I stumbled across the work of Patrick Keiller over 10 years ago, as I was scavenging the web for one thing or another. It was a clip from Keiller’s film London from 1994 and it immediately resonated with me on numerous levels. The first image is a shot of the iconic Tower Bridge in London. It’s a dreary and grey image. Quite unspectacular for a motif usually belonging to postcards and mugs. In general most shots in this film are seemingly both mundane and laconic, depicting ‘ordinary’ though very precise observations from everyday life in a city. There is no camera movement, only a static camera. No actors, no scenography. The bridge opens and a cruise ship slowly sails through.
In stark contrast to the imagery is the voice-over and soundtrack. The nameless narrator, who arrived on the cruise ship where he worked as a photographer, is meeting up with his ex-lover Robinson after 7 years. We never see either. The film is a wonderful mix of fiction and documentary. The soundtrack, in addition to the voice-over, has multiple references to the dramaturgical use of film music that contrasts the imagery. The narrative is complex and sometimes surreal in its multiple idiosyncratic references and juxtapositions - simultaneously very funny and deeply serious.
Together with the nameless narrator, the eccentric and visionary Robinson sets out to understand the ‘problem’ of London through a melancholic survey of the ruins of an urban ideal. A kind of psychogeographical travelogue investigating the multiple layers and textures of the city. Robinson solemnly drifts around London and reflects upon the historical undercurrents of the city’s many streets and buildings. He traces views that once inspired great painters, ponders Baudelaire while drifting through a Tesco supermarket, notes that in Lambeth there is a fence made out of beds from air-raid shelters, plans for a contemporary postcard series with the city’s homeless, tracks down flats of famous poets and traces the aftermath of an IRA bombing and the economic crisis in a post-Thatcher landscape.
Since watching London for the first time, I have seen most of what Patrick Keiller has produced; films, books and exhibitions. And I keep coming back for more. It’s the type of rare relationship that never gets old. London (1994) is the first part of a trilogy which includes Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010), all highly recommended.