AS IF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY HAD NEVER HAPPENED: HAUNTING THE DOCUMENTARY FORM WITH ROBINSON IN RUINS AND THE ATTIC

This entry was posted on July 19th, 2013

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By John A. Riley

Dedicated to David Kelly and PC Claude Morrell

Introduction: So Haunt Me

Adam Curtis and Patrick Keiller are two makers of idiosyncratic documentaries who have carved out unique careers over the past few decades, stretching the documentary form to breaking point in the process. In this article, I’ll argue that haunting is one particular theme that not only unites the two filmmakers, but goes a long way to explaining their respective warpings of the documentary form. What emerges from their use of the haunting motif is a critique of the prevailing political status quo in Britain. In the hands of Keiller and Curtis, who both see the present situation as an impasse, haunting becomes a way of showing how ideas, implemented from above, affect ordinary people, and how they change British society as a whole.

Jacques Derrida’s wry neologism hauntology often heralds dense, near-impenetrable poststructuralist tracts. But a recent piece in Film Quarterly, Mark Fisher shows how the term progressed from Derrida and his academic acolytes to a style of music that rejects the futurism of electronic music in favour of a textural, reflective consideration of  “the lost futures the twentieth century taught us to anticipate.” (16) Fisher goes on to explain how the concept can be employed to understand a range of diverse texts from films such as Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981), The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) to the teleplays of Nigel Kneale and the novels of Alan Garner. This is because, whether directly focused on the supernatural or not, these texts all exhibit exceptionally malleable spatio-temporal relations:

Haunting can be seen as intrinsically resistant to the contraction and homogenisation of time and space. It happens when a place is stained by time, or when a particular place becomes the site for an encounter with broken time.[i]

In supernatural fiction, ghosts usually appear at such a “stained” site; the strange goings on at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining are explained by the fact that the hotel was built on the site of an Indian burial ground, while countless fictions have explored the idea of a particular location being the site of a time-slip (from the children’s novel Tom’s Midnight Garden to the sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart.)

Perhaps resistance is the key word here. The resistance Fisher mentions may be conceived in more than one way, as my consideration of Curtis and Keiller will now demonstrate.

Lurking in the Attic: Margaret Thatcher Imprisoned by Spectral Visions

The Attic is the third part of Curtis’s series The Living Dead: Three Films About the Power of the Past, made for the BBC and televised in 1995. Already, the title of the series links the past (our individual and collective memories) to the mesmeric power of the supernatural, in this case, the shambling, corporeal, lacerating vanitas known to popular cultural as the zombie.[ii] In this third part, the power of the past manifests itself as a tale of Margaret Thatcher; a prime minister haunted by a Churchillian vision of Britain’s glorious, imperial past. Curtis conceives of Thatcher’s years in office as an attempt to resurrect this past, with disastrous (and sometimes near-farcical) consequences.

The “failure of the future” pronounced by the hauntologists is borne out by Curtis’s argument that the Thatcher project represents a turn to the past. He hammers this point home by interviewing PR guru Sir Tim Bell, who successfully guided three election victories for Thatcher, and showing the film Bell commissioned for her 1979 election campaign, “Going Backwards Or Forwards?”

In the film, archive footage depicting Britain’s past strength (represented in military and naval terms) is reversed, to create a portrait of a society in decline. As Bell comments: “If we could bring the past into the future, and into the present, then we could go forwards ourselves.” What better depiction of a “time out of joint”? We are going backwards; the past needs to be harnessed before we can move into the future.

There’s a concept of time as malleable here, relics of the past can be called up into the present day, as shiny, brand spanking new, not summoned up as ragged zombies or faded haints. For Curtis, this trend is emblematic of the neoliberal revolution (It’s worth noting that Ronald Regan frequently used “you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet” while seeking re-election in 1984, simultaneously referring to future expectations, good-time 70s rock and roll and – perhaps most crucially – the old-timey, sentimental entertainment of Al Jolson.)

But the tragic consequences that Curtis wants to exhume are the spectres of the Falklands war and the escalation of partisan violence in Ireland after Thatcher refused to negotiate with republican hunger strikers. Although Curtis’s voiceover refers to this as a raising of ghosts, this is underlined by Irish republican Ruari O’Bradagh, who comments: “She disturbed some very unquiet ghosts.”

