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Keiller's Journey To The End Of The World
on 16 July 2012
Patrick Keiller's 1994 film London is part-historical artifact, part-political rant and part-comedic account of the journey around London made by the film's unnamed narrator (voiced in memorable, lilting style by Paul Scofield) and his friend, some-time partner and researcher Robinson. Shot and scripted by Keiller, the film is a brilliantly evocative collage of the capital city during the 1992 post-Thatcher era (a time of IRA bombings, increasing homelessness, city crashes and urban deterioration), as depicted by Keiller's short, ever-changing camera shots overlain with a stark and haunting soundtrack (featuring the music of Beethoven and Bach) and Scofield's witty and poignant voice-over. In addition to the modern-day observational (and political) content, the film is also a fascinating account of the artistic history and (often obscure) cultural connections of the city, as Keiller unearths such links for the likes of Montaigne, Malarme, Rimbaud and Baudelaire.
However, what really makes London standout as a work of cinema is the visual imagery with which Keiller has imbued his creation. Whether this be in the form of shots of iconic London landmarks such as Tower Bridge or Battersea power station, more obscure urban shots such as that of Brent Cross shopping centre or the Baltic Exchange building in the aftermath of the IRA bomb, or the more naturalistic shots of lone crocuses emerging from the urban rubble or mesmerising ripples created by raindrops in a puddle, Keiller's creative filmic touch is spot on. As, of course, is his eye for moments of wry humour, such as his spotting of a direction sign to an exhibition of misspelled artist 'Margitte' or his use of a Baudelaire quote accompanied by the visual backdrop of a McDonald's restaurant.
Despite the odd occasions where Keiller identifies more positive aspects to the city's outlook, such as the easygoing multiculturalism of the Notting Hill Festival or Robinson's rather fanciful notion that the decline of the city's financial status might give rise to a resurgent bohemianism, the overriding image created by London is that of degeneration. Sadly, this is emphasised by the 'what goes around, comes around' nature of some of the running themes (or should that be sores?) of the film, such as Leicester Square having the appearance of a building site and the interminable series of city crashes (and consequent recessions). One is left with the inevitable conclusion of the film-makers that, London, having lost (nearly) all its sense of identity, 'in this alone, it is truly modern.'
London is a powerful, evocative and highly original work.
The BFI box set also contains Keiller's sequel to London, Robinson in Space. Here, our intrepid pair give their urban London treatment to the city's suburbs. For me, this is a slightly less impressive effort than the earlier film, but still well worth watching.