First, housekeeping: I’ve got a bit behind on the filming, and it’s only going to get worse. So just a note that this is now a two-year project (at least), and there won’t be much more filming this year. Oh well, onwards!
Today, I saw Keiller’s new film, Robinson in Ruins, at the NFT. You should go see it. It’s good. I probably need to go see it several more times to tease some more aspects out of it, but here are the headlines, culled from my notes written in the dark.
The major difference to the first two films is that, following the death of Paul Scofield, the film is narrated by Vanessa Redgrave, who takes on the role of a lover of the previous narrator. Robinson, following his release from an institution, has been renting a house in Oxford and conducting his customary researches in the area. However, he has disappeared, and all that remains are a number of cans of 16mm film found in a caravan.
References to the earlier films come early and regularly. “The Great Malady” is mentioned. Crucially, where Robinson once examined the surface of the Thames, his view has widened, and in a near-exact repetition believes that “if he looked closely enough at the landscape, it might reveal the molecular basis of historical events – and, perhaps, the future.”
Robinson’s background is filled in: he is not English, but arrived from Berlin in 1966. No more details are given about this, or about his institutionalisation.
The film charts Robinson’s explorations of Southern Oxfordshire, and particularly the Cherwell valley. Recurrent concerns include meteors and the enclosures and counter-enclosure movements of the 19th century, notably the Otmoor riots of 1830-1850. The film takes place throughout 2008, against the background of the first phases of the financial crisis: the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehmann Brothers, the failure of HBOS and other banking groups, and the government’s attempts to prop them up (the tone is not unlike that of Black Wednesday detailed in London).
Lichens are a theme too, and extending out of them an examination of the countryside. As previously the urban environment was seen to be a network of sometimes hidden, sometimes explicit private interests, whether Royal or Governmental, so the rural landscape is peeled back to reveal British and American Air Force bases, Atomic Weapons Establishments and fuel depots – all connected by electrical and oil pipelines. A particular study is made of the Government Pipelines and Storage System, which Robinson follows from site to site. (The word “site” itself becomes a particular totem: Sites of Special Scientific Interest revealed as loaded with history and unnatural meaning.)
The countryside is militarised and industrialised. Long meditative shots of wheat and maize harvests in bright sunlight are undermined by export and consumption figures. Most of what we grow goes to feed animals or the poor of other countries.
Robinson is still the idealist. One strand of his interests concerns flowers: he describes himself as biophiliac, a lover of life, while denouncing modern neo-Darwinism as “a capitalist cost-benefit analysis of Darwin’s ideas”. Following “a moment of experiential transformation”, his declared project is to reform land ownership and local democracy through experimental settlements at sites of extraordinary biomorphic architecture. This project causes him to get back in touch with the original narrator, lover of the present one, and together they plan a funded body based on Robinson’s “founding vision”, set up after the 2010 election.
There is much more to be explored here, obviously. It’s worth noting the additional personal strangeness of this film. After London (after London), the Oxfordshire landscape is the one I know best in England, having spent large parts of my childhood there, including in the Cherwell valley.
Robinson and Keiller see a landscape, urban or rural, that we pass through all the time, but rarely scrutinise. Keiller makes images of them, interrogates them, in a way that others do not. We may learn more of David Kelly, for example, from Keiller’s careful skirting of his personal landscape than we ever will from investigative journalism.
Back in May, at Q&A I attended with Keiller, he mentioned that this film introduced a supernatural element which had not been present in his films before. This appears to have been a quiet joke – with one exception. Somewhere near Tetsworth, the narrator (or perhaps Robinson) notes that, for a brief period, the path of the pipeline that is being followed beneath the ground follows that of St Michael’s Line, the best known Ley in England. It is a rare moment of explicit psychogeography from Keiller – but the whole film feels more sentimental, if still reserved: closer to the earth, and more demanding of it.
That’s all for now.
A (very) incomplete list of locations: Oxford (particularly Broad Street), Cowley, the Kennington roundabout, the Physic Well at Cumnor, Harrowdown Hill (site of the death of Dr David Kelly). the Ridgeway path, Aldermarston and Greenham Common, Silchester, Crookham House, Thatcham, Padworth Common, Tetsworth, Junction 6 of the M4, Westcott rocket range, RAF Upper Heyford, Islip, the John Radcliffe Hospital, Beckley, Otmoor, Hampton Gay, Enslow Hill, and a milestone on the Aberystwyth Coach Road, 58km from London.