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The First Metropolis to Disappear

Patrick Keiller's classic 1994 film 'London' combines a left-wing critique of the development of Britain's capital with an ambitious aesthetic – but more than 25 years later, even its version of the city seems utopian.

In a script full of delectably lugubrious quotes, an early speech in Patrick Keiller’s film London, released more than a quarter century ago in 1994, is well worth savouring. Delivered over a lingering shot of the preposterous Tower Bridge swinging open, it drips with sarcastic contempt:

Dirty Old Blighty

undereducated, economically backward, bizarre — a catalogue of modern miseries …
with its fake traditions
its Irish war
its militarism and secrecy
its silly old judges
its hatred of intellectuals
its ill health and bad food
its sexual repression
its hypocrisy and racism
and its indolence
It’s so exotic, so home-made!

Keiller was, at this point, a disillusioned architect who had retrained as an artist at the Royal College of Art at the turn of the eighties, and had a few short films to his name, defined by a use of static filmed images given coherence through narrative voice-overs. But when, throughout 1992, he and his partner and collaborator Julie Norris traipsed around London filming its dilapidated streets in the aftermath of IRA attacks and the general election, they would have no way of knowing they were making a minor classic, obsessively adored and dissected by generations of artists, architects, and leftists.

The speech above, set out as a poem in the new book of London’s script and shots, made possible by a recent digitisation of the negatives, helps to explain why the film has become so popular. It combines a leftist analysis of the backward state of the UK’s capital city, drawn in part from the Nairn–Anderson thesis regarding England’s incomplete bourgeois revolution, with a delicately aesthetic mood, underpinned throughout by actor Paul Scofield’s mellifluous narration.

The film offers up one of cinema’s oddest double-acts — Scofield’s narrator, and his old friend and erstwhile lover Robinson, an underemployed academic who summons the narrator to join him in his ‘investigations’. Neither of them are ever seen, and Robinson is merely related, yet their ‘uneasy, bickering’ repartee is a source of great pleasure, and a vehicle for Keiller’s biscuit-dry humour. This conceit not only provides momentum, but allows for the film’s various arguments to be rendered discursively like a platonic dialogue.

There are a number of overlapping intellectual strands at play. One relates to surrealism, and the transformation of the everyday through the imagination, an interest paralleled by the Situationists and ’68ers like Henri Lefebvre. Similarly, ideas of romanticism and poetry are woven in, as Robinson searches for traces of Rimbaud and Verlaine across London, quoting Apollinaire and Baudelaire as he goes. At stake is the ability to imagine a different future at a point of defeat and reaction, with London ‘a city under siege from a sub-urban government’ and the gains of the post-war era in the process of being rolled back. Keiller’s London is convincing as a city that is in itself melancholy: ‘the first metropolis to disappear.’

Methods vary, from the obvious — the characters’ apparent depression, the aching non-diegetic use of a late Beethoven string quartet — to the lingering greyness of the images, often studious in their avoidance of conventional ‘beauty’, conveying a deadening of affect. It all comes to a head in Robinson’s splenetic speech delivered as we watch John Major celebrating his 1992 election victory:

There were, he said, no mitigating circumstances. The press, the voting system, the impropriety of Tory party funding: none of these could explain away the fact that the middle class in England had continued to vote Conservative because, in their miserable hearts, they still believed that it was in their interest to do so.

London’s relative success was at least partly due to its appearing at a time when ‘psychogeography’ was a focus of interest, and Keiller was for a long time mentioned in the same breath as Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd. But while the sources are often similar, Keiller’s more thoroughly political work has stood up better over time, especially considered with his two later films, Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010), which opened the discourse to the national economy and ecology in turn.

Laid out on the page, the aphoristic script sometimes reads rather like a particularly arch Twitter user, and indeed the despair at philistine Tories and their bootlicking fans could have been written yesterday. Indeed, after psychogeography, Keiller’s search for traces of utopia in the hidden past fitted neatly into early 2000s discussions of modernist architecture and cities haunted by their bygone futures.

But twenty years later, the roughness around London’s edges has largely been developed away, and looking up the filming locations on Google Streetview offers a dispiritingly sanitised experience. The sense of bohemian potential is largely gone too — there’s no way a contemporary Robinson could live on ‘what he earns in or two days a week teaching in the school of fine art and architecture at the University of Barking’, indeed, Keiller and Norris themselves had, by the time the film came out, already moved away.