The Frisson

Will Self

  • The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes by Patrick Keiller
    Verso, 218 pp, £14.99, November 2013, ISBN 978 1 78168 140 4

With Patrick Keiller’s work a suitable place to begin would seem to be the end – specifically The End (1986), the first film by him to incorporate the subject matter and use the techniques that came to typify his mature style. Seventeen minutes long, and photographed in the autumn of 1983 by Keiller and his sometime collaborator (and full-time partner), Julie Norris, The End consists of what might be termed mises-en-scène trouvées; if by this we are to understand the fortuitous discovery by the camera’s lens of landscapes, cityscapes and their largely spectral human inhabitants. In his introduction to this collection of essays Keiller writes that he and Norris travelled to Italy via Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, shooting along the way eight 100-foot rolls of 16mm monochrome negative film. The footage was then edited into a montage that Keiller wrote a script to fit; this accompanies the finished film as a voiceover. He distinguishes The End from his first two films, Stonebridge Park (1981) and Norwood (1984), on the basis that they consist only of a few long takes – Stonebridge Park comprises just four – and contends that this meant it was ‘fairly easy’ to write their narration. It is as if Keiller conceives of the first two films as limbering-up exercises, for in his essay, ‘Architectural Cinematography’, he writes: ‘I had always thought that any film I might make would involve some kind of interior monologue. Ten years earlier, as an architecture student, I had seen Marker’s La Jetée (1962).’ The acknowledgment of Marker’s work is, in a sense, superfluous: anyone familiar with it, who has also seen the trilogy of films that Keiller is best known for – London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010) – will have registered the similarities in approach: the juxtaposition of long sweeping pans and equally protracted locked-off shots; and as for the disembodied narration, Keiller writes this: ‘The combination of moving camera and interior monologue suggested some more or less comic attempt to represent consciousness, or perhaps artificial consciousness – the inner experience of an alienated and rather unreliable artificial flâneur.’

Preceded by factitious titles that credit the film as a production of l‘ufficio d’INVERSIONE (the Department of Inversion) by the auteur Caduta Massi (the legend on Italian road signs that warns of falling rocks), the disembodied narrator of The End intones, ‘for so long have I made a career out of powerlessness that events have become opaque to me’, while the camera swivels away from the portside of a Channel ferry to show us, retreating into the mist, the scabrously white cliffs of Dover. Shots of Brussels follow, its bombastic monumentality intercut with workaday modernity as the narrator – who speaks with a strong Mittel-European accent – persists in his queered dithyramb to roads, supermarkets and ghosting trams. He urges us to ‘look into the glass that Momus, god of fault-finding, complained that Vulcan should have placed in the breast of the human form so that its secret thoughts might be seen’ – though it must have been implanted in the narrator’s own. ‘I can see others but their thoughts remain concealed from me,’ he says, but the opposite is manifestly true of our relation to him. As it follows a transition from a static set-up to the camera-I nosing through the windscreen of a car, Keiller’s script almost belly-flops into bathos. ‘One of these defenders of our Western freedoms has offered to give me a lift,’ the faux flâneur ironises, whereupon a second disembodied voice blurts in Mockney tones: ‘’Ow does a bloke like you end up a dosser, then?’

A variation of this question must often occur to anyone diverted into a screening of one of Keiller’s films but unwilling to go with his flow: How does a bloke like you end up a filmmaker then? In The View from the Train Keiller replies, providing not only a picture of his career’s trajectory – the metaphor is apt, so exact is he about where it started, and where it has ended up – but a strong sense of the highly evolved criticality that has always underpinned it. In The End, as Keiller’s camera dips and swoops on through Switzerland and into Italy, absorbing with the same tenderised solipsism stubble burning in vineyards, or the dusty progress of lorries, the flâneur gives equal stress to the oracular and the factual. ‘The disease, the project, the obligation, the threat, the superstition and the helmet’ he chants, then matter-of-factly notes: ‘Italy produces 3.7 million tons of tomatoes per annum, 75 per cent of the EEC total.’ The key word here – for Keiller, as well as his alter ego – is surely ‘project’, just as the key fact is its close juxtaposition with … a fact. The essays in this collection – which Keiller has arranged in chronological order – were written over some thirty years, the first, ‘Atmosphere, Palimpsest and Other Interpretations of Landscape’ published in 1982 and the last, ‘Imaging’, in 2010; although the bulk seem to have been set down in the early 2000s, a fallow period for Keiller cinematically. But towards the back end of the decade the project Keiller dubbed – after his most notorious artificial flâneur – the ‘Robinson Institute’ reached its fruition in the film Robinson in Ruins and a later exhibition at Tate Britain.

