UK 1993 : Patrick Keiller : 80 mins
Using the most basic cinematic tools – long, static-camera shots of the urban landscape, stark intertitles, narration, restrained music – Keiller’s debut examines London over the course of a year, from January to December 1992. “It is a journey to the end of the world,” doomily intones the unnamed, unseen Narrator (Paul Scofield), as his photographer friend, Robinson (who never appears or speaks) returns from a seven-year exile.
The pair set off on a series of “exercises in psychic landscaping” – “investigations” that aim to explore “the problem of London.” As the city broods with an “atmosphere of conspiracy and intrigue” under siege from the latest IRA bombing campaign, the Conservative government marks its 13th year of power with an unexpected election victory for John Major. When our invisible protagonists observe Major’s victory speech outside 10 Downing Street, the narrator provides an alternative oration in which his (and Keiller’s) anger at Tory misrule boils over – a satirical stroke of subversive genius that constitutes the most eloquent and persuasive of responses to the prevailing right-wing hegemony.
Dispensing with conventional expectations of narrative, London instead derives its energy from the dynamic between the invective passion of its ideas and the cool dispassion of its style. This is the most literary of films, Keiller and his ‘characters’ sharing a supernatural alertness to the ghosts of London’s previous chroniclers and visitors – including Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Herzen (who saw the place as “a fearful antheap”) H G Wells (entirely fitting for this “journey through time and space”) and Laurence Sterne, credited as cinema’s conceptual founding father.
But despite the relentless stream of high-falutin’ references, Keiller’s deadpan wit ensures his film is anything but a dry, highbrow essay: the Baudelaire quote, for example, is illustrated with a shot of a huge, inflatable Ronald MacDonald bobbing in the wind above a burger joint. Another amusing (and slyly subversive) disparity between image and sound comes when the Queen (in one of two appearances in the film) is welcomed by crowds at Leicester Square, and the only sound we hear comes from the nearby Swiss Centre clock.
London‘s running time isn’t long, but by the end the viewer will feel that there isn’t much in this city of nine million that we haven’t been shown – thanks to Keiller’s penetrating, quizzical, endlessly curious and erudite observations, his film is simultaneous piercingly specific and all-encompassingly universal. London transcends its self-imposed rigid geographical and chronological limits to push cinema into genuinely fresh territory – and ends, brilliantly, on a poetic note of unexpected, magical, hard-won grace.
2nd October, 2002
(seen on video, 16th March 2002)
by Neil Young
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