Politics and the English countryside

The Film Interview: Patrick Keiller on "Robinson in Ruins".

Patrick Keiller is a British director who trained as an architect. "Robinson in Ruins" is the third installment in a unique series of fictional film-essays that began with London (1994). In that film, a study of the capital after 13 years of Tory government, an unnamed narrator (voiced by Paul Scofield) reported on a journey around London with his friend Robinson, an obsessive academic. Its follow-up, Robinson in Space (1997), was similar in form, but took a wider journey, examining Britain's new architecture of container sheds and warehouses left by changes in the global economy. The new film is a study of the rural English landscape, narrated this time by Vanessa Redgrave.

How did the idea for Robinson in Ruins come about? Had you always intended to make a third "Robinson" film?

Well, there were two starting points. One was the idea of making another Robinson film, which had been kind of kicking around, well, probably since 1997, when the last Robinson film was released. At the end of Robinson in Space, he disappears.

I had it that he was incarcerated in some possibly psychiatric or just prison circumstance and that Paul Scofield's character [the narrator] had met a nice wealthy person and they'd either got married or formed a liaison and set up some kind of philanthropic thing, and then having done that they got Robinson out of prison and put him back to work again. And the subject of the project that they got him out for was some sort of coming catastrophe, which was either the first world war again sort of a hundred years later, or it was environmental or it was just unstated.

That's not the way it is in this new film but it was a kind of back story. I should probably explain that for all these films the photography is done before the writing.

So that's one starting point. What was the other?

In 2005, I had just finished a visiting fellowship at the Royal College of Art and I started to think about applying to something called the "landscape and environment programme" at the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

I wanted to make the subject of the film not so much the catastrophe but the problem of dwelling. So if London was about the problem of London, and Robinson in Space was about the problem of England, then this one was about the problem of dwelling. There is this huge cultural and critical attention accorded to mobility and displacement. But it's actually not a celebration of mobility: we have this melancholy, or regret and longing for some home or something, which doesn't exist or you can't get back to.

That discrepancy was the starting point for the project, and the method by which to address it was by looking at landscape and images of landscape. Can we find out something about it by looking at landscapes? Given that a lot of the melancholy is for the loss of the status of being what sounds suspiciously like a peasant and therefore connects us to the great transformation between feudalism and capitalism.

Why did you choose the English landscape in particular?

It seemed to me that it was entirely appropriate to make such a film in England, not because it was a film about England, but because the English landscape was where that problem first arose, if indeed you see it in those terms, in terms of transformation. There was a line that I picked up somewhere, a received view, that went: industrial capitalism evolved earliest in England because of the mobility of the previously agricultural workforce. I read a bit about it and looked it up and it turned out that this was not some sort of traditional structural or cultural characteristic but actually it was a very specific legislated change which took place in 1795 and was the amendment to the Settlement Act, which is what it says in the film.

By the time I actually started the pictures it was January 2008 and it was clear that something interesting was about to happen [in the global economy] so the subject, this thing about capitalist displacement, became much more directly present in a way. Although of course not in the landscape, because there are no pictures of Canary Wharf. There's almost nothing that portrays the financial events.

This film has quite a different tone to the previous two. Obviously having Vanessa Redgrave as narrator [rather than Scofield, who died in 2008] contributes to that, but it's also because it looks at a predominantly rural landscape. Were there any particular traditions of landscape photography or painting that you were either trying to emulate or work against?

No, I don't think so. I got quite keen on [Gustave] Courbet, but I don't think that had very much effect on the pictures. Courbet, it seemed to me, was interesting because of his relationship with Baudelaire, so if you were going to go from city, from urban landscapes to rural landscapes then that was something to think about.

But really, because the pictures are usually made under sort of difficult circumstances, there isn't a lot of time to think about them, so I never work out why they are the way they are until afterwards. There is on the other hand, clearly a tendency to put something in the middle. I wasn't quite sure what to make of that, except that it's sort of slightly anthropomorphic.

It's interesting that you use the term "anthropomorphic", because your camera actually seems to work in a very non-human sort of way. I mean the takes are so long that they sit just on the edge of human bearability. They force you to look again that landscapes and processes you might otherwise take for granted.

