This essay on Patrick Keiller appeared in the Guardian.
The opening sentence of Patrick Keiller’s new film, voiced with laconic precision and italic irony by Vanessa Redgrave, is calculated to quicken the hearts of admirers of Keiller’s enigmatic oeuvre: “When a man named Robinson was released from Edgecote open prison, he made his way to the nearest city and looked for somewhere to haunt.” Robinson in Ruins is the third of Keiller’s feature-length essay-fictions to deposit his eccentric protagonist among the relics of millennial England, where he functions once more as the comically half-deluded conduit for the director’s own brand of visionary scholarship. As a fictional invention, the autodidact aesthete Robinson, whom we only ever encounter via the films’ narrators’ vexed relations with him, is an absurd sort of wraith, tricked up from reminders of Defoe and Céline, but surely also a descendant of the Regency showman Robertson, inventor of the proto-cinematic phantasmagoria. In Robinson in Ruins, his spectral patch is the landscape around Keiller’s own home in Oxford: its industrial heritage, its residual romanticism, the weird energies of Englishness at a time of global economic collapse.
Since the 1970s, Keiller has been architect, photographer, installation artist and, increasingly, an essayist of stylish rigour on urban planning, architectural decay and the vast culturally occluded material infrastructure that subtends daily life in Britain. But he remains best known for the first two Robinson films, London in 1994 and Robinson in Spacethree years later: films in which his research into the structure of everyday life is parlayed into devious fiction, and the drear actualities of city and country yield surprisingly ravishing images.
Keiller is a poet of blank statistics – in person, he can talk at length about patterns of land use in suburban Oxford or the hidden flourishing of Britain’s ports – and a connoisseur of built dullardry: nostalgic housing estates, defunct factories, centripetal supermarkets. (Take up an invitation to view locations from his new film, and he will drive you to the car park at his local Lidl.) But he is also a genuine, if ironised, seer: a follower of Walter Benjamin’s call (in his 1929 essay “Surrealism”) for a “profane illumination” of mundane existence. And as Robinson in Ruins attests again, he’s an incisive, poised and frequently hilarious writer, contriver of a prose voice with no equals among contemporary British filmmakers and, in terms of intellectual range and mordant wit, few among recent novelists. (Comparisons with WG Sebald are inevitable, and the new film even hints that Robinson and Sebald are exiled doubles.)
Keiller was born in Blackpool in 1950. From the late 1960s, he studied at the Bartlett school of architecture in London, and subsequently taught at the University of East London and many other institutions. (Something of Robinson’s para-academic non-career as a language teacher and freelance researcher seems to derive from this period, and Iain Sinclaironce referred to Keiller as “the epitome of part-time man”.) In 1979 he began a postgraduate degree at the Royal College of Art, and it’s from then that one can readily date the mature Keiller aesthetic.
He began making films in the wake of austere structural experiments by the likes of Tony Conrad and Michael Snow in the US, and the rise in Britain of theorist practitioners such as Laura Mulvey and Victor Burgin. But if there was an English avant-garde in this period, it had lately turned to a kind of romantic conceptualism whose adherents were unafraid of elegance and a doleful native humour; the works of Peter Greenaway,John Smith and William Raban all had some affinities with Keiller’s. And in 1980, Chris Petit’s Radio On made the outskirts of London look as glamorously dismal as the cityscapes of Wim Wenders or the earthbound portions of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.
Keiller’s first films, however, were made at some deliberate remove from the work of these contemporaries. His background in architecture offers one partial explanation. In the late 1970s, he began noting instances of “found architecture” from suburban train windows and cycling to the spot to photograph them, producing a wryly homegrown counterpart to the stark industrial anatomy photographed by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Keiller’s Stonebridge Park, from 1981, was the product of one such excursion. Visually, the film is composed of a few snaking handheld shots of a motorway bridge and a metal railway footbridge in north-west London. But the voice-over (Keiller’s own) recounts the mannered noir tale of a thief and would-be murderer whose rueful apologia (“I began to be a little depressed”) situates the film somewhere between England at the end of the 1970s and a Europe of the mind, with its echoes of city visionaries from Baudelaire through Louis Aragon to the situationists and their vagrant dérives. Keiller’s second film, Norwood (1984), maintained the lugubrious narrative tone and visual deadpan; its monochrome suburban vistas are glum rehearsals of Camille Pissarro’s Impressionist views of London in the 1870s. But it also suggested that behind the formal estrangements of his films lay a real anxiety about the decline of the city: after half a decade of Thatcherism, Norwood announces “the age of small business” and notes that politically and socially speaking, “collectivity lies in ruins”.
