Q&A: Five questions for Patrick Keiller

12 January 2011

Patrick Keiller's Robinson in Ruins is one of my candidates for best film of 2010. (If you haven't already, join the board and tell us yours.)

As I wrote back in October after viewing the film at the London Film Festival, Ruins is the third entry into what is now its director's 'Robinson' trilogy, following London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997). Like the previous two films, it unfolds as a 'cine-essay', with Vanessa Redgrave voicing a fictional researcher who has discovered lost footage recorded by the titular 'hero' taken in and around Newbury, south of Oxford.

If the essential style remains the same, the latest work marks a clear progression in two notable ways. The first of these is the way its images seem to linger longer and longer. There's a gorgeous shot of a combine harvester ploughing a field (is that the right term?), in which the static camera patiently watches on to the extent that it imbues a freshness in this marvel of technology, now taken for granted, all over again - and just as the harvester is about to leave the frame for its final time, Keiller cuts so as to deny us visual and therefore narrative closure: this is serious cinema at its most teasing.

The second way in which Ruins marks a progression is in its clear move away from more human elements. If Robinson in Space showed a subtle move from the urban of London, this is at another remove still. The narrator, voicing Robinson's concerns, seems to invest hope in non-human life forms as the future of the planet, an absurdly depressing investment if it weren't so irresistibly tongue-in-cheek: while the camera returns several times to the lichens that live on a motorway sign denoting Newbury, at other times a genuinely hypnotic, almost theatrical quality is given to the plants and flowers that, blown out of the frame by a wind, seem determined to re-enter it, fighting for a space and limelight of their own (and Robinson would surely give them it).

It's a fine work indeed: even more than the other films, it lends a historicity to the spaces it captures. Like J.B. Priestley's illuminating 1933 book, English Journey, Keiller's film is governed first by geography itself and the images taken of it, before the real exploration begins. Below are five questions I posed to the film-maker in autumn last year, with his answers, posted here with his kind permission.

Michael Pattison: As a film-maker who studied architecture, how important is it for an artist's interests to be grounded in material life, in society and history?

Patrick Keiller: I think it is probably inevitable that an artist's interests are grounded in material life etc., but I'm not sure that it's so important that they're grounded explicitly. However, I have recently taken to visiting museums and art galleries to seek out works by Gustave Courbet. There are not very many Courbets in the UK, but they never disappoint. It's advisable to ring up first, to make sure they're on display.

MP: I'm a great admirer of the film-essay as a format, though for me it has helped sanitise a self-indulgent, rambling style of confession more suited to video installation than the cinema; both London and Robinson in Space seem to resist these tendencies by focusing as much on the 'essay' part as the 'film' part, and so I'm interested in the process by which you arrive at something as linear as those films: is it a case of images feeding a script or are they shot to match what has been written?

PK: All the films were photographed before their narration was written, apart from a few fragments and some of the quotes. For each of the ‘Robinson’ films there was a lot of preparation, but they were not made from scripts. In every case, the preliminary document was more like a recipe. For London, this was mainly a list of itineraries, many more than those eventually undertaken, which were often overruled by the events of the day. Robinson in Space, as a commission for television, stuck closely to an itinerary and a schedule: two weeks on, two weeks off, a bit like working on an oil-rig (though we were able to go home for the weekend between the two weeks on). For Robinson in Ruins, there was a lot of preparation, but apart from a vague idea of circumambulation, what little recipe there was was discarded when the cinematography began. The film's itinerary developed as the film progressed, more slowly, and hence over a smaller area, than I had anticipated, each location following from its predecessor, until it arrived at a destination that I had been previously aware of but had not until then recognised was as important as it turned out to be, especially in terms of the events of autumn 2008. The way the film found its own way to this destination was for me, in retrospect, very funny, as if the landscape and the camera had conspired to undermine my disavowals of any psychic element in the earlier 'Robinson' films. Just as everyone else was getting over it, I became an unwitting proponent of hauntology.

MP: As a materialist, do you find a lot of artistic complacency on display in cinema at the moment, and if so, what needs to change for a more socially conscious film culture to develop?

PK: As someone attempting to connect with a tradition that for the sake of brevity I'll call surrealism, I tend to see the crucial value of cinema, film etc. in the transformative potential of its images. Consider, just from the UK, the cinematography of the GPO/Crown Film Unit documentaries, or of films directed by Alexander Mackendrick, Nicolas Roeg, Lindsay Anderson and others (examples in cinema seem to become scarcer after about 1972): films in which the pictures often take your breath away; that successfully mimic stereoscopy without any need for 3D spectacles. It seems to me that this kind of cinematography has a revolutionary aspect, in that it demonstrates what would be possible in a life transformed. This is regardless, often, of the narratives of the films, though some films even achieve something similar for human relationships, as in, for example, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, or L'Atalante. In the narration of Robinson in Space, there is a quote from Henri Lefebvre: 'the space which contains the realized preconditions of another life is the same one as prohibits what those preconditions make possible'. I wonder (as I have written elsewhere) if perhaps, in films, this prohibition is sometimes suspended. I don't detect anything like this in contemporary cinema, but I don't think that's necessarily the result of complacency.

MP: Is a solution to the problems depicted in Robinson in Space - which have worsened considerably since its release - and in The Dilapidated Dwelling [2000] possible without a wholesale redistribution of wealth, and what responsibilities should be placed on the artist with regard to that effort?

