London (Patrick Keiller, 1994)
By Lauren Thompson
«Patrick Keiller’s film, perhaps best described as a visual essay, blends documentary footage of the capital with an ironic, sardonic voice-over from a fictional, disembodied narrator (Paul Schofield) who guides us through the images that he sees as he and his unseen friend Robinson tour the city in search of literary heritage and culture.
Unusually for a documentary, and almost absurdly, it seems, for a documentary about a city, Keiller’s camera remains completely static throughout. Instead of conveying the speedy tempo of a bustling metropolis, the film instead presents us with a series of meticulously framed shots that at once mimic and subvert the picture-postcard view of our capital city. Yet there is such beauty in Keiller’s images, which blend street signs and bomb sites with whispering park gates and leaves waving in the breeze, that one cannot help but look afresh at a city that has become defamiliarised through the soft-focus lens of Richard Curtis’s camera.
But it is not just an aesthetic value that one finds in London. Fifteen years of hindsight lend a historical dimension to Keiller’s film, which documents the London of a very specific temporal moment, a London under siege from IRA bombings and 13 years of Tory governance (the re-election of John Major forms one of the key scenes in the film, at which Robinson, via the narrator, bemoans the wealth of ills that will be unleashed upon London, stopping only to acknowledge that ‘for the elderly or anyone with children it would be much worse’). The demise that the desolate Robinson predicts for London in 1992 holds chilling parallels to the London of today: Canary Wharf is in administration (a detail that inspires Robinson to adopt the Isle of Dogs development as a monument to footloose poet Arthur Rimbaud); City traders look on aghast as the FTSE 100 plummets again, barges cart London’s waste up the Thames (no doubt to a warehouse in Essex). For Keiller’s narrator at least, the London of 1992 is a London characterised by absence, ‘the first metropolis to disappear’, and the film echoes many sentiments that anyone who has even gifted a mere glance towards the front page of a newspaper in the past three months will find all too familiar.
Indeed, the film’s funniest scene is one so topical that it could’ve easily been filmed yesterday. Finding nothing in the way of inspiration in the capital, Robinson and the narrator journey to the suburbs, where they stumble upon a Tesco superstore (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is, mercifully, absent, presumably having not yet left his farm at this stage in history). Venturing into the cafe, they comment delightedly upon the ‘friendly staff and pleasant, inexpensive food’ but eventually find, to their great dismay, that there is no one writing poetry.
Yet Keiller’s film is poetry, an ode to a city that never quite was. London is a very rare thing: a documentary that is both moving and laugh out loud funny. Keiller may have set out to make a film about Paris-envy, but what he came up with is a film that makes me proud to be British, even if our weather does not quite accommodate the pavement cafe (nor the supermarket) as a site for flanerie and creativity.»
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