Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 20, 2010 3:41 pm 
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An unsentimental journey around the south of England

Vanessa Redgrave voices the narration of this intriguing, intelligent film that hovers between historical analysis and geographical essay while traveling in an ellipse around the south of England with a series of static shots of locations that illustrate ecology, history, and politics in a world marked by the collapse of late stage capitalism, privatization of public lands (from the 16th century onwards), the emptying of the countryside, and planetary ecological disaster.

The framework is a fiction, separating Keiller (for whom this is the third in a series, the first two being London and Robinson in Space) from his observations, because purportedly the film is constructed from footage recorded by an alter ego, the wandering researcher Robinson. Robinson was not his real name, the narrator says. He had lived in Germany, though he was not German. The allusion is to the late W.G Sebald, a German writer long resident in England whose 2001 book Austerlitz this film resembles. At the end of the film, Robinson is said to have disappeared, but his footage found in a shed.

Striking images of nature and marginal sites (military bases, opium fields, lichen growing on a traffic sign) and sometimes contemplative, other times apocalyptic, observations are delivered in Ms. Redgrave's measured, pleasant, posh-sounding voice. As Keiller explained in an interview with Dennis Lim and other members of the press at the New York Film Festival, the filmmaking comes first in his process, and took some time. Then comes the writing, which weaves together (and paces apart) the different shots and interweaves information about little known historical facts and detailed accounts of the ownership of certain ostensibly public spaces. It's a given of Keiller's working method as a filmmaker and a thinker that he is simultaneously exploring the intersection of enclosures, lichen, the 2008-2009 global financial crises, while we may be looking at a marker showing 58 miles from London or a small ruined castle with a railway speeding by or a spider going round and round repairing its web.

Comparing Robinson in Ruins with London and Robinson in Space, Leslie Felperin of Variety feels the new film "hasn't quite got its predecessors' breathtaking range of reference or their spritely wit." He later describes the first film enticingly: "In the first, London (1994), an unnamed narrator voiced by the late Paul Scofield (whose droll, honeyed tones enhanced both pics so deeply) describes how he and his lover Robinson explored the burg of the title, from Downing Street, the prime minister's residence, to Ikea in deepest suburban Brent Cross, all part of a quest to map the 'psychic landscape' of the capital, with digressions about Baudelaire, H.G. Wells, and Laurence Sterne, among many others." That indeed sounds poetntially sprightlier than Robinson in Ruins, which does not much develop the Robinson character as it goes along or include digressions about quite such a range of authors but instead dwells a lot on US companies' and the American government's ownership or control of missile bases and other installations, sometimes in ruins, or abandoned after the recent expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars. It seems agreed that viewers of Keiller's two previous Robinsons will get what's going on better, that there's less offhand wit this time, and that the replacement of the late Paul Scofield's rich, plummy, ironic voice by Vanessa Redgrave's is another loss. Nonetheless, though perhaps more downbeat than the earlier films and best taken in segments (which Keiller wants it to be via DVD, cued to a map), Robinson in Ruins offers lots of mental stimulation to the thoughtful viewer.

Keiller is a lecturer who took 13 years e to get from the last Robinson film to this one. He studied at the Royal College of Art, and has often presented his ideas and observations about architecture and landscape in gallery installations. Those, of course, could not include a narration as detailed as this one but are normally restricted to visuals. It takes a while to get used to the format. Clearly Keiller's films are avant-garde in nature. Felperin says these are essentially "radio plays with pictures." Thus the pictures distract from the words. But after one adjusts, the pictures provide a resting place for the eye while the mind is stimulated by the words. The images are coldly handsome: 35mm HD -- and suggest that despite the narrated decline of the UK and the planet, there remains much unspoiled beauty in England's green and pleasant land.

Seen and reviewed at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center in September 2010. It was shown earlier at Venice.

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