London: The Commonplace Transfigured

By John Mepham

At some points this film is reminiscent of Godard; it might have been called Two or Three Thousand Things I Know About Her. Snatches of film music from The Lone Ranger play over visually witty shots juxtaposing incongruous items – an array of signs advertise the Montaigne School of English but also Soho porn joints; a wonderfully misspelled traffic sign says ‘RAC – Margritte – Hayward Gallery’; in Leicester Square a bust of Joshua Reynolds shows in the foreground, and in the background, glimpsed through trees, a huge cinema sign says ‘Basic Instincts’.

This is London as seen by Robinson, a demented autodidact, who knows a thing or two more than we want to know about the city – in Lambeth there is a fence made out of beds from air-raid shelters, in Stoke Newington we can find the house in which Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. Robinson takes his friend to see, in the Geffrye Museum, the diarist John Evelyn’s cabinet of curiosities, and as a metaphor for this film’s own weird procedures this is as good as any. It is part diary, a record of questing journeys across London, and part catalogue of curiosities noted en route.

Keiller is a romantic who realises, but refuses to accept, the impossibility of romanticism. So he splits himself into the yearning Robinson and the world-weary, sardonic narrator who undermines Robinson’s over-inflated discourse. The essence of a romantic life, we are told, is the ability to get outside oneself, but here the strategy deliberately backfires, for Robinson’s taste for the symbolic and the elevated is viewed by his companion as insane. At one moment, the narrator wryly tells us, the raving Robinson ‘declared Cannon Street a sacred site and the number 15a sacred bus route.’ Robinson’s pain is authentic, and so is his rage against the idiocies of the state. He is dumbfounded by politics (this is 1992 and John Major wins the election) and so sets off on his journeys in search of some surviving trace of artistic life in this tatty mess of a city.

Novalis said that it is ‘by giving what is commonplace an exalted meaning, what is familiar the impressiveness of the unfamiliar’ that he romanticised it. Keiller with his camera defamiliarises and so romanticises London, showing forth in ravishing images the infinite lurking in the finite, in swirling river waters, in Brixton market.

Keiller is a composer of epiphanies. With his static camera, his delicate, elegiac rhythms, the solemn music, he produces visual poetry of aching sweetness and beauty. The life of the city is shown forth, transfigured. The camera works the seemingly impossible trick of elevating the commonplace, of transforming the everyday into scenes of eerie, magical enchantment. For example, a shot of a street scene in Shoreditch, on an estate which was the product of some long dead utopian dreamer of an architect. In a tranquil square a little Asian girl dances, her brother whirls around on his bike, and both are protected by the overarching branches of a London plane tree. The whole scene is bathed in glorious golden light. Magical.

In a sequence near the end of the film we see a Guy Fawkes bonfire in Kennington Park and again the commonplace is transfigured. There is a title, ‘The Day of the Dead’, and once again the funereal rhythm of Beethoven’s quartet imposes a stillness and silence. Silhouettes move slowly in front of the flames like lost souls. The bonfire becomes a pyre and Guy Fawkes night becomes the feast of All Souls, when the dead assemble. In spite of everything, the vulgarity, the political lunacy, the bombs, the dead still assemble and poetry is still possible: at least this is so in film space. ‘Film space is virtual space, more intense, more desirable than everyday surroundings,’ Patrick Keiller has written.

The trouble is though that this film space is so far distanced from the real spaces of city life. The transfiguration is successfully worked but at a very high price. For this is an aesthetic sensibility driven by such a fierce yearning for beauty that it can only relate to the city by making it into art. Most terrible of all is the sense of isolation, for there is not a single voice heard in the film apart from that of Paul Scofield’s narrator. We are separated by an impenetrable barrier from the experience of London’s inhabitants who are filmed through that voyeur’s device the telephoto lens. This is a perfect metaphor for the aesthetic sensibility at work here, for it both compresses things into unfamiliar juxtapositions but also places them apart in another, parallel world which we can gaze at but never enter. The inhabitants are never allowed to speak. The film-maker is too intent on listening for faint echoes of the voices of dead poets ever to be aware of the voices of living Londoners. The population of this hauntingly beautiful but unreal world is silenced.

John Mepham teaches at Kingston University. He is the author of Virginia Woolf: A Literary Life and co-editor of the four-volume Issues in Marxist Philosophy.