Screen talks to elusive British film-maker Patrick Keiller, whose latest feature Robinson In Ruins is screening at the London Film Festival on Oct 19.
Patrick Keiller’s career is almost as mysterious as that of Robinson, the enigmatic, never spotted intellectual travelling through Tory Britain in Keiller’s films, London (1994) and Robinson In Space (1997). Those films, both narrated by a late Paul Scofield, had a big cult following.
The new Robinson film, Robinson In Ruins (narrated by Vanessa Redgrave) premiered at Venice in September and will screen at the London Film Festival prior to its UK theatrical release by the BFI on Nov 19. The film is sold internationally by HanWay. A documentary/film essay, it began shooting in January 2008, the day after the first of many global stock market crashes of that year, and continued until the middle of November.
In the film, Keiller ruminates about everything from the global banking collapse of 2008 to the uses of oil seed rape, opium growing in England and land enclosure laws in Sixteenth Century England. Robinson’s theory is that if “he looks at it hard enough, he can cause the surface of the landscape to reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events.”
We haven’t heard anything about Robinson’s wanderings for more than a decade. Nor has Keiller himself been much in evidence in British film culture. Screen International catches up with the elusive British filmmaker.
Why has Robinson been away for so long and why have you brought him back now?
When Robinson In Space was first released, we took it to Rotterdam and it won a prize. Everybody seemed very excited. Tessa Ross (then at the BBC) had commissioned Robinson In Space. Not long after that, the message came round that ‘things were a bit different now and sorry.’ It was not long after the 1997 election. I’ve since come to the conclusion that something strange happened at the point of the May ‘97 election.
Certain things which had previously been in the margins gravitated to the centre. And other things which had been in the margins…moved further away! There were quite a lot of people who were in a similar position. Some managed the predicament possibly rather better than I did by jumping to other islands.
Was this around the time of the closure of the BFI Production Board in 2000?
The BFI was the sole producer of London (1994). Robinson In Space was very quick to go into production and was almost all BBC money. The BFI put in a small amount of money for the theatrical (release) and various other rights. Robinson No 3 at that point didn’t go anywhere. In the meantime, I had got a commission from Channel 4 to make what was going to be a series of three documentaries about the “future of the house.”
This was a “what are we going to do after the Tories?” project. I had never made films except under the Tories. I remember when Robinson in Space came out, wandering round Rotterdam, wondering what the hell am I going to do next. How am I going to cope with that? The subject had gone.
The ’80s were not easy to make films with any kind of political pretensions but the ’90s were a doddle. It was like we were living in a Carry On film.We couldn’t go wrong. After the Blair moment, things were a bit more complicated and I wasn’t entirely sure what to do about that. I adopted this post-war stance of ‘we must rebuild.’ There were a lot of other people who had the same idea. Hundreds of architects were going around with all sorts of wonderful, technological reformulations of the dwelling - of which my film was just a very small aspect. There was a lot of talk about information technology, automation, factory built houses in Japan…an enormous sense of expectation that something was going to happen.
By the time the “future of the house” project got commissioned to be developed, Michael Jackson had just been made head of Channel 4. I didn’t start making it till the autumn of 1998 and it didn’t get finished till May of 2000 - by which time it was a huge embarrassment. It (The Dilapidated Dwelling) wasn’t one of ‘those films.’ It was a documentary. I am not sure what they were expecting but they obviously weren’t expecting a bunch of professors and a load of archive footage. It was never shown (on TV). It went to the Vancouver Festival where it picked up a trade paper review. It then got shown in 2001 at the Tate Modern. The Architecture Foundation used to show it every week at one point. They were very keen on it — it was morale boosting for architects.
What happened next?
I got very interested in the topographical actuality films from the first decade of moving pictures which I wasn’t really aware of until that point. I subsequently developed a project slightly perversely called The City Of The Future, which was an exploration of how urban space had and hadn’t changed over the previous century. Its last realisation was as an installation at the BFI Southbank Gallery in 2007-2008.
So it was after that you decided to make Robinson In Ruins?
No, this one was already going by then. The project was devised in 2006. It wasn’t clear to me (then) whether it was a Robinson film but it was something similar. This was constituted as a project in the Landscape and Environment programme, a strategic programme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. We made an application for a research project called The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image.
This involved two other academics and a PHD student (Professor Patrick Wright, Professor Doreen Massey and Matthew Flintham). They are signed up to do things in parallel with the film.
What happens to the film now?
It went from Venice to New York and from New York to Vancouver. It is going from Vancouver to London and from London to Vienna. The release (in the UK) through the BFI coincides almost exactly with the anniversary of the Oxfordshire Rising.
Any new Robinson films on the horizon?
Not yet. The next thing is the expansion of the film into a book if we can find a way of doing that. The next moving picture? I don’t know. I think we’ll probably have to see what happens to this one.