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.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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