PK: The politics of Robinson in Space were not particularly demanding. The film asked, merely: 'If, for the time being, we are obliged to put up with capitalism, can we not have a version of it that is slightly less unpleasant?' with the implication that something like that existed in other places not very far away. The 'problem of England', which the film set out to study, seems to ensure that the answer to this question is almost always 'no', which leads one to wonder why that is, and to the suggestion of the 'Great Malady' in Robinson in Ruins, introduced over a view of Oxford: ‘the centre of the island on which he was shipwrecked’.

I don’t think that the way out of this necessarily involves a wholesale redistribution of wealth, desirable though that might be (especially with respect to the ownership of land). I don't think it's that difficult. The ‘problem’ is that the UK has an economy dominated by the imperatives of finance and property, rather than those of production, in which some particularly unattractive elites receive rewards that are quite unrelated to their contribution, rather as following the rise of the 'new gentry’ in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, or under ‘Old Corruption’. It is not merely the extent of the wealth that the financial elites award themselves that is so debilitating, but the fact of its being so notoriously unrelated to any economic activity that might be beneficial to the rest of us. The financial sector’s wealth is accumulated at the expense of both the rest of society and, more damagingly, the possibility of other kinds of economic activity that would be much more beneficial to the rest of society, both here and elsewhere in the world, so that what we have witnessed during the last thirty years or so, especially in the UK, is a revolution of the rich against the poor, as has often been pointed out. In 1596, Bartholomew Steer, the leading protagonist of the ill-fated Oxfordshire Rising, called for 'knocking down gentlemen', a task in which he hoped to be assisted by the impoverished weavers of Witney, now David Cameron’s constituency.

MP: As it's understandably much easier to see influences in your work from
 writers and thinkers not traditionally associated with film, whose films have
 excited you recently and why?

PK: The films that have most excited me during the last few years (as distinct from any other reaction) are among a selection of topographical actualities made over 100 years ago, especially three by William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson: Irish Mail - L & NW Railway – Taking Up Water at Full Speed (1898), Conway Castle – Panoramic View of Conway on the L & NW Railway (1898) (the NFA’s print of which is hand-coloured) and Panorama of Ealing from a Moving Tram (1901). Dickson, who had previously developed Edison’s moving-picture technology, was one of the co-founders of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company and came to the UK to set up its British offshoot. He photographed the films with the electrically-driven, 68mm-guage Biograph camera, which exposed 40 frames per second. I have only ever seen 35mm copies of Biograph films, but even in these reduced versions, the definition of the best-preserved examples is quite remarkable. Films like this, that record extended movement through the spaces of another time, are transformed by the modes of viewing offered by digital technology, which permit one to easily repeat, stop, slow down etc. a film, especially films as short as those of the early period, so that one can examine the material much more closely than the projection of a print could ever allow. This experience of early film was reflected in a work immediately preceding the project that led to Robinson in Ruins: a 30-screen moving-image reconstruction of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, in Mumbai, in the train shed-like exhibition space at Le Fresnoy, at Tourcoing, near Lille. The exhibit was, in part, an attempt to construct a virtual architecture that the linearity of single-screen ‘film’ doesn’t permit. I was initially encouraged to pursue a critique of linearity by a much-quoted passage from a 1967 essay by John Berger that became a founding text of the ‘spatial turn’ in the years around 1990. I wrote about this at the time of a later exhibition, in an article archived at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/nov/10/2 though since the published version omitted a second paragraph of Berger’s text, perhaps I might include it here, followed by a paragraph of mine:

We hear a lot about the crisis of the modern novel. What this involves, fundamentally, is a change in the mode of narration. It is scarcely any longer possible to tell a straight story sequentially unfolding in time. And this is because we are too aware of what is continually traversing the story-line laterally. That is to say, instead of being aware of a point as an infinitely small part of a straight line, we are aware of it as an infinitely small part of an infinite number of lines, as the centre of a star of lines. Such awareness is the result of our constantly having to take into account the simultaneity and extension of events and possibilities.

There are many reasons why this should be so: the range of modern means of communication: the scale of modern power: the degree of personal political responsibility that must be accepted for events all over the world: the fact that the world has become indivisible: the unevenness of economic development within that world: the scale of the exploitation. All these play a part. Prophecy now involves a geographical rather than historical projection; it is space, not time, that hides consequences from us. To prophesy today it is only necessary to know men as they are throughout the whole world in all their inequality. Any contemporary narrative which ignores the urgency of this dimension is incomplete and acquires the oversimplified character of a fable.§

‘If the novel has survived this crisis,’ I continued (though, given recent interventions by Gabriel Josipovici and others, perhaps it hasn’t), ‘this is partly because one can read, as well as write, a book in a variety of ways. Linearity is a greater problem for the cinema: it is difficult to explore a film in the way one can a book. Also, a camera's field of view is relatively narrow, even through the widest lenses, and films that set out to depict landscapes are particularly compromised.’

The article ended: ‘Installations are not as portable as films. There are not many spaces in which one can exhibit a 30-screen installation, but you can watch films, in reduced form, in your living room. The next project will be a ‘film’, but I hope to incorporate in it some of the spatial possibilities developed in these two recent installations.’ This next project has since emerged as Robinson in Ruins, which does attempt an awareness of what is continually traversing the story-line laterally. I hope to address this further in the structure of the DVD etc., and in other developments of the work, just as its predecessor Robinson in Space was expanded as a book.
§ ‘The Changing View of Man in the Portrait’, first published in New Society in 1967, reprinted in The Moment of Cubism, and Other Essays (1969), The Look of Things: Selected Essays and Articles (1972) and Selected Essays (2001).