Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins
Keiller’s third film brings a darker edge to the dreamy imagery familiar from London and Robinson in Space
How does a jobbing architect become an avant-garde filmmaker? Good slides. When Patrick Keiller was a teacher at the North East London Polytechnic, he collected colour photos of found architecture “in the way a surrealist artist might”. They included scaffolding, ruins and an “extremely beautiful” pink coal hopper (his favourite).
“I thought I could make something out of this,” he says. The other option was to get a job with Cedric Price, who “was terribly sweet”, he says. “He interviewed me. But it became clear that what he needed was a dab hand with an airbrush. And I’d never seen an airbrush in my life. I wouldn’t have known how to turn one on. So that didn’t go anywhere.”
Keiller decided to make a break for it. He entered the Royal College of Art, making, first, a couple of short installations (which were exhibited in the Tate) and then several longer celluloid portraits of places such as Norwood and Stonebridge Park. It culminated in his celebrated film essay of 1994, London, widely considered one of the very greatest studies of a city ever put to film. In it we saw the birth of his tragicomic hero, Robinson, a character that we neither catch a glimpse of nor hear. Today sees the release of Robinson in Ruins, the much anticipated third film in the series, again following the wanderings of the mildly batty, sacked academic.
As with the two earlier films, an unimpeachably scholarly conundrum is the official sport – specifically the discrepancy between our desire for agricultural domesticity and economic mobility. But the nub of the matter is financial collapse, environmental decay and terrestrial doom. “Of the three films, it is the most ambitious in terms of theme,” says Keiller, “Because it really does take on the end of the world.” He pauses and chuckles: “Which is sort of a real possibility!”
But don’t expect your usual Angelina Jolie-led salute to Armageddon. Like all of Keiller’s films, Robinson in Ruins follows a specific formula: static camera shots of structures and landscapes – buildings, fields, post boxes (that might talk), road signs – are overlaid with mercurial chunks of narrative. It is filmmaking like no other: intense, static and dreamy, the lens fixed on things that filmmakers don’t usually bother with or at least don’t usually linger on or frame with half as much quiet cleverness as Keiller does.
Then, like a modern-day Venerable Bede, images are folded into the most dramatically unpromising material you could imagine: a dense web of cultural, economic and historical references that should suffocate but, instead, as if by magic, coalesce to form miraculous mosaic portraits of British society.
In the first two films – London and Robinson in Space – this sociological poetry was delivered by the late Paul Scofield, who played Robinson’s unnamed companion. In Robinson in Ruins, Vanessa Redgrave takes over. She talks us through Robinson’s circumambulations of Oxfordshire, “the location of a great malady”, says Robinson elusively, “that I shall dispel, in the manner of Turner, by making picturesque views on journeys to sites of scientific and historic interest.” (“I’m not sure why ’in the manner of Turner’,” ponders Keiller.) We gaze out over fields of rape and poppies and the site of the suicide of David Kelly. We linger over an outburst of lichen on a road sign. We watch a spider weave its web (while Redgrave relays the day-by-day unravelling of the stock markets).
Of the three films it is the most ambitious because it really does take on the end of the world
For an age we follow a huge combine harvester scuttling across the fields like a busy insect, a shot that so delighted Keiller that he felt he couldn’t part with a second of it. “It’s not for everybody,” he concedes in his deadpan Lancashire accent. “I’m sure I’ll get complaints.” Despite the English flowers, the fields, the rolling hills and sweetness, there is a fire in the belly of this film. “The idea is to try and unpick things,” he contends, “Which is why it ends up in the 16th century.”
We nose around the history of England’s peculiar capitalism, and ideas of authenticity (“the idea that we’re all supposed to want to become peasants”) and identity. But little is resolved until the closing sentences, which hint at the birth of a new mode of dwelling. All Keiller’s films are essentially about quests for urban utopias. In Robinson in Space, Blackpool held the key to utopia. In London, Europe showed the way.
“London takes on board a lot of stuff that was around in architecture in the late 1970s and 1980s about the rediscovery of urbanism,” he explains. “And it adopts the position of Richard Rogers, who was trying to convert London into a European city – which it quite clearly isn’t.”
But the only film explicitly about habitation was The Dilapidated Dwelling, commissioned by Channel 4 but never broadcast. (Keiller says you can download it illegally using BitTorrent, but admits: “I daren’t sign up.”)
The documentary explored the conundrum (“quite a difficult one,” he believes) of why all attempts to modernise house production have been unsuccessful.
“One of the reasons why I interviewed James Dyson for the programme was to rather cheekily suggest to him: could you solve this problem?” he explains. But in the end they spoke little about design and a lot about British interest rates. As tends to happen with Keiller, digressions – about pipelines or Lidl products or Heidegger – have a tendency to colonise conversation.
So what sort of filmmaker would he say he is? He’s not happy with the term “filmmaker”. He doesn’t make enough films, he says. “But I don’t know what else to call myself.” The next will come when someone “bangs on his door”, which will be necessary because he insists on using 35 mm film. Until that happens he will probably write a book to accompany this film – “there’s a great deal more to say”.
His output is unique: a small but bright collection of gems. Is he proud of what he’s done? “I’m moderately pleased with it,” he says without much enthusiasm. “I’m actually amazed to be still doing it,” he says, “It is an enormous privilege. And it seems to work. There are people who find my films extremely irritating. On the other hand there are people who very much like them. And those people are often quite interesting. So it doesn’t seem like a waste of time.”
Robinson In Ruins is showing at BFI Southbank from today. See www.bfi.org.uk for other venues.