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.


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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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.