It’s tempting to view the Robinson Institute as being simply another incarnation of the Department of Inversion: a cod body, satirically designed to swathe its creator’s waywardness in the jargon of institutional authenticity. And indeed, Robinson himself, always unseen, and clothed only in the skimpiest of biographical detail by his equally invisible fabulators, also has a quality of makeshift invention. The name itself is seemingly chosen for reasons of anonymity, although Keiller has said it derives from one of a pair of walk-on characters, itinerant mechanics in Kafka’s Amerika. True, the Robinson Institute was adverted – not least by Keiller himself – as incorporating his own talents with those of the human geographer Doreen Massey and the cultural historian Patrick Wright, but there’s no real evidence of an evolved collaboration; rather Massey and Wright were co-opted to lend their own contributions to a project that has been ongoing since Keiller lectured in architecture in the early 1980s. It has involved the absorption and processing of much economic and social data, and can perfectly well be circumscribed – whatever Keiller’s own uneasiness with the ascription – by the term ‘psychogeography’. Writing about his own working methods in an interview with 3:AM Magazine to coincide with the release of Robinson in Ruins, Keiller said of the film’s genesis:

It’s always seemed to me that whatever psychogeography was, it belonged to its initial Lettrist and Situationist protagonists and, probably, to their period, so I’ve tried to avoid the word. The difference, as I understand it, between what they were doing then and what we do now is that for Debord and his contemporaries psychogeography, the dérive and so on, were preliminary to the creation of some revolutionary new space, something like that envisaged as New Babylon. I don’t detect anything like this in the more recent activity, which seems to be largely a feature of the UK and its peculiar circumstances.

(New Babylon was the Situationist architect Constant Nieuwenhuys’s imaginary city of tomorrow, footage of which features prominently in Keiller’s documentary The Dilapidated Dwelling. Completed in 2000, it was made for Channel 4, but never broadcast.)

‘However,’ Keiller concedes, ‘having recovered Robinson from wherever he’d been shut up since 1995, I noticed that he started behaving more than ever like a fully paid-up member of the current tendency.’ Keiller’s description of that behaviour seamlessly elides the Situationist past of psychogeography with ‘the current tendency’: Robinson sets off on foot, on an ‘unplanned perambulation … [of] the centre of Southern England’s reactionary influence, seemingly intent … on bringing about the collapse of what used to be called neoliberalism.’ The idea that the dérive, an apparently aimless progress across cities and their environs, might in and of itself be destructive of a certain kind of urban space – the space commoditised by late capitalism – was intrinsic to Situationist practice and remains so for Keiller’s project. The very manner in which he shoots his films – circumscribed as they are by factors of time and money – is that of a dérive: an arbitrary progress through town and country, with each camera set-up an opportunity to capture the frisson, and thereby detach the map a little more from the territory. That the three major films were shot concurrently with the campaigns for three British general elections gives them a degree of temporal torque, but this too was purely arbitrary; remember that the narration is written to fit the images, and the images are themselves captured serendipitously. No, it is Keiller’s praxis that defines what the films are, and while he may disavow the notion that they create a revolutionary new space, I believe the increasingly rhapsodic reception they have received over the years from members of ‘the current tendency’ speaks of their success in achieving exactly this.

