Robinson In Ruins Review
Patrick Keiller is a unique talent in British cinema. His particular style of filmmaking hasn't been widely taken up and he only works on a very occasional basis. But I can't think of anyone else who makes films that are quite like this; this hypnotic, this funny and this visually spectacular. This, you see, is what I call spectacular; you can keep the 3D robots in Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon as long as I can have Keiller's extraordinarily detailed close-ups of lichen on the A34 road sign.
In 1981, Keiller made his first film - Stonebridge Park - and went on to make four other short films which established the style which first gained wide exposure in London, released in 1994. Keiller's camera stays still, observing a scene in varying degrees of detail, while an unseen narrator talks to us. The juxtapositions between speech and image are sometimes deeply profound and sometimes, as in the Chippendales/Rimbaud moment in London very funny. It takes a few moments to accustom oneself to Keiller's very individual style but it's very easy, once you're in, to get hooked and consequently it's quite a shock when the camera appears to move - although it's not the camera which is moving, it's the escalator which it's standing on. It has been said that London, one of my favourite films, shows Keiller's techniques at their most successful and, if that's true, a large part of the success was down to Paul Scofield's dry, ironic narration. It's perhaps significant that the follow-up Robinson In Space doesn't attempt anything very different; the socio-political undertones remain radical and left-wing and the main change is the expansion of the scope of the locations used in the film. This later film ends very abruptly and suggested at the time that Keiller might, perhaps, have run out of steam.
That this wasn't true was demonstrated by The Dilapidated Dwelling, a semi-documentary about the state of Britain's housing which shows the political radicalism of the previous films turning into genuine anger at the lassaiz-faire attitude of the British political class towards urgent social concerns. This film, made for television, has rarely been seen and is hard to get hold of. Ten years on, Keiller has made another film connected to 'Robinson', the character who links London and Robinson in Space - and contrary to what we've understood, we discover that "his name wasn't Robinson and he wasn't English." Paul Scofield died in the thirteen years between the films, so the narration is now performed by Vanessa Redgrave as a character who claims to be the bereaved lover of Scofield's character. In London it was suggested that the narrator and Robinson had a long-term sexual relationship but Robinson seems like the sort of infuriating man who would drive any lover into the arms of someone of the opposite sex. Anyway, Redgrave's researcher comes across some film cans and notebooks which belonged to Robinson and the material is constructed into a film which deals with "the origins of Capitalist catastrophe in the English landscape".
Robinson in Space was largely concerned with the changes in the British industrial landscape, a theme continued in Robinson in Ruins as Keiller concerns himself with the tensions between the countryside as pastoral idyll and its status as the location of industrial innovation; vast monuments to capitalist - and sometimes military - adventurism turned into decaying ruins or protected sites of natural beauty or scientific interest. Keiller revels in the irony of our nostalgia for an English countryside which we have spent much of the last two-hundred years despoiling. In the meantime, as we neglect the iron and steel behemoths we erected, the power of nature remains as potent as ever, even behind the artificial boundaries which prevent people from accessing it. There are shots of pastoral landscapes which are quite breathtaking to behold. There is humour too - the aforementioned close-ups of the A34 road sign, each going in a little closer until the metal and the lichen seem equally organic.
This is not an easy film and some viewers will lack the patience required to engage with Keiller's distinctive style. But the more you're prepared to give to the film, the more you will get out of it and the long, lingering shots - even lengthier here than in his previous features - become quite hypnotic after a while, giving up a meaning of their own which can either complement or contradict the narration. After you've seen the film, you may get a strange urge to watch it again and again. Keiller, as I discovered some years ago, is addictive.
Robinson In Ruins comes to Blu Ray and DVD from the BFI looking quite marvellous in an edition supervised by the director. I think this is a reference quality presentation whichever format you use.
The film is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. It was shot on film then digitally edited before an HD master was prepared. It's a stunning transfer which is likely to stun any viewer with the richness and quality of the colours and the levels of details which can be seen throughout. The Blu Ray is naturally the better transfer but the DVD is excellent too. A suitably film-like appearance is maintained throughout and there are no obvious problems with artifacting. I can't praise this highly enough and it encourages you to take in each image with the close attention it deserves. Indeed, if you choose to watch it without the narration, it can be quite hypnotic.
The soundtrack is a 2 channel LPCM mix. It is hardly going to test anyone's system to destruction but it does what it has to do quite perfectly; the narration is suitably clear and its balance with the sound effects is excellent. It's worth noting that the 25fps presentation on the DVD has been pitch corrected to keep Vanessa Redgrave's voice as Keiller wanted it. The 24fps presentation on the Blu Ray is unchanged from the cinema version.
There are a small number of extras on this release, all of which are contained on the DVD which accompanies the Blu Ray disc. The original theatrical trailer is included which uses the music from London and inadvertantly demonstrates what a nightmare a film like this must be to sell.
Keiller's film came out of an Arts and Humanities Research Council project entitled "The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image" which was undertaken by the director, Doreen Massey, Patrick Wright and Matthew Flintham. The four contributors all appear in a fifteen minute extract from a BFI Southbank discussion held in 2010. This is interesting as an adjunct to the film but is inevitably dwarfed by the essays in the excellent booklet and the PDF attachment of Massey's brilliant, and surprisingly accessible essay "Landscape/Space/Politics".
When I first saw London, I was convinced that Patrick Keiller was one of the most brilliant talents in contemporary British cinema. Robinson in Ruins does nothing to alter that opinion and is essential viewing for anyone who wants something distinctly off the beaten track. This BFI presentation is absolutely superb and comes very highly recommended.