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By Michael Sicinski
Robinson in Ruins, the latest essay film/experimental landscape study/cinematic state-of-the-union address from the great British avant-gardist Patrick Keiller, is many things. It’s the conclusion to a trilogy that even most hardcore cinephiles may not have known was in progress. It’s the articulation of a failed politics of “dwelling” and landscape use in the United Kingdom, presented with a detailed historicization that, on first viewing, is nothing short of intimidating. It’s a plangent near-elegy (but not without a glimmer of utopian hope) for a spark of unconventional intellectual inquiry, quashed by the technocrats of New Labour and soon to be wiped off the map by Cameron’s Big Society. But above all, this is the death knell, or so it seems, for a man called Robinson. Understanding precisely what this means, however, involves a detour or two. We’ll need to try to gain a slightly better understanding of what Keiller does, where it fits into the overall “fabric of things” (if in fact there is one), and how and why it might have proven necessary to develop Robinson in the first place, much less to dispatch him.
Perhaps one way to understand Patrick Keiller’s place in British cinema (if not cinema more generally—but we ought not to get ahead of ourselves, and specificity is key here) is to offer the following proposition: Keiller’s films exist like space. Now, all films, even the least among them, engage with space to some extent, so what exactly does that mean? Here’s one idea. Keiller has been an axiom of British film, particularly in its avant-garde and documentary modes, since the ‘80s, but despite garnering considerable respect and a fair degree of success, he has remained something of an “invisible man.” The same, of course, could be said for Robinson, Keiller’s cinematic alter ego/travelling companion, a man who is literally never seen. (Although there has been a fair amount of speculation as to the origin of Robinson’s name, Keiller acknowledged in an interview that the most direct source was not Daniel Defoe’s novel, but Kafka’s Amerika, in which Robinson and Delamarche are two out-of-work itinerants.)
We could liken this to the status of “space” itself, as a material and a philosophical category, as articulated by one of Keiller’s intellectual totems, the French renegade Marxist Henri Lefebvre. In his writings on spatiality and urbanism, which were heavily influenced by Situationist politics and what he saw as the post-’68 retreat into purely discursive modes of resistance, Lefebvre argued that our built environment was at its core a social product, one that fundamentally determined not only our conditions of “production,” more conventionally conceived, but the very possibilities of our happiness and imaginations. In his 1974 book The Production of Space (one of those few volumes that truly deserves to be called “magisterial”), Lefebvre traces an ideology of spatial invisibility or neutrality back through the history of Western philosophy, wherein time and history are the privileged terms.
Within this ideological inheritance, space is merely the empty container in which human history unfolds, and even in the writings of Marx and Engels, we see “nature,” the earth itself, posited as the inert term in a dialectic which is acted upon by the active industry of “man.” Space, as a material reality and as a social product, a continual event perpetuated through agonistic decisions in the cultural and political realm, is almost never seen. And it is never seen precisely because it is the social relationship that conditions and enables all others. As Lefebvre writes, “(Social) space is not a thing among other things, nor a product among other products: rather, it subsumes things produced, and encompasses their interrelationships…Itself the outcome of past actions, social space is what permits fresh actions to occur, while suggesting others and prohibiting yet others. Among these actions, some serve production, others serve consumption.”
Keiller’s cinema can likewise be placed into a historical or cultural trajectory, one in which it both fits easily into the mainstream of a certain visible flow and yet has not at all been adequately seen. His early short films, such as Stonebridge Park (1981) and especially Norwood (1983), fall in line with a poetic, subjective mode analogous to certain aspects of Terence Davies’ films, or even a more place-bound, straitlaced version of Derek Jarman’s avant-garde approach. The three filmmakers provide a kind of study in aesthetic options for queer artists in the British scene: classicism (Davies), punk (Jarman), or Situationism (Keiller). The transitional film for Keiller, and what to date has stood as his most straightforward documentary or essay film, is his 2000 feature The Dilapidated Dwelling, made for Channel 4 but never broadcast. Drawing on ideas from Buckminster Fuller and the radical British architectural collective Archigram, Keiller offered nothing less than a sweeping condemnation of the state of housing in the UK. Keiller challenges the industrial/political powers that be to answer for the comprehensive failures of homebuilders and mainstream architects to produce low-cost, modern housing that incorporates the industrial and technological breakthroughs of the 20th century, insisting that most British homes—poorly insulated, energy-inefficient, and with what we’d now call a colossal “carbon footprint”—are beyond refurbishing and that, against the usual wisdom, the humane and the Green thing to do would be to demolish them and begin again. This was not a message the country was eager to hear, even as delivered by the mellifluous tones of narrator Tilda Swinton.
