A symbiosis of fixed landscapes and illuminating narration, Patrick Keiller’s Robinson In Ruins is a bracing journey through the Oxfordshire countryside.
Treasure Island by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Patrick Keiller’s Robinson In Ruins grows like lichen, each fixed-camera sequence a cell in an expanding life force. And like the lichen growing on a road sign at a roundabout in Kennington, significance and beauty is only slowly revealed, as Keiller’s macroscopic view uncovers ruined houses, scarlet postboxes, fields, flowers and milestones. Following the late Paul Scofield’s voice accompaniment in London and Robinson In Space, here Vanessa Redgrave takes up the baton, her mellifluous narration imbuing Keiller’s subjective, static frames with enlightening context and honey-toned warmth. And thus armed with sight and sound, we embark on Keiller’s journey, like a Richard Long sculpture walk through Oxfordshire’s minutiae, discovering life’s rich tapestry, the delicious detail of the world around us.
Keiller’s itinerant camera finds its fictional place alongside ex-con and homeless journeyman Robinson who, like his castaway namesake, finds himself shipwrecked on this sceptered isle. Like a visitor from out of space, he sees things we do not. Things forgotten by cinema’s grandiose hijinx or neglected by our everyday, routine eye. Navigating his way along the disused public footpath and the overgrown coach road, Robinson weaves the county’s socio-political fabric into his photogenic landscape, Redgrave’s encyclopaedic commentary bringing the countryside to life with worldly insight. With Robinson Virgil to our Dante, we uncover the UK’s unseemly underbelly of underground pipelines, unused military bases and abandoned ruins. It’s surprisingly thrilling too, as remnants of Cold War secrets in full view are disclosed, American soil crossed and opium fields excused (for pharmaceuticals).
Local knowledge plunges this landscape into the fourth dimension – time’s passing and times changing. Such as Robinson exploring the common land which sparked the Otmoor Riots when the Enclosure Act threatened the locals’ livelihood or the embankment in Shipton-on-Cherwell where a train derailed on Christmas Eve in 1874. Yet, nor is Robinson’s gaze purely historic. Just as Keiller’s previous cine-essays take place during turning points in UK politics, this year-long wandering takes place during the financial crisis of 2008 with a long sequence dedicated to a spider weaving its web tighter and tighter as a news broadcast reveals the latest downturn in Black September. Robinson’s yomp is an anti-capitalist ramble, the ruins he traverses both dilapidated dwellings and neo-liberal recessional wastelands. But above and beyond his leftwing leanings, Keiller teaches us to look, to find meaning behind the mundane.
Powerfully beautiful are the picturesque shots of wind-blown flowers, rippling fields and harvested crops. Like the peacock butterfly alighting from a thistle or an early-morning birdsong, Keiller’s natural revelations are profoundly moving. Cinematic gods be praised that these iridescent petals, gossamer wings and sonic bursts have finally been netted on celluloid. And it’s Robinson’s (or Keiller’s) unswerving gaze that confers a lyricism onto these images, nature’s icons electrified into a new anthropomorphic life. Like his wild orchids swaying in the breeze, lurching like a wary bulldog. And like the beloved lichen that encrusts the film, Keiller’s Robinson In Ruins has its own poetic morphogenesis, its own life-giving symbiosis, of narration and image, politics and landscape, nature and man.
The more his images resonate, the more Keiller recedes -he’s only once conjured into existence by the telltale eyes of a bemused cow. It’s seeing for pleasure, a natural high for urbanite city dwellers, his pastoral journey perhaps less exotic for out-of-towners. But all the same, Robinson’s escape to the country is a universal weft of different strands – art, economics, philosophy and beyond. An edited, potted history of Oxford’s environs, but a raw testimony of life and ever expandable. What’s next – Europe, America, the world? Robinson’s journey ends a year later at a milestone on the old coach road to Aberystwyth. He’s setting sail for the horizon beyond the archipelago, ready to crash on Keiller’s erudite shores again. Just like the lichen, life unfurls.
Robinson In Ruins is released in the UK on 19th November 2010