A unique film equal parts fiction and documentary, London captures the capital in a portrait of sly wit and surreal insight, at a moment of disenchantment before Cool Britannia and the Millenium Bridge. The film’s two wandering flâneurs see Rimbaud in Canary Wharf, and egalitarianism in the Routemaster bus, as they meander, on foot and in the imagination, through tableaux of a decaying city that never had the revolution it deserved. In this vital piece of cinema from ex-architect Keiller 18th century romanticism collides with contemporary urban alienation, in an experimental travelogue narrated by Paul Scofield.
UK, 1994, Dir Patrick Keiller, 85 min
We are delighted to present Patrick Keiller, director of London, in conversation with Joe Kerr, Critical & Historical Studies, Royal College of Art, following the screenings.
The capital and capitalism collide in celebrated artists Relph and Payne’s first film – an acerbic musing on “a city so assured of its brilliance that it constantly forgets to do anything noteworthy,” at the fin-de-siècle. Described by critic Jerry Saltz as “a love song to their native London… sung in the key of spleen,” this short film offers a generational response to Keiller’s London, in its charting of the city’s continuation of disorderly ‘pack-donkey’ urban chaos.
UK, 1999, Dir Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, 23 min. Courtesy Herald St, London and Gavin Brown's Enterprise, NYC
Programme Notes by Joe Kerr
Even the very recent past is a different country in a metropolis as restless and relentless as London. These two powerful and evocative portraits of the city, released in 1994 and 1999 respectively, are close enough in time to each other to be recognisably about the same place, but are far enough away from our here-and-now as to represent somewhere altogether different from the city that surrounds us as we sit here watching them. It’s not that we don’t know the subjects and the objects of these films; far from it, we instantly recognise the places exposed to us, and the people who inhabit them, it’s just that we don’t live there anymore. This is after all the London of another century.
It may be that these films always created a slightly disconcerting sense of dislocation, right from the moment they were first viewed, for both seem to infect the clarity and certainty of familiar locales and situations with the indeterminacy and illogicality of dreams and memories, but it’s impossible to remember with any certainty how one viewed them in the past. It seems probable though that as time passes, their documentary significance must inevitably diminish in favour of their poetic qualities, and that this process can only enrich our appreciation of them as films.
There’s a discernable logic to screening Driftwood and London together, not just because of their subject matter and date, but because Oliver Payne and Nick Relph who made the former, acknowledge a debt to Patrick Keiller who made the latter. What that debt might be is slightly harder to unpick, largely because in style and tone they are distinctly different. What they do definitely share is an intellectual and theoretical engagement not only with the subject matter of the city, but also with how that subject might be represented filmically. Indeed, both films are clearly infomed by the contemporary flowering of that strand of urban theory that seeks subjective techniques for engaging with the everyday life of the city; both view London with the tight focus of the engaged and active citizen who inhabits the city and not with the long lens of the technocrat or the politician who rules it at a distance.
However, it is more interesting and more useful to consider what sets these two works apart rather than to dwell on ostensible similarities that shed little light on either project. One intriguing difference is the subtle change in mood that happened in the last decade of fin-de-siècle London. For Keiller’s London, scripted and shot some time before the end of 18 years of unbroken Tory rule, seems in retrospect to be shot through with the same sense of pessimism and uncertainty about the future that can be found in other contemporary commentators such as Roy Porter, who labelled the London of 1994 an “irrelevance”. In dramatic contrast, Driftwood can be read as a testament to the passion aroused by the newly-elected Blair government, not because it praises the city uncritically which it most certainly doesn’t, but because its righteous anger implies that it is still worth fighting for the soul of this decaying metropolis.
Ultimately though, the significant division between these two works is a generational one, the telling differences manifested in tone and mood rather than content. For London on the one hand offers up no clear certainties and preaches no obvious polemical intent. Its slow pace and measured commentary raises a multitude of questions about the condition of London, and offers no answers. By contrast the righteous anger of the younger filmmakers is manifest in Driftwood, which was their first collaboration. Its restless editing and authoritative narration offer the viewer a coherent and unequivocal vision that stimulates and provokes but allows for no ambiguity. One’s own response to the two pieces is equally likely to be conditioned by a generational perspective. It remains to be seen which one will offer more insights into the London of the late twentieth century when even more time separates us from the era that they portray.