On watching all of Patrick Keiller’s “Robinson” trilogy of films recently, it struck home how effectively stillness within a visual frame can traverse the geographical plain and recreate a journey that is both political and sociological. This, of course, goes to the heart filmmaking itself, the relationships with cuts especially and its portrayal of time, space and movement within a diegetic reality all being key elements of interest within a more general form of film analysis. Yet Keiller’s films, especially the first of the trilogy, London (1994), raised more intriguing questions outside of film aesthetics but at the same time through film aesthetics. This has been one of the anchors of essay films – anchors fought against by the likes of Chris Marker and Humphrey Jennings – but Keiller seems to have bypassed and overcome such an anchor by being Ozu-like in his meditative process of capturing an image of place; where aesthetics, that could be described as transcendental, produce visually grounded snap-shots with movement being dictated by the live elements of the scenarios being filmed.
London follows Robinson (albeit aurally) as he walks around the shadow-city of the capital after neo-liberal rule for what seems an eternity. His framing of the journey through such stillness emphasises the irony that, in spite of the sheer social brutality of Thatcher and her time in government, the country and city sleepwalked into yet another political dead-space with continued negative topographical effects. As Mike Hodges points out in his essay on the film for PIX 2 in 1997, “While Mr Keiller weaves his film with multiple strands from the past, he always brings it back to the present – to a city politically, economically and culturally ill.” (1997, p.3). The past in London is not one that is brought to bear with some sense of nostalgia; on the contrary, it is almost always acknowledged in its privilege. But the history can comment on Keiller’s images and the subsequent journey of the film around the grey, left-for-dead spaces because of their static quality; such a stasis not only moves the emphasis of action onto people as they walk determinedly up towards never ending jobs in the city, but also means that the viewer’s eyes can wander in emphasis to other elements within the image. Though this sometimes has to be disjointed from the leading of the narration (Paul Schofield’s tones being hypnotic and lulling in their ease) the gaze through to a simultaneous past is one of the key results of the stasis; daydreams of Jack Cade and a socialist alternative future that will never properly happen in the 1990s.
Mark Fisher suggests that London is actually dealing with a very specific political shift in this sense, one that has obvious aesthetic fallout:
London was a melancholy, quietly angry study of the city after 13 years of Tory rule… London was the capital of the first capitalist country, but Keiller was interested in the way that the city was now at the heart of a new, “post-Fordist” capitalism, in which manufacturing industry had been superseded by the spectral weightlessness of the so-called service economy. (2014, p.226).
Perhaps it would be too much to suggest that Keiller’s aesthetic standpoint is influenced and derived from commenting on such a shift but there’s a definite logic and reasoning perceivable. For, by voting in yet another Conservative government after the sheer catastrophe for even the well-being of the geographical centre of such an ideology, there’s a sense of stubbornness to move on; as if in a masochistic protest, a shout to no one of “We will not be moved!” in such a vote. It was one that went unheard and largely aimed at some invisible enemy rather than the real architects of the industrial state’s demise. Perhaps in some Ballardian way, this new, ugly realm with its debris and moral ineptitude had its own rollercoaster pleasure for the more detached. But these thoughts can all be tied to the patience of Keiller’s camera; one that shares in this stasis, forcing the viewer to keep looking almost in a similar protest, albeit for the right reasons rather than the sheer lack of education that eventually lead to yet another term of Conservative leadership. Spectacles such as Black Wednesday are best observed with a calm stillness, if only to avoid the palpitations of the sheer waste and subsequent fallout, especially in regards to the staggering unemployment levels that lasted henceforth.
Keiller’s still-camera vision of grey buildings, structures blown out by the IRA, or even total edge-lands – relics of the still-warm dead of the capital’s industrial strands – allows the director to both avoid the accusation of comment whilst simultaneously supplying an extremely vehement one (of course disregarding the narration and focussing on the purely visual elements of the film here). As Iain Sinclair notes on his essay in the film, “Keiller perceptively defines this silence, the absence of debate, as a conspiracy of the suburbs, an attack on metropolitan life and all its amenities by small minded provincials, acreerists distrustful of the liberties of the café-bar, the aimlessness of the flâneur.” (1994, p.6). Even with the film’s voice-over, there’s a silence to the image that is achieved through its strictness, perhaps even its puritanical nature. The patience is contrary to the movement of the film’s people, all striding quickly and even frantically to nowhere.
Ultimately, London‘s stillness presents a dynamic that automatically frames the impulses of the city with an almost autopsy-like division. Whereas a filmmaker like Ozu uses such stillness to channel transcendental ideals of Zen calmness and acceptance, Keiller uses the same patience as a quiet protest of journey where his camera is juxtaposed in its nature to just about everybody and everything around it, even if such kinetcism is ultimately causing the literal topographical and sociological entropy all around. Keiller himself suggests in an interview with Patrick Wright that “London was a project which aimed to change the experience of its subject…” (1998, p.14) and the idea is fully formed by such an aesthetic choice; the stillness in reflection of the political stasis of the place as it literally haemorrhages decrepitude in a dangerous period of social purgatory.