen some military hardware. The film is said to have been assembled from several reels of celluloid that he shot after his release and that were discovered, with his notebook, in a derelict camper trailer before he disappeared again. The narrator of the previous films has died (as did Scofield, in 2008), and the voice we hear is that of his lover (Vanessa Redgrave), the director of a research institute named for Robinson.

The meanderings in Robinson in Ruins are mostly in the vicinity of Oxford, through a quintessential English countryside pocked with satellite dishes, oil pipelines, and military bases. Against these detailed views of the present day, Keiller reaches back to a preindustrial past, recounting centuries-old struggles over land enclosure during the agrarian revolution. The touchstone text is Karl Polanyi’s sweeping history and critique of capitalism, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944), in particular its account of how capitalism took root in England in the postfeudal era. Keiller scans the land for historical fissures and fault lines, sites of labor stirrings and would-be rebellions.

Robinson in Ruins derives its quiet cosmic force from the superimposition of contrasting timescales. The film offers a month-by-month account of the financial tumult of 2008, keeping an eye on fluctuating oil prices and proliferating bank bailouts. But it also insists on the extreme long view, inducing an awareness of geologic time by lingering on the creeping lichen on a road sign, musing on alien intelligence and the prospect of human extinction. While the previous films featured largely uninterrupted monologues, this one includes long, wordless interludes depicting a wheat harvest in progress, a field of poppies in the wind, a meadow alive with birdsong. Structured around competing narratives and temporalities of nature and culture, Robinson in Ruins is Keiller’s most thoroughgoing debunking of the founding myths of capitalism, none more pernicious, perhaps, than the notion that the free market is a state of nature.

Robinson may today lie dead or dormant, but the restless intelligence that created him remains active, not to mention adaptable to a variety of formats. The originality of Keiller’s thinking is readily apparent in his 2012 exhibition at Tate Britain, “The Robinson Institute”; in his 2013 collection of essays on landscape and urbanism, The View from the Train (Verso); and in the artist’s project that follows these pages, which applies the richly associative, centuries-spanning landscape interrogations of Robinson in Ruins to contemporary London, seeing past the sleek surfaces of today’s ghost town of the superrich to long-ago eruptions of dissent and suppression.

London, Robinson in Space, and Robinson in Ruins are available on DVD from BFI.

Dennis Lim is director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.