A combination of poem and polemic. An obituary of a society that never had it better.
Director Patrick Keiller’s latest installment by the mysterious urban hermit Robinson is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It meanders throughout a variety of left over infrastructures that all point to various aspects of a failed 20th century global society.
The narrator (Vanessa Redgrave) describes the accidental discovery of a diary and a couple dozen reels of film by the prolific Robinson who maintained them in the course of his vigil in the southern English countryside. She and the audience review the contents and attempt to come to some conclusion about the message contained therein.
The film starts with the mystery of the abandoned films. Why would such a trove of work be done for no apparent purpose? Perhaps the answer is in the question. The English countryside is dotted with half-successful stratagems of modern invention and social/political flotsam; the shed and abandoned exoskeletons of a society gone vaguely awry.
Just to make sure the audience gets the idea, the meandering narration intersperses the descriptions of the abandoned houses, military bases and transportation routes with vignettes of English social upheavals. Some are true, a few are false, and nobody in the audience will know the difference. In many cases they are too strange to be made up.
In some cases they are downright hilarious in their groundless logic and open ended pointlessness. In the end it doesn’t matter if they are true or not. There is a tapestry of technological leaps and bounds, or is it fits and starts, hamstrung by collapses in unanticipated sectors. Magnificent weapons used for questionable ends, bountiful food production wasted through flawed distribution.
As the story unfolds, Robinson lives in a series of abandoned houses. This may be because they are cheap, or perhaps just because they are there. Maybe he is saving his money for film. He certainly doesn’t appear to have a job and is isolated from normal society.
He is in the world but not of it; an alien coming to earth, taking notes and then reporting home. His impressions of humanity are formed by the signs they have left.
Instead of hieroglyphics on cave walls there are concrete strips, unoccupied structures and opium fields. The opium fields are for medicinal morphine. Although, Robinson points out, Afghanistan produces much more than England does.
The narration is executed in the slightly inflected monotone of a museum tour leader, reciting facts told, verified and retold a thousand times. The standing joke is that the facts point to an infinite array of contradictory conclusions.
Nothing is told without the inclusion of a self-defeating detail that points to, well, the pointlessness of it all. This is the pretzel logic of history told in the most erudite manner. A supremely self-assured essay on why we can never be sure of anything.
There is scarcely a human being shown in the entire film. The landscapes, city and country, could represent post-apocalyptic civilization. The lichen is already taking over, growing on the signs and the abandoned walls. It is a durable life form, you know. Probably more durable than the human race and without a doubt less self-destructive.
The digital visual effects are by Fiorenza Bagnariol, who also worked on the otherworldly “Never Let Me Go” about isolation in a futuristic society. The overall feeling of the film is one of semi-detached confusion combined with a mild sadness over what might have been.
The only voice is Redgrave’s and there is little or no soundtrack besides the voice. This deepens the sense of abandonment and isolation that appears to be the direction humanity is headed. Robinson is there first.
He has quit his job as a fellow citizen before the human race could fire him. He is betting on the lichen but feels the need to learn something from history, or at least to leave something behind for somebody else to figure out.
Perhaps when the poppies and weeds take over, for good, they will someday discover the images we have left behind. It would be a pity if they were not able to learn from our mistakes.
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Directed by: Patrick Keiller
Narration by Vanessa Redgrave
2010 New York Film Festival, screened September 21, 2010
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 101 minutes