In terms of content alone, The Dilapidated Dwelling’s examination of urbanism developed rather logically into the Robinson trilogy, which began with London (1994) and continued with Robinson in Space (1997). In both of these films, Robinson is referred to in the third person by a first-person narrator (the late Paul Scofield) who never explicitly identifies himself as, or with, the director. This triangulation of address is one part of the films’ formal complexity, and a key component of the strategic unlocatability of Mr. Robinson. He is the narrator’s sometime academic colleague, sometime roommate, and sometime lover, but the one constant is that Robinson is a wanderer through the British landscape. In London, we learn that “Robinson lives in Vauxhall, a district famous for its associations with Sherlock Holmes.” We see and hear a gatepost at a park entrance, a listening point for Robinson, and Keiller is revealing the madness to Robinson’s method. Like Walter Benjamin (to whom Scofield’s narrator explicitly compares Robinson), this mystery man is using a peripatetic mode of experiencing and attending to “spatial detritus”—byways, neighbourhoods in disrepair, outmoded factories, and the like—to assemble a secret history of dominant, and dominated, spaces and the struggle of Londoners to dwell within them.
London strikes a subtle distinction between the more disillusioned, even paranoid perspectives of Robinson and the narrator’s more straightforward political commentary. The film is, in part, a response to the election of John Major following 11 crushing years of Thatcher. Robinson in Space, as the title suggests, is a somewhat more abstract affair, but at the same time more given to rampant historical detail. Here, Robinson is pursuing to the point of obsession a materialist postulate that cinema is both uniquely suited to demonstrate, and ultimately incapable of conveying. Any given parcel of land, any building, any vista or neighbourhood, represents centuries of accumulated history, layers upon layers of social relations forged into the built environment if not present in the landscape like sedimented time. In this respect Robinson in Space is like a distant cousin of Alexander Kluge’s The Patriotic Woman (1979) or Straub/Huillet’s Trop tôt, trop tard (1982). It is also Keiller’s best film, partly because it so clearly channels both a protagonist and a character—forgive me—“lost in space.” Adrift in highways, shopping centres, and military installations, Robinson and his companion adopt apocryphal spy techniques from Daniel Defoe, discuss the arrival of buckminsterfullerines from outer space as a possible source of life on earth, the use of technology when cruising for men, and eventually consider criminal action when “normal” research isn’t panning out. Robinson in Space is poetic, nervous, and an appropriate political response to the diffuse, amorphous state of Blairite neoliberalism.
Now, in 2010, what has become of Robinson? Keiller, a true dialectician in the Lefebvre/Benjamin mold, has joined the focused, more outwardly political tone of London with Robinson in Space’s more pointillist, philosophical-longview perspective, resulting in a new work that zeroes in on absolute particulars of the contemporary environment while contemplating our place within the cosmos. Robinson in Ruins, as the title makes clear, is a work of dissolution, a film about loss in the wake of New Labour’s big lie. Ruins begins with a title card announcing that what we’re seeing represents a re-assemblage of the contents of “19 film cans and a notebook” found in a “derelict caravan,” which we eventually learn to be Robinson’s last known place of residence. Here, Keiller echoes Peter Greenaway, whose alter ego Tulse Luper frequently left projects to be completed by various committees (see 1978’s Vertical Features Remake). But where Luper is always a dashing hero, and clearly a stand-in for his supremely self-confident creator, Robinson is a passionate but troubled advocate for a doomed form of social justice, someone always already lost on the barricades.
As Paul Scofield died in 2008, Robinson in Ruins has a new narrator. Vanessa Redgrave speaks in the character of Scofield’s widow or longtime companion, someone who knew Robinson rather well and tried to work with him on another academic mapping project prior to his disappearance. Redgrave mentions nothing about her partner having been romantically involved with Robinson, which seems strategic on Keiller’s part, if still a bit odd. It has the effect of de-queering Ruins compared to the first two parts of the trilogy, but this does in fact add to the sense of hopelessness, as though transgression, or even happiness, are quickly fading from view.