The short black-and-white films of this period already hint, then, at the seamless amalgam of politics and poetry that makes the Robinson films so entrancing. With London and Robinson in Space, certain aspects of his work condensed – the somewhat antic plots of the early films had already given way in The Clouds (1989) to spacey travelogue, and the camera stopped moving so that the signature Keiller shot has ever since been a static linger that seems in its meditative way to last much longer than it in fact does. But Keiller’s first feature-length works also broach a new expansiveness; highly saturated colours allowed him to capture alike the comic and picturesque qualities of what he saw, be it an inflatable Ronald McDonald, a quasi-utopian Travelodge or a dark, glistening clump of frogspawn. And the most resonant feature of the films of the 1990s is Paul Scofield’s interpretation of the off-screen narrative voice: a voice of exact and dreamy sarcasm, only slightly startled by the oddity of England and the extremity of Robinson’s responses to it.
Robinson and the narrator are ex-lovers, charged by mysterious funders with exploring London and its environs. What they discover is a country stunned into convention and nostalgia by a decade and a half of Tory rule. Robinson, an aspirant (or possibly actual) continental sophisticate, despairs of the boredom and timidity of London – “a city under siege from a suburban government” – and elects to repurpose its fading landmarks as monuments to Romantic literature. London is littered with expected references to Wordsworth, Defoe and Horace Walpole, but Robinson’s surrealist eye turns Leicester Square into a monument to Laurence Sterne, the BT tower into a homage to Verlaine and Rimbaud, Brent Cross shopping centre (where he spies “a small intense man reading Walter Benjamin”) into a socio-cosmic wormhole that leads directly to the Parisian arcades of the 19th century. It was filmed at a time of IRA bombs in the City, precipitous economic crisis and the re-election of John Major; in that context, Robinson’s wild visions of cultural renovation and Keiller’s melancholy framing of the ruins of the metropolitan ideal seem to make equal sense.
In a way, Robinson in Space was a continuation of London – here again was Scofield’s sly, bemused and creamy delivery; here, too, the sunny views of anonymous infrastructure and off-screen in the margins the slightly sordid Robinson. But Keiller had found a new subject: the unexamined vanishing of British industry into a hinterland of motorways, logistics sheds and huge ports that operated almost without staff. Robinson and his long-suffering companion were now employed to investigate “the problem of England”, which seemed initially to consist in the fact that lingering geopolitical power and recent economic recovery could not save the country from fatal nostalgia and decrepitude, resentment in the face of modernity and a generally ruinous attitude to culture and sex. In fact, what the increasingly mythical duo find out as they tour about in their Morris Oxford, loitering in Tesco and eyeing up fetishware factories, is that modernity has simply absconded: Britain is as industrious as ever, except that commerce and invention now happen in ex-urban non-places and scarcely touch the run-down or well-heritaged cities.
Much of Keiller’s output since Robinson in Space has been concerned with the Blairite period of fervent and doomed hope regarding Britain’s potential urban modernity. In 2000 he made The Dilapidated Dwelling, a more conventional documentary (though still framed in fiction, and this time voiced by Tilda Swinton) about the decline of British housing stock.The City of the Future, an interactive installation shown at the BFI in 2007, revealed through archive footage how little the fabric of Britain’s cities has altered since the invention of cinema. With Robinson in Ruins, Keiller embarks on a wider survey of the conundrum of the English landscape: the way the countryside has long been the seat of industry and infrastructural innovation, but is still culturally figured as natural, homely, picturesque. Some of Keiller’s thinking on this subject has been nourished in collaboration with the geographer Doreen Massey and the cultural historian Patrick Wright, both of whom have written compellingly on the power structures that link city, country and global capital.
But its scholarly origins ought not to suggest that Robinson in Ruins is a drier undertaking than the first two films, with their scurrile attitude to the political classes and their hints at Robinson’s adventurous sex life. The eccentric and visionary wit is intact. In successive close-ups, a patch of lichen on an Oxford road sign comes to resemble the profile of Goethe. Robinson, at large among the relics of military-industrial technology, eventually settles on a disused cement works, crumbling into romantic ruin, as the potential site of a new utopian community. The history of clearances and land riots ghosts the new landscape of PFI follies, unpeopled agribusiness and the amnesiac transformation of every fraught patch of land (Greenham Common included) into a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
All of this is rendered, meanwhile, with Keiller’s customarily austere but rapt visual style – though in this case, as suits a film partly about the persistence of pastoral in the face of rapacious land grabs, the shots are longer. The camera tarries with fields of oil seed rape, nodding foxgloves and shivering primroses until they start to look monstrous, every bit as alien as the relics of 19th-century architecture and décor that so exercised the surrealists. Before Keiller’s (or Robinson’s) prophetic gaze, the English countryside is a monument to itself, and ripe for revolutionary appropriation.