Reviews

Trembling in the Web: 'Robinson in Ruins'

A spider spins its web as the narration describes the financial crisis of 2009. Construction, decay, and reconstruction. The spider trembles in its web.


Robinson In Ruins

Director: Patrick Keiller
Cast: Vanessa Redgrave (narrator)
Distributor: BFI [UK]
Rated: U
Time: 101 mins
UK release date: 2011-06-20
‘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.

8

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image