As compared to the intensive wandering of the first two films, Ruins is characterized by a kind of stillness, emphasized by an almost musical structure in terms of its visuals. Certain motifs repeat throughout the film: a beige view down Broad Street; a close-up of a red postal slot; lichens growing on a sign for the Kennington Roundabout; a frontal elevation of a building undergoing reconstruction. This latter set of images, which of course gradually evolves across the running time, serves as a retroactive rebuke to The Dilapidated Dwelling, since the refurbished structure is being restored to neo-Gothic “glory.” Not coincidentally, when this building appears, Redgrave delivers an update on the global financial crisis. In Keiller’s Situationist archi-politic, the two are inextricably linked. Elsewhere in Ruins, Keiller takes his first extended look at wheat harvesting, train transport, and other directly industrial uses of British land in light of the post-neoliberal hangover, shooting long takes in a patient expository mode.
There is also a difference valence that we can attach to the more gradual pace and recursive structure at work in Robinson in Ruins. Keiller’s previous films in the trilogy, especially Robinson in Space, operate at a kind of threshold of sensory apprehension. Taking in the dense narration and forming concrete cognitive relationships between the words and images (between history and landscape)—to say nothing of montage relationships between the shots themselves—is beyond the realm of possibility. Keiller’s works demand repeat viewings, and reward them, and while they do exist on the continuum of experimental documentary and avant-garde film, they also dip a toe into the small pool of “academic visual essay,” an artform that has been in ill repute since the days of Mulvey and Wollen’s (underrated) films, but has been restored to a respectable position by the likes of Ursula Biemann, John Gianvito, and Allen Sekula. Following this microtrend, Robinson in Ruins opts not to bombard the viewer but to move him or her through a series of gestures of possible closure, to ask us whether Robinson, and the anti-authoritarianism he represents, is truly gone, or just underground for the time being.
We actually learn more about Robinson this time around than before. Redgrave tells us, “Of course, Robinson wasn’t his real name. And he wasn’t English. He’d arrived in London in 1966 from Berlin, before which his history was…uncertain.” This crucial tidbit—the great critic of British spatiality was in fact an outsider, naturally—comes to us early in the film, after pictures of Cross Hall. There, in the 17th century, Roberts Boyle and Hook engaged in experiments with pressurized gases, leading both to Boyle’s Law and eventually the steam engine. Later, in the 19th, Shelley was expelled from the university for publishing “The Necessity of Atheism.” Robinson’s personal history, Keiller not so subtly tells us, is a materialist one that occurs where poetry and science merge, in the form of spatial politics. It would be possible to say this or that about “Robinson,” but the truth is, he is a hypothetical being formed by the spaces in which he dwells and through which he wanders, like all of us, only more so—an ideal materialist subject. In this regard, the middle section of Ruins represents another tight crucible of this reality. Keiller shows us flowers among the weeds in private fields, existing along pipelines and highways, oblivious to the munitions industry and nefarious transport that have “made” the space for their growth. Again, these extended sequences of quiet contemplation are new in Keiller’s work, and seem to bespeak an attempt to locate images that may contain beauty and hope in the face of a “totally administered society.”
So, in the end, who is Robinson? If, in the past, Keiller’s avatar operated like a Walter Benjamin figure, sussing out dialectical images, or like Henri Lefebvre, articulating the dense histories of social space, Robinson in Ruins finds him recalling a theorist every bit as brilliant, but perhaps more tragic. The great Viennese art historian Aby Warburg, a friend of Benjamin’s, believed that all of the signs and images of the world held meaning, provided we placed them in the proper order and attuned ourselves to their correct iconology. Although Warburg’s obsession was religious symbology, his method was dialectics, and the insistent putting of things together in the hope of achieving a grand, final understanding that would allow humanistic values to triumph over both superstition and technocracy. Much like Warburg, Robinson’s final quest was to understand the broken landscape and heal it through the accretion of images and historical facts. And, in the face of overwhelming irrationality, both died broken men. The good news, of course, is that “Robinson” is a mere heuristic, and Keiller remains very much a man in transit.