Curtis continues to show this malleable, conservative conception of past, present and future, this “going backwards or forwards”, when he links the Falklands war, both with Churchill’s imperial victories (flashing up a photograph of Churchill momentarily in the darkness of battle) and with the raising of the Marie Rose, a warship sunk by the Spanish at the time of Henry VIII.

Over ominous footage of an underwater wreck, Curtis tells us that “As the fleet sailed out from Portsmouth, the warships passed over divers  working to recover the wreck of the Mary Rose.” The ship was raised a few months after the fleet returned, victoriously, from the Falklands. Once again, there’s an assumption that past glories can be raised, and brought into the present using pomp and circumstance.

In 1983, Thatcher’s government established the English Heritage, an organisation ostensibly set up to protect Britain’s historic environment.  Historical re-enactment became central to the public’s understanding of what the English Heritage did. The excitement of a Hollywood blockbuster (sort of) mingles with edifying historical knowledge. At a reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon village, a representative from English Heritage explains to Curtis that:

“We don’t actually do many second world war events, because it’s a bit close to home … We think it’s a little bit tasteless to run around shooting people on a battlefield, make-believe if you like, when it really happened. It is a matter of taste really; we believe that history at a safe historical distance is rather better than something that can still cause personal pain to people.”

Aside from the slip implying that world war two happened but the Saxon era didn’t, the message is clear; when the safe historical distance isn’t so safe anymore, haunting can begin. Curtis goes on to show how people who once worked in Britain’s industrial sector now found themselves new employment dressed in quaint Victorian costumes (Blists Hill, a mock-Victorian town, although opened in 1973, was built on the site of a former iron works) re-enacting (haunting can be conceived as a form of re-enactment, for example, the ghosts that to repeat some tragic event from the past) the lives of their ancestors.

Curtis also includes a sequence consisting of archive footage, bleached out 16mm footage of old statues which had, he tells us, “had lain discarded … replaced by modern sculpture.” Thatcher intended to bring back these monuments to restore a sense of a lost past (again this sense of a “time out of joint.”) Curtis then cuts to PC Morell, who wrote to Thatcher about getting a spotlight on a statue of Churchill. Naturally Thatcher agreed.

 The cultural critic Mikhail Yampolsky has written on the subject of monuments:

A monument is not so much meant to imitate one or another person as it is to express the idea of not being subject to time, of extrahuman temporality, of ahistoricity.[iii]

Although statues and monuments might be thought of as opposite to ghosts (the resolutely corporeal and immobile set against the translucent and ethereal) they can produce some of the same effects. This is in contrast to the “modern sculpture” of the postwar era, in which the conservatives found a blandness and a high-handed, paternalist approach to what art should be. The problem for this mindset is that the sculpture does not impart or radiate a sense of the past, or of history.

Alexander Etkind, building on Yampolsky’s work, has argued further, that these monumental effects can be found in texts too:

 The effect comes from an unusual, unexpected stoppage of the narrative flow, creating a static image that becomes memorable and mournful because of this contrast between its frozen, petrified fabric and the flow of the story that encircles it.[iv]

I would argue film is particularly prone to these stoppages, because of its ability to preserve indexical images in chunks of time, historical figures trapped in a chunk of time like a mosquito preserved in amber.

Curtis then turns his attention to Black Monday and the financial crisis of the late 80s, linking it with the great storm of 1987.[v] using evocative footage and a personal account by a witness of the destruction of a forest and of stately homes by the storms: “It was as if the whole of the past of English history had been wiped away in just a few hours.”

Thatcher is portrayed as not in control of the forces she summoned up and intended to conjure with; nationalism and deregulated finance. This is another trope from supernatural fiction: the occultist who summons a ghost or demon intending to control it, only to find it has a mind (and sometimes an appetite) of its own.