The ‘peculiar circumstances’ of the UK to which Keiller refers – the singular agedness of its built environment, when juxtaposed with its hypertrophied financial services sector – are also addressed by his subjects and his methods. And in the most recent film, Robinson in Ruins, the eponymous flâneur uses his circumambulating feet to stitch together pieces of what amounts to a Grand Unified Theory of contemporary British space; one that seems to propose a morphic resonation between the angry cries of 17th-century peasants thrown off their land, the howl of USAF jets taking off from Upper Heyford, and massive O-rings of fibre optic cabling sunk beneath the greensward. However, to tune into Keiller’s distinctive essayistic voice – as against allowing the disembodied narration to wash over you – is to find yourself caught up in an internal argument about the legitimacy of the idea of the lifetime’s project. In the last piece collected here, ‘Imaging’, Keiller quotes Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Surrealism’, dwelling in particular on his description of Breton and Nadja as ‘the lovers who convert everything we have experienced on mournful railway journeys (railways are beginning to age), on godforsaken Sunday afternoons in the proletarian quarters of the great cities, in the first glance through the rain-blurred window of a new apartment, into revolutionary experience, if not action.’

Keiller cannot resile from the Surrealist frisson as defined by Breton in Nadja and before him by Louis Aragon in Le Paysan de Paris. After all, what are his films if not retrospective orchestrations of such frissons: fractal and fracturing moments at which we experience the familiar lineaments of our ageing and rain-blurred cities as revealed through his photographing of them? But Keiller worries that his frissons will themselves become commoditised, noting that ‘the Surrealist preoccupation with transfiguration, and hence with the sacred, endures for us in the now commonplace presence of everyday objects in art,’ and – which is surely worse – also ‘in the subjective transformation, radical or otherwise, of everyday surroundings, the most familiar manifestations of which are the various practices of urban exploration that have become so widely established, especially in London, since the early 1990s.’ In the essay ‘Popular Science’ (published in 2000) he drily notes that ‘the tradition of literary urbanism – if one can call it that – which includes De Quincey, Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Aragon, Benjamin and Bataille – became highly influential in the architectural culture of the 1970s, so much so that many of these writers’ texts are now required reading for shopping mall designers.’ Not so obviously on the syllabus is Henri Lefebvre, who, Keiller records, was ‘particularly scathing’ about the Surrealists’ postwar revolutionary detumescence, and it is Lefebvre – who thought of his own life and work as a single co-extensive ‘project’, and whose intellectual taproot was sunk deep in the factual-statistical mulch of social history – whose spirit, at once rhapsodic and practical, animates Keiller’s own.

There’s a sense, I think, that psychogeography – which isn’t so much a field as the traversing of one – gathers into its practice the productions of writers and thinkers who might otherwise be regarded as having little in common. This reverse engineering of a school by a new cynosure is caught perfectly by Borges’s fragment ‘Kafka and his Precursors’. Keiller’s cultural net is cast wide, and it catches many odd fish; in the film narrations many of the ‘literary urbanists’ I have cited are quoted or namechecked, but throughout The View from the Train quotations from a small selection of key theoretical precursors – Michel de Certeau, Raoul Vaneigem, Benjamin, Aragon and Lefebvre – recur. Of these it is the latter’s apercus that are given the greatest weight. In particular, Keiller worries at Lefebvre’s bony assertion that ‘the space which contains the realised preconditions of another life is the same one as prohibits what those preconditions make possible,’ returning to it twice, and setting it beside Vaneigem’s similar-sounding contention – in The Revolution of Everyday Life – that ‘I am always faced with the same paradox: no sooner do I become aware of the alchemy worked by my imagination upon reality than I see that reality reclaimed and borne away by the uncontrollable river of things.’

