London: The Background

By William Raban

One of the more notable events in the cinema in 1994 was the release of Patrick Keiller’s London. In a climate where the range of films on show is increasingly narrow and predictable it was exciting that a work widely presented as ‘documentary’, and certainly unlike mainstream fiction, should be featured in commercial cinemas and attract healthy audiences. Vertigo investigated reaction to this unusual film, asking different people to comment. The responses range from admiration to rage.

Patrick Keiller’s work is rooted in the tradition of English experimental film-making that is centred around the London Filmmakers Co-op. Throughout the 80s he made a number of short films, Stonebridge Park (1981), Norwood (1983) and The Clouds (1989) being some of the better known titles. His working method involves assembling mute pictures of landscape to construct a journey as the basis for developing narrative on the soundtrack.

london-patrick-keiller.jpgLondon, dir. Patrick Keiller. Photo: BFI Film and Video distribution

In Keiller’s words London "was intended to portray the city as it is and, at the same time to reconstruct it, to re-imagine it". The film is formed around a fictional journal for the year 1992 with the two unseen characters (the narrator and Robinson) making a series of journeys through London and the outer suburbs. They are ‘looking for the meaning of the city in surviving fragments of its cultural past but they are constantly being distracted by events in the present.’ It is precisely these ‘distractions’ where Keiller develops a speculative vision of political events as they unfold – John Major’s election victory, the IRA London bombings, the fall of the House of Windsor, Maastricht and Black Monday. They establish a set of documentary co-ordinates upon which the narrative depends.

The picture was filmed over an 11-month period using an old 35mm newsreel camera and minimal crew. It is beautifully shot, with an eye for architectural symmetry, and is composed entirely of static framings, save for a single hand-held shot on the escalator at the Brent Cross Shopping Centre. The preference for long focal lengths and elevated camera positions distances the viewpoint from the subject and reinforces the sense of formality and academic detachment that is present throughout the whole of the film.

William Raban is a filmmaker.