London: No Time for Contradiction

By Mike Phillips

London is a city that contemporary film-makers just can’t seem to get right; and over the last 30 years there’s been a long list of directors who have used London as a location and managed to render it unrecognisable or grotesque. Antonioni shot a big chunk of Blow-Up in a street where I lived for a while, but the outcome had so little to do with the London I knew that it might just as well been made in Prague. In Absolute Beginners Julien Temple sets out to capture the same period with frankly embarrassing results. A few days ago I found myself watching The Crying Game with a growing sense of incredulity at the fact that the director seemed to be going out of his way to furnish his London background with the wrong accents, the wrong clothes, and the wrong atmosphere. In recent times only Mike Leigh has come close to recreating a recognisable portrait of the city. But his best work is a miniature which doesn’t depict much more than a specific period in the history of lower middle class life in North London. And that’s how it goes. England has no movie equivalent to Fellini’s Rome, Altman’s LA, or Allen’s New York; and London is a city whose repeated exposure renders it invisible, like a series of dots which somehow refuse to coalesce into a whole picture.

I suspect that part of the reason why London is such a problem for British film makers is to do with the resentment and hostility which forms a consistent undercurrent to English attitudes about the city. This shows up in odd ways, for instance, the use of the word London as a term of abuse – ‘trendy London’, ‘London snobs’, ‘London cliques’. In comparison, terms like the Great Wen and the Big Smoke are affectionate, but they indicate the sense in which London is a metaphor that encapsulates the kind of modernity that the English have traditionally viewed with fear and distaste.

The structure of Patrick Keiller’s film offers a neat illustration of a characteristic unease with contemporary London. The narration is a pastiche of an 18th-century journal, chronicling a series of explorations by the author/director and his friend ‘Robinson’. The apparent motivation is to trace the footsteps of the French Romantics who lived in, or had some connection with London. But this is a staunchly post-modern text, and it soon becomes clear that its literary guides are merely a peg on which to hang a chiaroscuro of observations and reflections about London in particular, and the nature of urban life in general.

The marriage of Paul Scofield’s urbane and beautifully modulated voice with the Addisonian cadence of the script creates an effect which is elegant and elegiac. Unfortunately, the fragmentary technique soon reveals itself to be a cover for the banality of the content. One strand of the argument is historical. ‘Robinson’, we are told, is trying to trace the city that London might have become if its growth had not been perverted by the English reaction to the French revolution. The excesses of the 19th century, it seems, have produced an overpopulated, alienated city, which has none of the ‘urbanism’ represented by the French and German Romantics. The other major strand blames government policy for the deterioration of the city’s fabric and institutions. These arguments provide the springboard for knocking over a row of easy targets – Government butchery, the Royal family, the plight of the homeless. We’ve heard it all before, but the real difficulty is that while the Augustan style of the commentary promises reasoned argument and cool analysis, what we get is a string of increasingly opinionated assertions. London’s hostility to ‘urbanism’, we are told is due to its ‘anti-Catholic, anti-socialist’ tradition. At this point I froze in astonishment, then laughed out loud, because if I was meant to take that seriously, what would Keiller make of Edinburgh or Seattle or Sydney. Or to put it another way, it’s instructive to note that Rimbaud reserved his deepest contempt for the café culture he encountered in Paris.

Keiller’s method has no time for contradiction. Halfway through he shows us the site of some IRA bombings and comments that Londoners have buried the memory in an attempt to pretend that Ireland has nothing to do with them. As it happens my own son missed the carnage in Camden High Street by a few minutes. In the same way, most Londoners have been turned out by false alarms and had their journeys curtailed or diverted by bomb scares. Londoners have certainly not forgotten, but their indifference has deep roots in the way that the city’s history has shaped London’s common culture. As a boy I walked to school through areas where practically every building had been affected by bomb damage, and a substantial proportion of my classmates had relatives or friends who’d been killed by bombs. It’s an experience branded on London’s memory. So if you’re going to sneer at Bomber Harris in the context of a film about London, it would also be illuminating to look at the part played by post-Luftwaffe wartime feelings in motivating and excusing the saturation bombing of German cities.

All this is detail, but it’s the sort of detail which gives the ideas of the film a pretentious, slipshod and overblown feeling. The pictures don’t make up for it because they offer a static guidebook view which is downright soporific. The humour doesn’t help either. In one passage we are shown the site where Verlaine and Rimbaud lived, now occupied by the Post Office Tower. In the next frame we see a phallic shot of the Tower, and the commentary says that this was a tribute to their relationship. Laugh? I nearly threw up.

But it’s all of a piece. In spite of its ‘radical’ posturing, Keiller’s film is actually a contribution to the heritage industry, offering as it does, a concept of urban life which is grounded in the dead past. Like many of his fellow directors Keiller burrows in the city’s past to find the terms in which it can be exploited, while ignoring the patterns which dictate its present and its future.

The narration ends by saying that London is truly modern in that it’s the first city to ‘disappear’. Pretentious crap or what? London is still here, and I live in it.

Mike Phillips is a novelist who has lived in London since 1955.