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Robinson in Ruins completes a trilogy of films starting with London and
Robinson in Space, concerning the wanderings and investigations of an
eccentric named Robinson (Keiller by proxy). Here Robinson visits sites
of historic and scientific curiosity in the British countryside in the
hope of uncovering the roots of what he would see as the crisis of Late
Capitalism (a pregnant term originating from Marxist theory), though
this term isn't specifically mentioned in the film.
As a collection of arcane information, and as a travelogue, Robinson in
Ruins works very well; as a political treatise it's rather impressive
by virtue of its obscure texts, and has it's heart in the right place
but in the end is quite sophistical, overly sentimental and lacking in
central coherence. As someone who enjoyed the tranquillity of watching
foxgloves pitch in the wind as a child, Patrick Keiller did push my
buttons with extended shots of such things (although they weren't
always in keeping with the pacing of the film).
Robinson enjoys talks about the biological phenomenon of mutualism, an
example being lichen, where a fungus and a cyanobacterium (or an alga),
combine synergistically to form one organism. He talks about the
ramifications of mutualism, and mentions how he believes that people
should self-organise according to this type of behaviour, crafting
objects and social systems that are biomorphic. This is a sociological
extension of scientific theory for which he brings into play the ideas
of Lynn Margulis and her counter-position to neo-Darwinism, "life did
not take over the globe by combat, but by networking" (as Manichaean
and absurd a proposition as the neo-Darwinian opposite). Michael
Polanyi, and Thomas Kuhn both pointed out that science was a
relativistic discipline due to the subjective dispositions of the
practitioners; you often build on sand therefore when you form social
policy by extrapolating from ersatz-concrete scientific concepts (e.g.
eugenics). In any event you can actually reverse Robinson's fairly
eyebrow-raising argument, and argue that capitalism itself is actually
quite like mutualism, with just as much grounds.
Elsewhere in the film Michael's brother Karl Polanyi's work, "The Great
Transformation" forms the main reading, in which he argued that the
enclosure in England in the 19th century is the forerunner of all the
evils of market capitalism. Enclosure was a process whereby the rights
of common people to use common lands were taken away, and land fenced
I would say that Keiller probably doesn't have a requisite grasp of the
economics that he introduces in this film. The timeline of events that
is narrated over a picture of a spider spinning a web is only a very
superficial sketching out of the late-2000s financial crisis (my job
involves explaining such things to professional clients). After the
screening I attended, Keiller referred to a "stock market crash" caused
by Jérôme Kerviel (actually a "rogue trader" causing losses in one
company), which did nothing to alleviate my feeling.
There are other annoyances in the film, such as the credits, which are
enough to make an amateur blush. There's also an exasperating party
political chauvinism, odd to find in modern art where practitioners are
generally aware of its lack of integrity and propensity to go stale.
It's almost understandable in London, which was made during the last
years of the, by then, extremely unpopular Conservative government. But
in this film, made in 2008, at the height of an extremely unpopular
Labour government, he gives Gordon Brown and his party a wide berth,
despite the fact that they presided over the problems that he gives
epic vent to in this film, not only that but he carries on
Tory-bashing, despite the fact that the Conservatives had been out of
power for a decade when this film was made. From the extreme left-wing
viewpoint of Robinson/Keiller, integrity would seem to indicate that he
would see them as two heads of the same Hydra, but it's clear Keiller
is a factionalist.
In the Q&A he mentioned that Witney (which appears in the film) is
David Cameron's constituency, with a bizarre and groundless gravitas.
Keiller has a tendency of drawing together tenuous pieces of
information and implying some sort of deadly conspiratorial link, for
example linking in the film, by innuendo only, the price of corn
futures to missile tests in Iran, pure balderdash!
Knowledge of botany is a good background for the movie, for example
when the narration turns to corn prices initially Keiller shows an arum
lily complete with spathe and spadix, and some time later when the
price narrative is really rocketing around we get the same plant a
season later, rudely and unrecognisably flaunting its poisonous bright
red fruit spike. It's nice, although I think the corn story didn't get
to a point, quite like his performance in the Q&A where I don't think
Keiller managed to answer a single question straight and rambled off
into quite the most absurd digressions. By the way, it seems
particularly perverse that people almost never appear in this really
very cold film (cue sophistical digression when asked why people didn't
appear in a film about social history).
The movie's substantial polemical point is that the United States has a
bizarre foothold in the UK, in terms of military bases, which is a
relic, as Keiller mentioned in the Q&A (but not in the film) of the
American-led World War II invasion of France. Bureaucracies tend to
hang on to what they're given even after the original purpose has
elapsed! He also suggests that capitalism is not the only way of
organising human endeavour, and that market forces are causing the
collapse of the global ecosystem and valuable cultural identity, which
may well be true. I have some sympathy with these positions and found
the movie mostly beautiful, however if someone were to call Keiller a
charlatan, and a pedant, I'd have precious little ammunition to rise to
his defence with.
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