At the outset of Robinson in Ruins, the third feature-length cine-essay by Patrick Keiller to feature the director’s alter ego, the titular biophilic cinematographer, we are informed that the still-camera images, noted as being shot on film rather than digital, that comprise the film were found in a derelict caravan in the forests outside London. As the film’s nameless narrator (Vanessa Redgrave), one of Robinson’s co-researchers’ lovers, informs us, Robinson isn’t only not above squatting, but has a healthy pension for the activity. Recently released from prison, Robinson is a loner in the digital age, a scavenger and forager of information, and, as the narrator tells it, a relentless documenter of the molecular basis of historical occurrences.
As the title infers, Robinson has set out to document ruins of his country and the word “ruins” is important here. Some time is indeed spent in the rubble of old castles and estates which were sights of anti-capitalist uprisings long ago, but more often these images feature flora brushed by a heavy breeze, sheep trotting behind an electric fence, and landscapes being mowed by agricultural equipment. It’s the narrator, who consults chiefly from a diary of notes that Robinson scribbled down, who unleashes an incredibly dense and well-reported tide of historical footnotes, quotes, timelines, and percentages that makes it clear that something as miniscule as a field of rape seeds or a horse chestnut tree could be seen as the cause of destruction elsewhere.
Robinson’s very name ties him to explorers like Crusoe and Walden, but he is also something like JLG’s whispering leftist prankster who butted into 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her to intermittently spout rhetoric over images of freeways and construction sites. The United Kingdom’s ties to the U.S. economic meltdown are brilliantly explained over an elongated take of a spider spinning a cobweb; lichens growing on a roadway sign set off a rant on humanity and mortality. Images of supermarkets, military bases, and factories figure in, as does the Royal Bank of Scotland, meteorites, and Richard Bradshaw, and the result is as astounding as it is overwhelming.
Robinson in Ruins‘s narration eliminates the pleasure of taking a forensics kit to the image in moral and sociological manners, but it fosters a healthy fascination with the subjectivity of the image and the film’s relation to the rampant machine of “progress.” The curious, lilting tone of Redgrave’s voice cleanses the inherent cynicism of Keiller’s writing and reshapes it as an exhaustive survey of money, land, and the faults of advanced economies. The recurring, time-marking image of Robinson’s last haunt being renovated and suburban streets littered with “For Let” signs points toward the troubles of housing the middle and lower classes in prominent nations, a subject Keiller investigated more thoroughly in his unreleased, Tilda Swinton-narrated teledoc The Dilapidated Dwelling.
If there’s something to complain about in Robinson in Ruins, it most likely concerns the sheer volume of information, often said through heavy technical and economic terminology, that Keiller throws at us and expects us to process by the time the next image is projected. But it would be foolish to think that this wasn’t a purposeful tactic by the director and I know of no unworthy film in which my immediate reaction was hunger for a second viewing. For if one were to take assimilate all the information, at times funny but more times devastating, that Robinson is seemingly ever aware of, you might start thinking that a derelict caravan isn’t such a bad place to live.