By Tara Judah
Robinson, a fictional man we never see, is studying – or perhaps sleuthing –London. We presume the images presented to be his visual documentation, though they might have materialised from the mysterious cognition of our own imagination. Though Robinson is not present, he is not missing either. Our narrator (Paul Scofield) is a companion to Robinson, though it has been years since they saw each other last. And though our nameless narrator speaks the words written by filmmaker Patrick Keiller, he too might be a materialisation of our imagination.
From the first moments, as we focus our eyes on Tower Bridge, until the final frame, as the moon disappears into the night sky, after we have seen everything and nothing of London, almost always through a static mid-long or long shot, we now hear Keiller’s words like the ringing of a death knell: “It is a journey to the end of the world”.
London exists on a map, as an historical referent, and in our consciousness. It is, to look at, laced with architectural and environmental meaning. But it is also the product of politics and economy. From the unassuming flat where Robinson supposedly resides, to the British Foot Guards parading around as proof that tradition is as persistent a fabric in the city’s rich tapestry as the endless waste it produces, we comprehend this film as some sort of document rather than a proposal to combat what Robinson so-calls “the problem of London”.
The problem is spatial insofar as it is concerned with the endlessness of time. The space itself can and will change, as it has done so before. Acknowledging an IRA bombing in a park, or the local video store that is now a Portuguese driving school, Robinson, or Scofield, or is it Keiller – perhaps the film itself – acknowledges that this vision, this essay, is one examination of London. It is, as with any eternal mystery, to be sleuthed rather than solved. London is, in any form of its documentation, like a snowflake: no two accounts are exactly alike.
That London consists of layers of public and private memory, equal in mire and weight to its filth, is true. But it is also true that you cannot structure London. It is an urban sprawl that envelops its suburbs and will one day devour their farthest boundaries without so much as a pause in so doing. It is forever changing, and cannot be pinned down by anything social, economic or political, though those influences far and away characterise what it is. And though it is a cultural melting pot, it is also home to the mundane. Keiller shows us raindrops falling onto water, IKEA and TESCO signs. It is everyday because, as much as it can be a fragmented psychogeographic dream, a fraction of modernism, a social, economic and political nucleus, a structureless entity spanning time, space and ideology, it is also a figment of our imagination.
It is what we perceive it to be – for a moment, and then, like Robinson, a man we never see nor hear, but somehow feel that we know – it is gone.