Trembling in the Web: ‘Robinson in Ruins’

[14 July 2011]

By Gabrielle Malcolm

PopMatters Associate Books Editor

‘All things have a home but one,
Thou, O Englishman, hast none …’

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy (1819)

This film, Robinson in Ruins goes against the grain. Many grains in fact. Firstly, there are the conventions of documentary filmmaking, of which it defies most. The soundtrack is the steady, non-dramatic, tones of Vanessa Redgrave, and nothing more – except the occasional drone of insects. Slow is an inadequate description for it. It is positively soporific at times, so subtle as to be dangerously non-descript.

Then there are the ideas put forward, that whilst mainstream, are not necessarily the most widely recognised or popular interpretations of evolutionary theory and environmentalism; but are gaining more recognition. This film is the result of the collaborative efforts between director Patrick Keiller and cultural historians, artists, and researchers from, amongst other institutions, The Royal College of Art. It marks a return to filmmaking after more than ten years for Keiller, since the first examinations he offered in London and Robinson in Space from the ‘90s, of the British condition.

Robinson is Keiller’s fictional creation – his alter ego, literally the ship-wrecked man, living in this instance, in ruined buildings that he has found an ample supply of after the financial crisis of the past few years. Robinson is the alien observer. On a mission; he inhabits a liminal space as he documents his surroundings. His is a world of grass verges on the edges of motorways, the margins of towns, the unsettled and unsettling spaces in semi-derelict condition.

This film concentrates in large part on the ownership of lands by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Like a feudal lord of the Middle Ages, the MoD owns vast swathes of the British countryside, often for no discernible purpose, until a time when new activity is suddenly initiated as a national crisis looms. For decades things lie dormant, and in the place of tanks and artillery, nature takes over.

Keiller, via Robinson, evokes the sense of geological time in his examination, and concentration upon lichens – some of them 5,000 years old. Their encrustation of man-made and natural objects occupies the camera’s eye for minutes on end. The idea of a symbiotic eco-system, of which lichens are Robinson’s favourite representation, is part of the Marxist-tinged influence of Professor Lynn Margulies and her advocacy of the micro-biological assessment of nature and the interdependence of species on one another. This forms the main philosophy of the film and runs against the consensus of much of scientific understanding about evolution and the competition arguments set forward by Richard Dawkins and others.

The political thread of radical politics, environmentalism and protest that runs through Keiller’s meditation finds its opposition in the Thatcher/Reagan inspired capitalism of genetically embedded ‘selfish’ competition. Robinson is a successor to the writers and politicians of the Enlightenment and 19th Century political radicalism and early socialist movements, such as William Cobbett, whose Rural Rides (1822-26) is the journalistic equivalent of Keiller’s contemplation of the modern British pastoral scene.

Dislocation and fragmentation feature in this work. The notion of what it means to be ‘English’, ‘British’ and the idea of ‘Englishness’ are considered. The accounts of historical and biological change and transition make the film absorbing and slightly hypnotic at times. As the voiceover considers the construction of supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres, the camera lingers on parked cars and weeds growing through paving.

Then suddenly you realise that the narration has moved on to the discussion of the ‘enclosure’ of common land in the 18th and 19th centuries and then we are on to the proliferation of the nuclear ‘deterrent’ in the ‘70s and the protest camps established by the women’s movement at Greenham Common and Aldermaston airbases in the ‘80s. You cannot afford to switch off during this analysis, but you are allowed space to think. A spider spins its web as the narration describes the financial crisis of 2009: Lehmann Bros., AIG, Merrill Lynch fall as nature continues inexorably to construct itself. Construction, decay, and reconstruction. The spider trembles in its web.

In addition to the film there is footage of the platform discussion at the BFI with Keiller and his colleagues explaining their singular, surreal, creative vision. If the early work of a film-maker such as Peter Greenaway, particularly his Vertical Features Remake (1978) intrigues you then Keiller is well worth the investigation.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/144786-robinson-in-ruins-directed-by-patrick-keiller/