Sunday Editor’s Pick: Patrick Keiller’s Robinson Trilogy

by on January 9, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Jan 15 at Anthology Film Archives:
LONDON at 2:45 [Program & Tix]
ROBINSON IN SPACE at 5:00 [Program & Tix]
ROBINSON IN RUINS at 7:00, 9:15 [Program & Tix]
*Series runs Jan 12-18 – see here for complete daily schedule of films


Anthology showcases Patrick Keiller’s essay film trilogy with a weeklong run of his most recent entry, Robinson in Ruins, Jan 12-18, and a few other rarely screened titles (including The Dilapidated Dwelling, narrated by Tilda Swinton!) just for good measure.


Farihah Zaman for Reverse Shot:

Keiller has said that if London is concerned with the problem of that city, and Robinson in Space is concerned with the problem of England, Robinson in Ruins is concerned with the problem of dwelling. This concept is explored in myriad ways as Keiller demonstrates that the answer to the question “where do you live?” refers not only to the building one calls home, which has in and of itself been a universal preoccupation since the domination of agrarian society, but also to language, culture, community—one’s place in the world and one of the foundations of human identity. The images run the gamut from street signage to abandoned grocery stores to a long, meditative moment with a tractor in a wheat field, so many quotidian artifacts of life that are dramatically recast as Keiller-as-narrator-as-Robinson makes extrapolations about everything from local governance and census statistics, to the global economy, to Neo-Darwinism, to the struggle of nature, to the ruination left in the wake of the industrial age. Keiller manages to construct a film that, while comprised entirely of images of the near past and present, creates a foreboding sense of our dystopian postindustrial future.

The techniques Keiller uses in Robinson in Ruins feel both fresh and part of a tradition, and tempts comparison to several other filmmakers’ works, such as James Benning, with his distinctive ruminations on landscape, and Peter Greenway, whose Tulse Luper series also tells a story through the use of structuralism and an obsessive, sturdily intrepid alter-ego. The film is also unexpectedly reminiscent of the work of Guy Debord, also known for using intellectually dense text over a barrage of static shots, particularly archival footage, such as in his best known film, La société du spectacle. Both films depend on the tension or revelation that results from the pairing of text and image, and both can leave the audience overwhelmed, unable to process the exact meaning of each phrase, allowing rather a list of impressions. However, while Debord uses the distinctly avant-garde technique to try and shock the audience out of a bourgeois mentality that he believes pervades even the process of watching film, Keiller’s message is less obvious, more of an experience or a sensation, and a far less abrasive one at that. While Debord’s films are classic, groundbreaking pieces of experimental film, they are also intentionally obvious, a kind of intellectual agitprop. In Robinson in Ruins Keiller fascinatingly bends a seemingly inherently aggressive filmmaking technique to create something far more subtle, meditative, and ideologically complex, inspiring not violent action but respectful reflection.


Michael Sicinski looks back on the whole trilogy for Cinemascope:

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.


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.


Ruins was Kenji Fujishima‘s first Keiller film, for The House Next Door:

Robinson in Ruins may sound like little more than a video slideshow, but the voiceover narration actually does a variety of different things with the images that it illustrates. Sometimes the commentary illuminates an image, providing historical context or enlivening it with a humorous aside. Other times Keiller’s words offer a stark counterpoint to what he shows onscreen. One of the most memorable instances of the latter involves a lengthy shot of a spider weaving a web. And what accompanies this long take? Why, a summary of the early days of the global financial crisis! (Wall Street Journal news videos need this kind of visual experimentation, stat!) And, of course, there are some images that are unaccompanied by words, so that we simply observe and contemplate. In such a context, shots of tractors rolling over wheat fields take on an extra visceral dimension—as if those bastions of modern technology were profaning the pictorial beauty of those fields.
Notwithstanding what Keiller explicitly discusses on the film’s soundtrack, these daring and sometimes beautiful juxtapositions of words and images suggest themes of their own: the sometimes debilitating effects of the passage of time on a landscape; the terrors and beauties of encroaching modernity; the depths of history that a photographic image hides; the vastness of the world and the relative insignificance of human problems within it.


Sean Glass for Ioncinema:

Keiller discussed his process afterwards, explaining that he works with a “recipe” or “itinerary” more than a script per se. The first two films had very specific “recipes,” with this one being looser, “less ground in more detail.” The camera subjects are identified beforehand, then they go out and shoot. A fine cut is created before the narration or narrative is even thought of.
The first two films are said to be about the “problem of London” and the “problem of England,” respectively. This one is about the “problem of dwelling.” Summarized, this means Ruins is an exploration of how we cannot really make our own home the way we want it in today’s world. The character of Robinson was created from Kafka’s America. All three films use him as a device to express these ideas of not being able to be yourself in the space presented you. Keiller decided to create the character to enable the film to examine one’s own ill thought out ideas without having to do it in first person, to “advance a flawed hypothesis.”



Chris Chang for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2011):

Some films, particularly in the nonfiction category, can be seen as omens – cautionary tales for current and/or future generations. Some of these, in turn, appear as if they were made as advisories for extraterrestrials. Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins, the third of his “Robinson” trilogy, follows the British director’s singular strategy: heady voiceover accompanies (gorgeous) fixed-frame shots of locations and landscapes – and a few macro compositions – yielding a discursive narrative whose “characters” remain unseen. (Psychogeography or metanature would be salient terms.)

