London: A Metaphysical Mirror

By Adam Kossoff

london-patrick-keiller.jpg London, dir. Patrick Keiller

London is like Aesop’s metamir; a metaphysical mirror that doesn’t obey the laws of optics but reproduces the owner’s reflection as it is seen by the person standing before them. A metamir can be used to reinforce friendships and dissolve the ones that have become stale and habitual. And to find the person who loves you most. The owner of a metamir will know the truth about how people see and feel about them.

Patrick Keiller’s film uses London in this way; as a mirror which produces and reflects his inner feelings. It is a filmic essay, a personal travelogue of ideas and reflections. A journey that simultaneously moves both outwards and inwards. It is a search for utopia.

The film is seemingly shot with the eye of a stills photographer (the narrator has informed us that he is a photographer from a luxury cruise ship), with sequences of static shots. But, perhaps because some of them are shot surreptitiously and from a point of view that expresses the detached solitude of the narrator, these shots have a composed roughness about them. Tops of statues are cut off, people are not centrally placed in the screen; the shots are usually, but not always, empty of both the expected classicism and of a poetic sensibility. The camera angles and the focal length of the lenses seem to be chosen in order to de-aestheticise London. The film is also edited at a slow pace which imparts a sense of unease, but also gives the audience time for contemplation.

The problem with London, the film argues, is that it is an island. An urban sprawl where people can only survive by having the self-sufficiency of a Robinson Crusoe. One of the film’s expeditions ends in ‘devastation’ for Robinson (the narrator’s self-appointed companion and an alter-ego), and sums up the two characters’ doomed efforts in their search for an utopian mainland. They go to Stoke Newington to find the school that Edgar Allan Poe attended, but instead they come across the house where Daniel Defoe lived and wrote Robinson Crusoe. As the narrator says; ‘They had gone looking for the man of the crowd and had found instead shipwreck and the visualisation of Protestant isolation.’

One of the wittiest moments of the film occurs when the two characters go to Brent Cross shopping centre and it is reported that Robinson has met a man by the fountain reading Walter Benjamin. The man gives Robinson his phone number but it turns out it is the number of a public phone box in Cricklewood. This ray of hope and then Robinson’s optimism curtailed, represents the impossiblity of finding one’s place in London, the notion that there is no public space to hang out, to just be (as in Walter Benjamin’s concept of the modern urban soul, the flâneur).

There are many other ways of representing London. It is possible, for example, to find people who live and work in communities of their own making. The film only fleetingly touches on these when it takes us to the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch, which was the first housing estate built by the County Council in 1897. We are shown shots of the still-standing bandstand and it is suggested that this estate is a fragment of a golden age, the closest we get to the search for utopia in London. But we aren’t informed why. Keiller keeps the explanation to himself; that the estate replaced the Jago and that successive working-class and ethnic communities have found a semi-haven there. (My father grew up there and refers to it as somewhere that did have a utopian feel about it.)

Ultimately London’s exploratory endeavours are too self-conscious (and too pessimistic). Its search for the past relics of Rimbaud, of Verlaine, of Edgar Allan Poe, of Baudelaire and Montaigne, is an archaeology of the mind, a through-line that has too much of a literary slant to pull itself out of the self-inebriated gloom that it burrows its way into. Perhaps because of this it misses what I felt was a good moment for it to flex its ever-present irony. Towards the end of the film there are some shots of a large bonfire on Guy Fawkes night. The shots are passed over with no specific comment. But this is the only national festival where people come out to celebrate collectively. Gerry Adams once made a comment to the effect that Guy Fawkes was the only Englishman who ever tried to do something about the hypocrisy of our democracy…

A film on London is certain to miss things that reflects its audiences’ personal experiences. And a metamir-like London can only really reflect the truths and feelings we bring to it. London is intelligent enough to realise this. It isn’t the information-plugging story that the BBC might do. Nor is it the micro-view; the casualty ward in some run-down area, shot in a cinéma-vérité style, in the manner of Channel 4. It is a 9-month diary that, incidentally, curtly reminds us how quickly we forget our recent history (e.g., the betrayal of the miners and that last-gasp march through London in torrential rain where we nearly got trench foot in Hyde Park), made by a film-maker who believes in and wants a palpable relationship to film; not a company director who needs to balance the books while at the same time playing the role of the nation’s cultural-social-worker-with-a-camera.

Sir Alfred Sherman, co-founder of the right-wing think-tank, The Centre for Policy Studies, has said that ‘ideas come from the edges’ and ‘it is only people on the fringe who can ever think and question ideas’ (a Gramscian position, unashamedly co-opted). The truth of this is better applied to the cultural sector which has been so fatally starved of money and support. And, in terms of TV, the essayistic documentary, fatally denied once-available outlets because of scheduling, ratings and bloody-minded disinterest in intellectual film-making. London is the call of a dying breed. A film in the personal-political exploratory vein of Chris Marker, Marcel Ophuls, Jean Rouch and Alexander Kluge, that comes from the margins, that moves at us from unexpected angles. It is, as Robinson says, quoting Sterne; ‘duration as the succession of ideas which follow and succeed each other in our minds like the images on the inside of a lanthorn turned round by the heat of a candle.’

Adam Kossoff is a writer and film director.