Robinson in Ruins

Kayla Parker introduced the screening of Patrick Keiller’s third film featuring the itinerant scholar Robinson, for Peninsula Arts, at Jill Craigie Cinema, Plymouth University:

In conversation at Watershed in Bristol earlier this year, Patrick Keiller described how he set out with a camera to find answers to some questions about moving image and the history of settlement in the British landscape. That expedition became the film you’re about to see: an investigation into notions of dwelling, of belonging to the landscape, and an exploration of land ownership in Britain.

Keiller says he wanted to find out why people are so interested in looking at landscape, and asks: Why do people love looking at a beautiful view? And, to whom does the land belong?

The film is framed as a journey by the enigmatic Robinson, whose journeys of discovery were the subject of Keiller’s earlier films: the 1994 vision of the capital city London, made around the 1992 general election in which John Major won a final term as Prime Minister, and its sequel Robinson in Space in 1997 which ventures out into post-industrial Britain. In the intervening years since the 1997 general election, Robinson has been incarcerated for trespassing on a Ministry of Defense rocket site: Robinson in Ruins opens with the protagonist being released from prison.

Keiller considers that a view is like a public resource. He suggests that maybe the beautiful view is compensation for being robbed of our land. He confesses to a tendency to anthropomorphise the fauna and flora that he encountered in his filming adventure. He says he was particularly drawn to foxgloves, with their curvilinear shapes and flowers at face height, and to lichen.

Format: Keiller shot on 35mm colour negative film, and edited digitally. He was thinking about shooting the film on video when he met his neighbour, an anarchist, at the bus stop. His neighbour reminded him that: You always have to ‘manage’ digital media, you can’t just forget about it. Their conversation about the vulnerability of digital data influenced Keiller into choosing to shoot on film; and, during the gathering of sequences for the project, he was reminded also of the commitment one has to ‘the image’ when using ciné film – because of the time limit for a continuous take, and the delay before one can view the results.

Robinson is a fictitious character. He was invented by Keiller as his alter ego in 1990, the name drawn from the first line of Kafka’s incomplete novel Amerika, also known as The Man Who Disappeared, and published post-humously in 1927. Keiller says that Robinson is a name that non-English people identify as English. There is of course the resonance of the association with Daniel Defoe’s fictional autobiography of Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719; and, for me, a childhood memory of Robinsons Lemon Barley Water.

Bio: Keiller was born in Blackpool in 1950 and studied and practiced initially as an architect. His first forays into film came in 1979 when he became a postgraduate student at the Royal College of Art’s Department of Environmental Media. He began to create short fictional narratives using architectural photography, first as tape-slide then using film, culminating in The Clouds, a black and white film poem of a journey through the north of Britain in 1989. The complex weaving of documentation, polemic and narrative evident in his short films crystallizes in his feature films, which use images as an oblique counterpoint to a fractured, personal narrative.

In tonight’s film, Vanessa Redgrave is the narrator who tells the story of the wandering Robinson, newly released from a decade in prison, who seeks to cure the world of “a great malady”, the symptoms of which include the 2008 banking crisis, global warming, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the transfer of British land to obscure owners. Robinson in Ruins is an engagement with British landscape as political intervention, which:

“sets out to explore received ideas about mobility, belonging and displacement and their relationship with landscape and images of landscape, in a context of economic and environmental change.”

The film we are about to watch has been reconstructed from 19 cans of film and a notebook recovered from a burnt-out caravan.