Yes, although the beginning of the film is much more conventionally paced. I think the first long takes are probably of oil seed rape fields. And in fact what struck me about that is that they looked like a crowd of people, and they looked as if they were saying "No". They are fairly industrial plants, and they have been kind of interfered with, they're not like, you know, wild cabbage or whatever they used to be. There seemed to be something going on in this field, which was a combination of these interestingly structured plants, they do move in a very strange way.

It's not so much whether one wants to make a long take, it's "can you bear to stop?" But it also had something to do with the way that the subjects moved. For instance the [shot of a] foxglove, which goes on for a very long time, seemed to be ... I mean it's obviously completely oblivious to the camera, but there seemed to be a performance going on here. First of all it disappears to one side of the frame for a bit, and then it comes back, and then you think oh that's alright I can stop now, but then it started going round the other side, so I couldn't stop, and when it came to edit that obviously one could cut it down to ten seconds, it would be very easy, and probably if someone else had edited the film maybe it wouldn't be the same film.

[The film] is long, longer perhaps than I intended, but these takes ... there didn't seem any point in cutting them. One could entertain the idea of editing in camera - that a take was that long because that was the way it was. And if you cut half a minute off the end you kind of spoil it.

Now I don't necessarily think that that is true, but on the other hand, there didn't seem to me to be a great deal to be gained by cutting half a minute off the end.. If people were going to be impatient, they would be impatient if you held it for twenty seconds, never mind four minutes.

But it also makes a kind of sense thematically. That idea of a non-human way of perceiving what's going on seems crucial to the film. It's summed up by by the Fredric Jameson quote which is read out near the beginning - that it's easier to imagine a decline in nature than the end of late capitalism and perhaps that's a failure in our imaginations. So, in a way, Robinson in Ruins is trying to stretch beyond the limits of a human imagination.

Yes, or the imagination as currently constituted.

Exactly.

Although it is rectangular...

Well, film obviously introduces other limits. But that idea ties in with the narrative themes too - first the account of the 2008 financial crisis, then the account of a poverty-induced uprising in the 16th century, then the account of the 19th century poor laws. It suggests that our lives are governed by systems that we can react to, but not fully perceive.

In particular there is this idea that there is something natural about markets. As [Edmund] Burke said, there are the laws of commerce which are the laws of nature which are the laws of God. And still, every morning on the Today program we are confronted with the same assumption, that the market is natural and that anything else is intervention and is artificial which is clearly nonsense, I mean it's just absurd. I mean you don't have to think about it from the point of view of a foxglove to think of it as being absurd, but maybe that helps a bit.

What's interesting is that rather than attacking the notion that the market is natural head-on, you have instead gone for the idea of nature itself. You've gone out into the English countryside, about which there are all sorts of preconceptions.

Although I don't use the word. I'm not allowed to use the word. Although it is in the film, partly because Jameson uses it, and Burke uses it, otherwise it's not mentioned.

This isn't mentioned in the film itself, but I was reminded of Henri Lefebvre's account, in The Production of Space, of how Renaissance perspective came about as a result of changes in medieval Italian agriculture: suddenly all these tree-lined avenues were planted, which gave that sense of a vanishing point. Again, it's this idea that the way we look at the world around us is informed by non-natural systems.

Well yes it is yes, but on the other hand, its quite difficult, with a ciné-camera, its quite difficult to avoid perspective. Certainly when I was making it, I didn't avoid perspective but I did tend to limit it. So there are a lot of details and there are a lot of flat things, like the road sign.

I always assume that the flat things are in there actually not because of that, but for a very different reason, which is precisely to do with the creation of an illusory dimension. I think the picture that most characterises that is that near the end there is a danger sign with a quarry behind. When I went to the lab they said "oh that looks like 3D".

There is a definite goal in the pictures to create not so much perspective but illusory stereoscopy. The attempt to mimic stereoscopy was very established in early cinema - Hepworth talks about the stereoscopic effect - although it was usually produced through differential parallax, with things moving, which I don't tend to do.

But at the same time there was a reluctance to make conventional perspectives, and when they are introduced like my shot of the Ridgeway, which is a very sort of pseudo-18th Century frame, it's almost supposed to be a joke. I don't think it comes across like that but there is always an element of parody in some of those perspectives. Partly because they are made in a hurry. You fetch up somewhere and you look through the viewfinder and you think "oh yes of course how silly of me to think of anything else" and you do it, almost for fun, and then you have to go somewhere else.

"Robinson in Ruins" is in cinemas now

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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