On one level, the film concerns the eponymous Robinson, a man who, upon release from prison, sought out “somewhere to haunt . . . equipped with an ancient cine-camera, with which he made images of his everyday surroundings.” The film’s narrator (Vanessa Redgrave) speaks of Robinson’s mysterious disappearance in 1995, and how her subsequent encounter with a “co-researcher” at a documentary festival in China led to the assembly of Robinson’s footage – material that had been discovered, with a detailed set of notes, in a camping van abandoned in a field.
As the high-concept travelogue proceeds, multiple subjects are explored including climate change, feeding the world, the ongoing economic and the looming energy crises, and, of perhaps greatest significance, the extinction of myriad species. In the final analysis, not only is this elegiac work filled with paradoxical hope for humanity’s future, it’s also an encouraging sign of life – an indication of the robust health of documentary art.



Benjamin Mercer for the L Magazine:

Ruins is a film that proceeds, as if through a slide carousel, more rapidly than it can be processed. Redgrave reels off an overwhelming amount of free-associative economic, historical, and cultural information that often creates crucial dissonances with the rural Britain seen on-screen. In addition to more picturesque spots, Keiller trains on fields, quarries, depots, and bases—many of which have been sold (profitably) to other nations, and many of which have been deemed of “special scientific interest.” The narrator relates Robinson’s hope to establish an “experimental settlement” in such an area, not far from the site of an attempted 16th-century enclosure riot. The film’s very form affirms the value of such acts of reclamation.
And then there is that which must continually be propped up. Ruins periodically returns to view the progress on a neo-Gothic house buttressed by scaffolding—Robinson is said to have “haunted” the structure, but to have found its perpetual maintenance senseless; it’s hard to avoid recalling the facade as Redgrave reports on the unfolding global financial crisis (the film was shot in 2008), though the most extended account of the bailout action accompanies a shot of a spider spinning its web in close-up.
Keiller’s juxtapositions can sometimes seem willfully arbitrary, but many of the stops along Robinson’s route portend collapse with a stunning matter-of-factness. Traversing a swath of English countryside where a meteorite fell to earth in 1830, Robinson finds not a monument commemorating the impact, but rather a lonely mile post for a bike race sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland; later we return to lichen overtaking the honeycombed surface of a reflective highway sign.


Geoff Andrew on London for Time Out (London):

This lies in that fertile territory between fiction and documentary. Everything you see is actually there, but as Scofield’s anonymous Narrator takes us through his ‘journal’ of 1992, what we hear goes way beyond the mere facts to embrace meditative reflection, political satire, erudite literary anecdote, mythification and offbeat humour. The ‘story’ is structured round three journeys undertaken by the Narrator and his friend/ex-lover Robinson (also unseen) to research the source of English Romanticism. But as the pair attempt to get a grip on the city’s history, contemporary events distract them from their planned route and their focus on the past. Both a fascinating study of a culture in decline, and a scathing commentary on the effects of more than a decade of Conservatism, the film touches on figures as diverse as Baudelaire, John Major and the Chippendales. One of the most original British features in a long time.


Phillip Kemp on Robinson in Space for Film Comment (May/June 1999):

Even smaller, and no less beautiful, are such exercises in the tradition of British idiosyncrasy as Patrick Keiller’s cool, enigmatic Robinson in Space (97). In Robinson, a sequel to Keiller’s equally unclassifiable London (94), the gray-silk tones of Paul Scofield’s unseen narrator describe, with the driest of irony, his travels around England with the likewise invisible Robinson, while the fixed camera shows us strange notices (“Brain Haulage”), idyllic landscapes, and industrial ephemera. It could be irritating, or desperately boring; but the ingenious juxtapositions and Keiller’s oblique, teasing humor hold us entranced.


Interviews with Keiller: Time Out (London), Kamera, MUBI


David Cairns on the two earlier works, for MUBI:

The movies, though strangely gripping, also exert a marked somnolent effect, via Scofield’s bone-dry V.O., and the succession of stationary shots of buildings and landscapes that make up the picture track. But somehow sleep does not come, and instead a hypnogogic reverie or dwam envelops the rapt viewer, who may feel a pleasant sinking sensation as if the couch, or universe, were softening to envelop their descending body.
Each film narrates the various “projects” of Robinson, who is never seen or heard from directly. Said projects include reinventing Leicester Square as a tribute to Laurence Sterne, the bridges over the Thames as a homage to Arthur Rimbaud, or traveling in time, and though Robinson always seems on the verge of suicide, or destitution, or mental collapse, it has to be said his projects often achieve some kind of evanescent success. In particular, the examination of the city through the lens of literary history, exploring the haunts of Edgar Allan Poe, Horace Walpole, H.G. Wells or Daniel Defoe, seems to offer a route to appreciating our own home cities or landscapes, through an awareness that when we walk, or take the bus, or otherwise move through space, we are also moving through time, not only forwards, but backwards and sideways.
It’s bizarre, perhaps, to see the roots of romanticism in the staid, static (if often deeply beautiful) images Keiller photographed himself—gate-posts at a park, an office building with its windows shattered by an IRA bomb, a shopping centre and a MacDonalds with an inflatable clown on the roof, seeming to shift his weight from haunch to haunch with each gust of wind. But Scofield’s oneiric tones (a voice easily the equal of John Gielgud or Ralph Richardsons’s) transport us through the screen to mirror-land, where everything is reversed. The use of incidental music from The Lone Ranger may not convince us wholly of the lurking drama concealed beneath the placid surface of every city street, although when word and image collide, a pub sign can easily stand in for the scaffold where King Charles was executed. But in Robinson in Space, the haunting piano chords from Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, which seem, like an Escher staircase, to be forever climbing but never arriving, suggest both the span of eternity and the escalators of Brent Cross shopping centre.


Sicinski concludes:

Now, in 2010, what has become of Robinson? 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.

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.


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