This self-cancelling – or possibly short-circuiting – property of the Surrealist frisson (or indeed the Situationists’ ‘situations’ and ‘détournements’), was explained by Lefebvre in his Critique of Everyday Life, in terms of his own roughly equivalent ‘moments’, as resulting from the ‘macro’ (the market and exchange) damping down transformational potential and so restoring the status quo ante frisson. Keiller, who trained as an architect (which explains, in part, his receptiveness to Lefebvre’s spatialisation of historical materialism), retains, even as he mordantly depicts the anthropic world choking on its own tailpipe, a boyish longing for the kind of machine-age architecture that seemed about to be ushered in by activators as ideologically various as Buckminster Fuller, Constant Nieuwenhuys and the Archigram group. In the essay ‘The Dilapidated Dwelling’, written in tandem with the film, Keiller floats the catchy trope, ‘The dominant narratives of modernity – as mobility and instant communication – appear to be about work and travel, not home. They are constructions of a work-oriented academic elite about a work-oriented business elite.’ The neoliberal – if not quasi-fascist – concentration of contemporary architects and system builders on Marinetti’s beloved stations and transport hubs (together with art galleries and office space), rather than on the domestic, has left Britons in particular living in houses that are middens, accreted from layer upon layer of the previous generations’ bricolage, while they work in buildings that have a shorter lifespan – often by far – than their own. Keiller, in ‘The City of the Future’, quotes from de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life: ‘Increasingly constrained, yet less and less concerned with these vast frameworks, the individual detaches himself from them without being able to escape them and can henceforth only try to rediscover, within an electronicised and computerised megalopolis, the “art” of the hunters and rural folk of earlier days.’ The weight Keiller attaches to this ‘art’ can be gauged by the appearance of the same quote in two other essays as well.

Keiller’s dilemma – and the source of a fruitful tension in his work – is whether to see his films as part of a strategy of resistance to the spatial forms of late capitalism, or only as incorporations of the everyday into a bourgeois calculus of the arty-factual. The End is accompanied by Kathleen Ferrier’s particularly doom-laden recording (with the Oslo Philharmonic) of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, which somehow manages to be both creaky and sonorous, like the timbers of some vast and immemorial tithe barn reluctantly bending to the winds of change. Keiller’s film, shot often in full sunlight, frequently has a luminously spiritual quality. In ‘Architectural Cinematography’ he says of this effect: ‘It was possible to produce footage of unusual sharpness and richness of detail which achieved an almost three-dimensional quality, despite the limitations of 16mm. This seemed to confirm the preference for monochrome, and the old idea that the illusion of depth in photographs of architecture is often most convincing in fine-grain, high-contrast, deep-focus, monochrome pictures.’ Keiller says his filmmaking evolved from taking photographs of buildings in the 1970s to become a form of ‘architectural cinema’, and explicitly links this personal project to that of the Surrealists. In the later, longer films, somehow inherent in the use of coloured stock and wider 35mm frames, is a nostalgia for those earlier representations – if you like, a frisson within a frisson. There’s this, and there’s also Keiller’s political project, which, if I read him rightly, is the creation of forms of filmic space that can act as the revolutionary vanguard of a new urban consciousness. This, manifestly, is more than simply spooling together assorted frissons; and the conjoining of the pervasively old and the transitorily new in the built environment, with narratives that touch such weathered stones of deep cultural time as Democritus and Lucretius, Thomas Browne and Robert Burton, conduces me, at least, to conviction: I can think of only a handful of films that have had the profound impact on me that Keiller’s London did when I first saw it in the cinema. With its acute intercuts of London’s raddled face – which even at the time appeared mouldering and replete with anachronism – and the narration’s Robinsonian tropes, the film achieves a triangulation that is at once spatial, conceptual and emotional. It moved me – and it roused me to action.

There’s another Lefebvre quote from The Production of Space that acts as a touchstone for Keiller:

The fact is that around 1910 a certain space was shattered. It was the space of common sense, of knowledge (savoir), of social practice, of political power, a space thitherto enshrined in everyday discourse, just as in abstract thought, as the environment of and channel for communications; the space, too, of classical perspective and geometry, developed from the Renaissance onwards on the basis of the Greek tradition (Euclid, logic) and bodied forth in Western art and philosophy, as in the form of the city and the town.

For Lefebvre this modernist moment of the spatial – coincident with those in literature and the plastic arts – was nothing more or less than the sublation of the Logos; henceforth everything both in the conceptual world and its embodied correlate should have been up for grabs. That this wasn’t the case, and that instead the new technological productions of space – most obviously by cinema – were hijacked by rampant commoditisation, is evidenced by the particular form of bogus modernism that our cityscapes now display. Pixar may be based in Hollywood, but contemporary Britain – which, as the first industrialised country and a small one to boot, has the dubious claim of being the most thoroughly anthropomorphic discrete landscape in the world – is now wholly constituted by computer-generated imagery unconvincingly combined with live-action footage of ageing housing stock. This virtualised built environment, which depends on the rhetorical tropes of high-speed digital editing and post-synchronised sound for its dubious effects of ‘growth’ and ‘prosperity’, is defined by Keiller in his essay ‘Port Statistics’ as ‘a rich country in which live a large number of poor people’. But to view Keiller’s films as straightforward exercises in social-democratic nostalgia – for all their narrators’ mournful talk of the erosion of public space and the loss of public housing – would be a mistake.

