Patrick Keiller on London: “I’ve always seen urban self-congratulation as a symptom of underlying problems”

In an exclusive new interview, the celebrated filmmaker Patrick Keiller revisits his classic of British psychogeographic cinema, London, reflecting on changes in the capital since he filmed it 25 years ago.

London (1994)

In 1992, the filmmaker Patrick Keiller spent his time filming around London under the guise of a fictional flâneur known as Robinson – a name citing Daniel Defoe’s trapped castaway. The resulting film, London, was released in 1994.

Patiently capturing the city moving about its business, but with emphasis upon the quiet, historical undercurrents that ebb and flow under its many streets and buildings, it traces the modest flats of famous poets, views that inspired great painters, the fallout from the 1992 general election and even the shocking aftermath of an IRA bombing.

The film is idiosyncratic in its interests and meandering, quite literally, in its desire to show the many layers within the palimpsest of a city.

Narrated by the genteel tones of Paul Scofield, Keiller’s essay film shows the greying rumbles of a city in the dying grips of Thatcherism, while tackling a huge range of inner-city problems that are still sadly relevant today.

With the capital changing at a rate of acceleration that’s almost impossible to keep up with, I tracked the director down to discuss his film and its relationship to the morphing metropolis 25 years after he and Robinson wandered through the layers of its deep history.

London (1994)

What was the initial impetus behind the making of London? Did it stem from some specific moment or experience of something in the city or a general interest in the changes taking place there?

In the summer of 1986, I finished a short film to which I’d given the title The End. In the early 1980s, when I was working mainly as a part-time polytechnic lecturer, my partner and I would set out for more or less distant parts of Europe during the summer breaks. The End was made from eight 100-foot rolls of 16mm monochrome film that I’d photographed on a journey to Italy in September 1983.

Patrick Keiller

It took ages to finish, because as well as teaching I was spending a lot of time trying to develop projects for architectural documentaries, none of which were ever realised. Later on, one Saturday morning in a bookshop I noticed a book with the title Ends and Beginnings, one of the two Oxford University Press editions of selections from Constance Garnett’s translation of Alexander Herzen’s memoir My Past and Thoughts, and bought it.

Towards the end of Ends and Beginnings, I found the passage about London that is quoted in the film (appended below). It turned out that the same paragraphs are included in Humphrey Jennings’s Pandæmonium, which I had read some years before, but they hadn’t then struck me to the extent they did when I read Ends and Beginnings. I found Herzen’s perception of London very sympathetic, and began to look out for other European visitors’ accounts of their experiences of the city.

A few years later, I finished another short film that was unexpectedly well received, so I thought I might be able to propose something longer. By then, I’d made three short films involving journeys of a month or so away from home. I reasoned that a longer film would require a much longer period of cinematography, but didn’t think I’d be able to get away for long enough to make it.

I had always found London a very difficult camera subject, partly because of its physical drawbacks and partly because of the difficulty of seeing clearly the place where one lives, until one evening I went to see Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s Le Joli Mai (1963). About halfway through, I began to think that I might be able to make a film about London. This was during the summer of 1989.

The stillness of the image has come to be a typical trait in many of your films. What is it about the static image that draws you to using it and how does it address the issues surrounding topographical change? 

Before embarking on London, I acquired a 35mm cine camera that could be comfortably hand-held and a tripod with a fluid head, both of which were intended to facilitate easy camera movement. We did make some moving-camera footage, but in the finished film the camera hardly ever moves, although there is often a good deal of movement within the static frame.

The reasons for this are largely practical – we were usually working in a great hurry without any preparation, most of the cinematography being improvised even when subjects had been scheduled in advance. In such circumstances, it would have been much more difficult to achieve a successful take with a moving camera, while the duration of a pan, for example, would have been determined to some extent by the rate at which one moved the camera. With a static frame, one has more freedom to edit duration, which can be helpful especially when there is unplanned movement within the frame.

For a long time, I was a bit perplexed when people asked about the static camera – London was hardly the first film in which the camera doesn’t move much. However, if we were to rephrase the question as ‘why is it OK that the camera doesn’t move?’ I might reply that as the film is about London as a space, and as the space – streets, buildings and so on – doesn’t move, there isn’t anything for a moving camera to follow.

London (1994)

Then again, the camera could have taken the role of a person or a vehicle moving through the space – this is how it was in the first film I ever made, and it’s how the first films in which the camera moves were made, when Alexandre Promio mounted his camera on a boat, then a train and so on. To which I might respond that as well as being a film about a space, London is a film about trying to make, or frame, images of that space, and perhaps that’s another reason why the frame doesn’t move.

If I could just distinguish between static camera and static image – with ‘static camera’, there is very likely to be movement within the frame, whether it’s wind in trees or the revolutionary crowd in Eisenstein’s October (1928), while a ‘static image’ is, presumably, an image in a film in which very little or no movement is visible – an image of relative stillness. A ‘static image’ in a film is unlike a still photograph in that only in the film is it certain that nothing much is moving.

