Robinson in Ruins, the latest film from British filmmaker Patrick Keiller, is an incredibly dense experimental documentary/cine-essay that tells a tale of the titular Robinson, recently released from prison and currently traveling through England photographing various landscapes while ruminating on a heady combination of historical, political, economic, agricultural, and architectural topics.
But Keiller has an interesting way of telling his “story,” such as it is: His film consists entirely of static shots of Robinson’s filmed landscapes—wide-open nature, wheat farms, opium fields, military bases, historical landmarks, and plenty more; once in a while, even some human figures pop up on the sidelines, while Keiller’s voiceover narration provides running commentary over the images. The style will most likely be familiar to Keiller acolytes, of which I am admittedly not one; this is the first film of his I’ve seen, and while I can’t say I was riveted by every single minute (the film tends to become especially dry and academic when it delves into the nooks and crannies of the history behind a given British landmark), there is enough formal interest and visual beauty in it that it makes me interested enough to explore his previous work—which includes an earlier installment in the Robinson saga, Robinson in Space.
Robinson in Ruins may sound like little more than a video slideshow, but the voiceover narration actually does a variety of different things with the images that it illustrates. Sometimes the commentary illuminates an image, providing historical context or enlivening it with a humorous aside. Other times Keiller’s words offer a stark counterpoint to what he shows onscreen. One of the most memorable instances of the latter involves a lengthy shot of a spider weaving a web. And what accompanies this long take? Why, a summary of the early days of the global financial crisis! (Wall Street Journal news videos need this kind of visual experimentation, stat!) And, of course, there are some images that are unaccompanied by words, so that we simply observe and contemplate. In such a context, shots of tractors rolling over wheat fields take on an extra visceral dimension—as if those bastions of modern technology were profaning the pictorial beauty of those fields.
Notwithstanding what Keiller explicitly discusses on the film’s soundtrack, these daring and sometimes beautiful juxtapositions of words and images suggest themes of their own: the sometimes debilitating effects of the passage of time on a landscape; the terrors and beauties of encroaching modernity; the depths of history that a photographic image hides; the vastness of the world and the relative insignificance of human problems within it. Keiller’s visual strategies at times reminded me of John Gianvito’s great 2007 documentary Profit motive and the whispering wind, in which images of historical landmarks were shot in ways that suggested the overwhelming vastness of history in seemingly ordinary settings; the only difference, of course, is that Gianvito allowed those images to speak eloquently for themselves, allowing his framing and editing to create its substance.
This is not to devalue Keiller’s voiceover narration in Robinson in Ruins, recited by Vanessa Redgrave in a warmly amused tone that animates even the most academic of passages. (Vanessa Redgrave, meet the telephone book!) But the content of that narration tends to throw a lot of information at the unprepared viewer at lightning speed; I admit that I spent much of this film feeling like I was playing catch-up, and that even by the end I still wasn’t sure what exactly I had seen. I suspect, though, that I may benefit from a second sitting with it.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.