Where to begin with British psychogeography cinema
Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…
Your next obsession: the drifting explorations of psychogeographic filmmaking.
Richard Lester’s 1964 collaboration with The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, is renowned for capturing and defining many aspects of 1960s British popular culture. But its most interesting moment comes, not in its surrealism or early music video experiments, but away from the glamour of the band’s various escapades: it is when Ringo decides to go for a random wander around the Putney towpath. With this momentary and quite meaningless meander, Lester’s film can be seen as one of the earliest features to explore a form of psychogeography; a re-engagement with place for the sake of place through a very literal traversing of its pathways, more commonly found as a form in literature than in cinema.
Yet, whether walking around at random on a dérive or a drift, rediscovering the view out of a train journey window, or engaging with a place from the perspective of a river, psychogeography has had a surprisingly strong but subtle output in British cinema for some time and its difficulty comes perhaps more in re-engaging with place-works that have so far defied genre categorisation.
It is a form that often crops up at the quiet beginnings of film careers with little needed except a camera and a willingness to walk and explore in order to create. This can be seen in a huge number of British director’s work, whether it be Derek Jarman in his unsettling super-8 travelogue A Journey to Avebury (1971), Ridley Scott filming his brother Tony on a day’s bunk-off around Hartlepool in Boy and Bicycle (1965), the surreal mapping of Peter Greenaway’s own paintings in his A Walk through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist (1979), or in a number of shorts by Margaret Tait including her 1964 portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid; a film which pleasurably shows the poet navigating streets by only walking upon their curbs.
The best place to start – The Robinson trilogy
Patrick Keiller’s work defines British psychogeography cinema, specifically in his beautifully patient trilogy of films about an unseen traveller called Robinson. From his debut feature, London (1994), his highlighting of the politics of landscape through the strict and static capture of place has come to be a powerful trademark in his cinema. Their connecting strand of Robinson, the third-person canvas who is always the initial subject of reportage in his film’s voice-overs, comes to see the changes in Britain in its crumbling and various economic collapses and calamities.
London’s follow-up, Robinson in Space (1997), details such dilapidation on the cusp of New Labour and travels outside of London to around the UK as though the film were a travelogue autopsy; peeling away the last remnants of Britain’s industry after more than a decade of Conservatism.
More recently, Robinson in Ruins (2010) details the physical degradation of urban zones after the 2008 financial crash as if charting a landscape akin to Tarkovsky’s Zone, being unpeopled, empty and eerie. In tracing the economic and political outflow through unseen forces of topography, Keiller examines place through the most necessary and haunting of psychogeographic methods; that of observing the ordinary with an unfaltering gaze.
As a theme, psychogeography crops up everywhere in the most modern and experimental of British film and television. This is most elaborate in the work of Andrew Kötting, whether he is following in the footsteps of the troubled nature poet John Clare in By Our Selves (2015) or paddling up the Thames with writer Iain Sinclair in a swan pedalo in Swandown (2012).
Sinclair’s work as a prominent psychogeographic writer, alongside being a filmmaker in his own right, means that he haunts many recent psychogeographic film projects. In 2002, he worked with Channel 4 and the filmmaker Chris Petit to create a hypnotic response to his own novel of the same year, London Orbital; circumnavigating the M25 with all of its toxicity, tales of madness and grimy underworlds. Sinclair has also worked recently with the independent filmmaker John Rogers on The London Perambulator (2009) – a documentary looking at the deep topographer Nick Papadimitriou – and London Overground (2016), a soon-to-be released adaptation of Sinclair’s most recent book walking around the resurrected overground line; itself a project walked with Kötting.
Psychogeography is used as a tool in documentary film more than in anything else, however, providing a process and canvas for improvisation and experimentation akin to its literary equivalents. In Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) (2012), walking the routes of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995) provides a rural ghosting of the writer’s eulogising of humanity’s darkest periods, sparked by an evocative walk through East Anglian topography.
Back in the capital, psychogeography has often been a way to understand London’s many strands and battles of development. In the London trilogy – Finisterre (2003), What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (2005) and This Is Tomorrow (2007) – Paul Kelly charts the predevelopment Lea Valley and its hidden pathways through a blend of documentary and artifice with much affection and sadness.
Equal to that is Norman Cohen’s The London Nobody Knows (1969), which sees James Mason wandering in the footsteps of the London writer and artist Geoffrey Fletcher, as the postwar developers begin their march upon the East End and elsewhere. It is a form Mason himself would return to and apply to his own home turf of Huddersfield for the ITV documentary Home James (1972). This itself is a form most characterised by the architectural writer and presenter Ian Nairn in a wealth of impassioned BBC series including Nairn across Britain (1972) and Football Towns (1975).
The old haunts of industry explored by Keiller and others are ripe for other psychogeographic angles, seen most delicately in William Raban’s Thames Film (1987), a journey – temporally and politically – along the Thames aided by both T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and John Hurt.
Exploration of old industry and urban dereliction also acts as a dramatic backdrop for many social films of recent years. In Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant (2013), the edge-lands created through industry act as both an escape and a potential livelihood for the young characters as they explore the outskirts and liminal zones of Bradford, while Lynne Ramsay shows a similar potential for exploring forgotten 1970s Glasgow canal-ways in Ratcatcher (1999). The same city’s streets are ghosted digitally seven years later by the main character of Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006) as she lives a shadow-life exploring the streets of Glasgow through CCTV, only to find the wound of a past trauma reopened by a familiar face she sees wandering its streets.
Before Douglas Hickox made his name in macabre, grimy tales of London with films such as Sitting Target (1972) and Theatre of Blood (1973), he directed the peculiar short film, Les Bicyclettes de Belsize (1969). Part Hampstead bicycle-journey and part musical love story, its saccharine portrait of suburban twee is the total antithesis of his feature films, acting almost as a blueprint for the sweetly natured fictional London that the likes of J.G. Ballard would soon shatter with his post-Crash excavation of the city’s underbelly with all its vices and dirty pavements.