London (1994)

A line from London suggests that “the true identity of London is in its absence”. How does this line figure in both the process that went into the film and how the film sits today in the context of the changes that have occurred in the city?

One of the possibilities offered by fiction is that fictional characters can make statements without their author knowing exactly what they mean, and this is one such statement. It’s ambiguous, in that we might understand Robinson’s ‘it’ to be either London or London’s identity. I’m inclined to think that he meant the latter, so that London’s identity is that it lacks an identity – as distinct, perhaps, from mainland European capitals such as Paris, Rome or Prague.

This seems to me one of the best things about London, but it does have drawbacks, one of which is that perhaps the city doesn’t look after its institutions as well as it might. There is also the “absence of Continental diversions” that Herzen mentions, a particular difficulty for Robinson as a would-be flâneur.

London’s initial raison d’être, the port, is also absent, its role now taken by the City. In retrospect, although it is identified in the sequence that you mention as the source or cause of the absence, I’m surprised that the film doesn’t devote more attention to the City of London. In 1992, it really did seem to be in retreat, despite ‘Big Bang’ – much of London’s revival as a global financial centre has occurred since the film was made.

London (1994)

During the last couple of decades, people purporting to speak for London and Londoners have devoted much effort to their claims that London is a wonderful city, perhaps the most wonderful city in the world. I have always seen such urban self-congratulation as a symptom of underlying problems.

London, alongside its two follow-ups, Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010), has in many ways come to define the cinematic output of British psychogeography – a term which has evolved and morphed as much as the city has since the period when London was filmed. What are your thoughts on the term today?

I’ve tried to avoid identifying what I do with the term (even as a joke – in London, Burgess Park is said to be a site for ‘psychic landscaping’, whatever that is) out of respect for the people who devised both the term and the practice in the 1950s. They were much more ambitious.

London (1994)

Iain Sinclair refers to the London captured in the film as a “necropolis” and suggests that it’s a cinema that “requires no audience”. Considering that Sinclair’s book Downriver was written and published during the initial filming of London, I wondered what links and what differences you see between your and Iain’s work as a whole?

I didn’t meet Iain until after London was released, when I had read only one of his books. One of the many differences is that he’s much more prolific. I’m not sure he’s very keen on architects, whereas I’m more ambivalent – many of my oldest friends are architects.

He’s been very generous to me in mentioning the films during the past 20-plus years. So far, apart from a contribution to his anthology London: City of Disappearances, I’ve only managed one attempt at reciprocation – a line in Robinson in Space accompanying an image of a Murco filling station on the A1, which begins: “At a garage near St Neots, as we were thinking of trading in the 1100 for an old Volvo full of second-hand books…” This is a reference to the beginning of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings.

London (1994)

Have the dramatic changes in London’s topography altered your filmmaking practice at all? Do the aesthetic choices made in London still have the potential to assess the city in its current guises and with its current range of issues?

Has the topography of London changed very much? There are certainly a few more very tall buildings, and there have been some very visible redevelopments – One Hyde Park, for example, or at Nine Elms around the new US Embassy (see my ‘Old Haunts’, Artforum, February 2017) – but not on the scale of post-Second World War redevelopment.

I imagine that apart from degrees of refurbishment and decay, much of the physical fabric is more or less as it was during the 1990s. The city has changed far more in other ways – socially, economically, politically and so on. Some of these changes are visible: there is, for example, no longer such an absence of continental diversions. Others less so: it’s difficult to discern just by looking that the proportion of owner-occupier households has fallen below 50 per cent, while an image of a hedge fund’s office in Mayfair probably doesn’t reveal very much about what’s going on inside.

From Ends and Beginnings, ed. & intr. Aileen Kelly (Oxford University Press, 1985):

‘There is no town in the world which is more adapted for training one away from people and training one into solitude than London. The manner of life, the distances, the climate, the very multitude of the population in which personality vanishes, all this together with the absence of Continental diversions conduces to the same effect. One who knows how to live alone has nothing to fear from the tedium of London. The life here, like the air here, is bad for the weak, for the frail, for one who seeks a prop outside himself, for one who seeks welcome, sympathy, attention; the moral lungs here must be as strong as the physical lungs, whose task it is to separate oxygen from the smoky fog. The masses are saved by battling for their daily bread, the commercial classes by their absorption in heaping up wealth, and all by the bustle of business; but nervous and romantic temperaments, fond of living among people, fond of intellectual sloth and of idly luxuriating in emotion, are bored to death here and fall into despair.

‘Wandering lonely about London […] I lived through a great deal.

‘In the evening, when my son had gone to bed, I usually went out for a walk; I scarcely ever went to see anyone; I read the newspapers and stared in taverns at the alien race, and lingered on the bridges across the Thames.

[…] ‘I used to sit and look, and my soul would grow quieter and more peaceful.  And so for all this I came to love this fearful ant-heap, where every night a hundred thousand men know not where they will lay their heads, and the police often find women and children dead of hunger beside hotels where one cannot dine for less than two pounds.’

Thanks to John Rogers and Andrew Stevens

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