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Breakfast in the Ruins: Haunting as Subversive Activity  

In Curtis’s films haunting is conceived as an imprisonment by the past, while in Keiller’s films haunting is something we can enact ourselves, a kind of resistance to the straitened circumstances we find ourselves in. In Keiller’s trio of Robinson films – London (1994) Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010) – it is the fictional protagonist, conjured entirely through narration, who haunts the spaces of everyday Britain, making himself into a subversive spectre in the process. The films are essayistic, melancholic documentary. Fictional narration mixed with historical facts, statistics mingle with fragments of music and ambient sound.

Robinson is an eccentric, maverick researcher whose expeditions to diagnose the problems of London, and of England, are relayed to us by a narrator. By the third film, Robinson’s male companion has died, and his widow has succeeded him as narrator. The opening titles announce that Robinson himself has gone AWOL somewhere in the British countryside, leaving behind only a ghostly archive of films in a dilapidated trailer. The narrator announces the theme in her opening lines:

When a man called Robinson was released from Edgecot Open Prison, he made his way to the nearest city, and looked for somewhere to haunt.

Haunting, in Keiller’s hands, is a subversive, creative, paradoxically obstructive, “time-stopping” activity. To return to the site of some event, whether a political protest that forced social change, or the site of some other trauma, such as Harrowdown Hill in Oxfordshire, where hounded weapons expert David Kelly committed suicide in 2003, and where the personal and political collide.

As Keiller explains in a written piece that explores the idea of the flaneur as a means of expressing landscape poetically:

The aim is to depict the place as some sort of historical palimpsest and/or the corollary of this, an exposition of a state of mind.”[vi]

Keiller notes that one type of flaneur is essentially a social animal, while “The other type … drifts through the city as if it were the substance of a dream, marvelling at the transformations that this brings about.[vii] Robinson is this type of flaneur, but he’s more than this, he’s a melancholy ghost of a flaneur, refusing to go away and returning to places that are sites of embarrassment for the British establishment.

in Ruins we find him lurking in suburban housing with “shoefiti” adorning the power cables in the street. The practice of throwing shoes over power and telephone lines is a low-level kind of haunting; often explained as gang signs advertising places where drugs are available etc, in reality the shoes are probably flung there as elaborate in-jokes, merely to create a little confusion in the minds of those who would probably interpret anything they don’t quite understand as being a harbinger of a youth violence induced eschaton.

Keiller,  in common with the slow cinema movement, holds static shots for considerable lengths of time. Often a mix of narration, ambient sound, and snatches music buoy these long takes along, but in Robinson in Ruins Keiller uses several sections without narration or music, where visual details of the natural world and ambient sound takes over. These protracted periods invite reflection.

Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, talking about social media such as Twitter, makes a distinction relevant for Keiller’s conception of haunting:

It’s a stream. You don’t get pond scum on a stream. You don’t get culture. You don’t build. You need stillness. Look at New York. New York is built to promote flow on a grid pattern because it’s a city about money. You have Central Park, which is rounded to impede flow, so you can stop and breathe.[viii]

This is how to produce a haunting: stop the flow, the forward movement; pause at a particular location and reflect; . This is the significance of the lichen imagery in Robinson in Ruins, appearing very near the beginning and then returning later, as the narrator describes Robinson’s belief in non-human intelligences that are monitoring us and trying to avert catastrophe.

We see the lichen clinging unusually to the letters on a roadside. Then Keiller goes in for a close-up of a single letter (the N of Newbury; a town in Berkshire famous for its airforce base and subsequent picketing by a woman’s peace group) a white line, lined with lichen. It’s reminiscent of a diagram representing a linear nucleated settlement, but it’s made of something most would consider either a mild nuiscance or an aesthetic example of aesthetic imperfection if found growing on their pot plants.

Robinson and the lichen are doing the same thing: practicing a form of haunting, refusing to leave.

While the narrator talks about growing poppies to create opium for morphine in Oxfordshire, there is another of these extended, ambient shots of poppies rustling in the breeze. Keiller quotes Walter Benjamin, but the breeze gently animating these flowers also recalls an earlier era of film theory, and Siegfried Kracauer’s ecstatic response to seeing a breeze moving through a suburban street in a film he watched during childhood. A breeze, of course, is unseen, but we see and feel its effects, just like a poltergeist. This is what Keiller wants us to focus on in his Robinson films, things we cannot necessarily see, but whose traces we still see and feel.

