Filmmaking and the problem of London

Thoughts on the essays of architectural filmmaker Patrick Keiller and the restless creativity induced by the experience of living in London.

This year I decided to experiment with making London videos – specifically, the 6-second looping variety that people share on Vine. It’s a possibility opened up to me by the power of a new little computer I carry around in my back pocket – my phone. I can capture high-quality audio and visual footage, then adjust the colours, edit the sequence and overdub sound effects – all as I make my way through London on weekend strolls, lunchtime walkabouts and 15-minute train commutes.

Graffiti of an eye in a telescope

As a form, the 6-second Vine video loop is not really long enough for satisfying storytelling – at best, you might be able to achieve a kind of Hemingway 6-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” But it does offer something different from the frozen photographic moment.

Whether in continuous take or jump cut, the looping nature of Vine videos makes them feel like an audio-visual pattern. In keeping my eyes and ears open for suitable subjects around London to experiment with, I often find myself drawn to moving colours and shapes that suggest an inherent city rhythm.

London Vines

In this Vine, vivid streaks of light from a stationary police car have been transformed into strobes by the scissoring motion of commuters’ strides. It seemed inevitably to require a disco beat.

Some of the Vines I’ve made could be likened to moving photographs, like a gently nodding daffodil that frames a distant shot of Big Ben.

I like the opportunity this looping form presents for finding patterns of motion in the city: the wind riffling through the blossom of a street tree, the bright splash of raindrops on wet black tarmac, a stream of headlamps on a twilight arterial road, the blink of a faulty light in the porch of an apartment block.

The View from the Train

At the same time, I’ve been reading “The View from the Train”, a collection of essays by architectural cinematographer, Patrick Keiller. It’s interesting to see his evolution as a filmmaker concerned with urban space and the experience of being in London – and how he transformed the literary wandering of Baudelaire, Benjamin and Aragon in Paris into his own peculiarly British response to London.

Again and again in his essays, Keiller revisits the Surrealist conception of space: “To endow with a poetic value that which does not yet possess it, to wilfully restrict the field of view so as to intensify expression: these are two properties that help make cinematic décor the adequate setting of modern beauty.” (Louis Aragon, “On Décor”, 1918.)

In his 1994 film “London”, Keiller’s narrator recounts a series of journeys through the city with “his companion and ex-lover Robinson, a disenfranchised, would-be intellectual, petty bourgeois part-time lecturer”. Robinson is investigating the “problem of London”, which Keiller identifies as a resistance to the kind of urban daydreaming possible in European cities of homogenous architecture and endless avenues like Paris. On the other hand, through the pompous discourse of Robinson, Keiller is able to identify a different transformational quality particular to the space-impoverished jumble of London:

The true identity of London is in its absence. As a city, it no longer exists. In this alone it is truly modern: London was the first city to disappear.

Having lost its medieval centre, its mighty port and industry, its hills and rivers, its self image – London is a city of loss. Although Londoners may dream of a home in the counties and the countries beyond the M25, they continue to live in this city because it offers an opportunity for transformation – even in its architectural fabric.

A London state of mind

And yet how far does London allow its inhabitants to project a state of mind as opposed to forcing a state of mind upon them?

I like how Keiller ponders the ageing housing stock of London and suggests that this stasis in our places of dwelling, combined with rapid technological advances in the way we experience space (eg through smart phones), naturally inclines Londoners towards psychogeography. Our living space doesn’t change so we find imaginative ways to change it.

I’m also interested in the character of an architectural filmmaker who has rejected the numbing domesticity of a life in the provinces for the restless creativity of a life in London, who scours the city looking for out-of-time buildings and spaces, for ways to restrict the field of vision, so that light and movement can transform urban absences into places of poetry.

Read more: why we look for lost London…