In his essay ‘Film as Spatial Critique’ Keiller writes about the films made by the Lumière Brothers and the Biograph companies before 1907, films that document ‘the spaces Lefebvre and others suggest were radically transformed soon afterwards’. He draws our attention to the compelling strangeness that this was ‘brought about (at least in part) by the development of the very medium in which the opportunity to explore these long-lost spaces was constructed’. The primary explorative technique of these early films – made before the development of montage – was to fix a camera to the front of railway engine or a tram and simply allow a single long take to reveal what it would. These ‘phantom rides’ are examined more closely in Keiller’s essay of the same name. Their origin was in the moving panorama, whereby movement through a landscape was conveyed by rolling lengths of painted canvas between two offstage cylinders. Phantom rides supply the missing link between the spatio-temporality of the pre-industrial era and that of our own (either Marshall McLuhan’s ‘unified field of electric all-at-oneness’, or Guy Debord’s ‘spectacle’, according to taste).

‘Both cinema and the railway,’ Keiller writes, ‘offer more or less predetermined and repeatable spatio-temporal continuities, so that it is perhaps not surprising that railways crop up in cinema as often as they do.’ The view from the train thus offers both immersive time-travelling – when the point of view is forward-facing – and a framing of discrete moments, when the view is an oblique one from a window. In the first case, Keiller suggests that the original pre-1907 phantom rides present us with ‘places where artisanal production or its past products survive, where domesticity is still found in city centres, and where there are fewer cars’; it may even be that these films ‘resemble science fiction: a future in which the costs of distant labour, and of energy, and hence transport, have increased, so that production becomes more local’. In the second case the sideways view is analogous with the stream of consciousness revealed by psychoanalysis. Keiller recalls Freud’s 1913 instruction in analytic burbling: ‘Act as though, for instance, you were a traveller sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views which you are seeing outside.’ Mixed together, the two views from the train give us most of Keiller’s technique; and the analogy might be that he has deliberately taken up obsolete weaponry in order to join a contemporary battle, one fought simultaneously on two fronts: against cinema’s fragmentation of continuous duration, and against late capitalism’s fragmentation of the ideal polis.

At the end of The End, Keiller’s unreliable and artificial flâneur is exposed as having an equally artificial consciousness. The great strength of Keiller’s filmmaking lies in its enacted conviction that less is more, especially when it comes to expressing the complex set of interchanges involved in the reciprocity of the inner and outer realms. Materialising abruptly before the Pantheon in Rome the flâneur declares, ‘There is really nothing very old in the world and it’s up to us to make whatever we can.’ The view switches to a sunlit piazza where children play and adults promenade, then to a covered 19th-century shopping arcade, then back to the piazza. But there’s something wrong: the visual field, always shaky, has begun to tremble, streaks begin to appear on the surface, and then the oily expanding blobs informing us that yes, this is indeed a film, and now it’s disintegrating. Kathleen Ferrier is at it again, singing the verses from Goethe’s Harzreise im Winter that Brahms chose to set, and which translate as: ‘But who is that apart? His path disappears in the bushes; behind him the branches spring together; the grass stands up again; the wasteland engulfs him.’ The overpowering sense the viewer has at this point of a mind disintegrating is wildly out of kilter with the forces deployed to suspend disbelief. Simple montages between static frames, slight pans, the long forward-facing tracking shots of the phantom narrator’s phantom ride: these have proved sufficient to evoke perfectly that state of mind, at once rhapsodic and bog-ordinary, that typifies the alienated individual wandering in the contemporary urban wasteland. Keiller may agonise that his work hasn’t triggered a revolution in everyday life for the masses, but in these essays, and with his films, he has amply demonstrated how it is possible for the individual, subject to the current dispensation, to take control of their own means of spatial production.