There’s an emphasis, in Robinson in Ruins, on what used to occupy particular sites. A supermarket built on the site of the Morris Motors factory; the footpath that was once a Roman road. Our narrator mention’s Robinson’s “increasing insubstantiality”, as if he himself is becoming a ghost. Perhaps Robinson’s own increasing spectrality explains his turn to monuments. Robinson, we are told, emigrated from Berlin to London in the 1960s, attracted by the “swinging” popular culture and Britain’s megalithic structures. But the modern megaliths that we find in Ruins are a parodic convergence of the two; either transmitters, or most archly a Royal Bank of Scotland sponsored monument to commemorate the millennium and a cycle track, that Robinson finds while looking for the site where a meteor fell.

The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be And The Past Is A Different Country &c.

In London (1994), Robinson and his friend the narrator are positioned as being outside William Morris’s house in Hammersmith when the narrator remarks:

We remembered what we used to think of as the future; sophisticated engineering, low consumption, renewable energy, public transport. But just now London is all waste, without a future; its public spaces either void, or the stage sets for spectacles of nineteenth century reaction, endlessly re-enacted for television.”

Morris spearheaded the Art and Crafts movement, partly as a reaction to the mass production of the decorative arts as a result of the industrial revolution. But what, Keiller seems to be asking, standing amidst the remains of a cottage industry and the paper thin frontage of a British establishment institution, is the reaction to the neoliberal revolution?

Curtis has argued that the counterculture holds suspicion of elites and a belief that it’s down to individuals rather than old-fashioned movements to change the world. “Mrs Thatcher and the counterculture movement are as one on so many things. So many things.”[ix] This may be seen as the crankiness of a stuffy Oxbridge elitist. But both filmmakers argue that we can continue to see the past only as collections of stylistic motifs ripe for our re-appropriation, or we can afford it serious reflection as a way of thinking ourselves out of our current impasse. That’s what Robinson does when he visits – and stands staring for a long time – places of historical significance. It’s what Curtis does when he digs footage out of the archives and breathes new life into it through recombination.

In their subsequent work, the theme of haunting has returned. Keiller mounted an exhibition at Tate Britain entitled The Robinson Institute (in the light of Keiller and Curtis’s conceptions of haunting, is there anywhere that seems more haunted than the museum/gallery?) while Curtis’s recent multimedia collaboration with Massive Attack returns to the rhetoric of ghostly images. Keiller and Curtis, through their insistence on documentary, through their respective haunting (haunting as refrain that won’t leave us, haunting as melancholy, disruptive reflection) present us with a culture that can’t envision a future. Unfortunately for us British, it’s our culture.



[i] Mark Fisher “What is Hauntology?” Film Quarterly Vol. 66 no. 1 (Fall 2012) p. 19.

[ii] As Evan Calder William’s snarkily notes of our present cultural obsession with the Zombie genre “To adopt the language of the genre itself, we need to kill the undead so as to locate what may have been worth saving.” Combined and Uneven Apocalyspse (UK: Zero Books, 2011) p. 73.

[iii] Mikhail Yampolsky “In the Shadow of Monuments: Notes on Iconoclasm and Time” p. 98.

[iv] Alexander Etkind, Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied (USA: Stanford University Press, 2013) p. 180.

[v] The crash began in Hong Kong, but the storm caused chaos in the south of England, preventing many stock market dealers from working, and thereby seriously exacerbating the crisis on the London stock exchange.

[vi] Patrick Keiller, “The Poetic Experience of Landscape and Townscape, and Some Ways of Depicting It” The Undercut Reader Ed. Nina Danino and Michael Maziere (UK: Wallflower, 2003) page 76.

[vii] ibid. p79.

[viii] Samantha Hinds, “Graphic Interface.” See http://thenewinquiry.com/features/graphic-interface/

[ix] Brendan O’Neill, “Margaret Thatcher and the Counterculture Have So Much in Common.” See http://brendanoneill.co.uk/post/25779249260/margaret-thatcher-and-the-counterculture-have-so-much