The further exploits of ‘Robinson’ finally returned to the big screen with Robinson in Ruins, the third in a series of essayistic features by the filmmaker Patrick Keiller. We first learn of Robinson in the film London, and then Robinson in Space. Like the tales of Sherlock Holmes, the films offer the ‘factual’ account of an imaginary character moving about the real landscape of England.
They are deceptively straightforward: A series of field-notes voiced over the top of moving tableaux of urban landmarks. People occasionally appear in the frame, but it’s the spaces the camera trains upon. Keiller has been described a ‘poet of blank statistics’ and a ‘connoisseur of … housing estates, defunct factories [and] supermarkets’. And these we watch in lingering detail.
Robinson in Ruins is even slower than its predecessors, in part due to the demands of watching a rural landscape. In the manner of watching paint dry, a recurring motif is mottled green lichen growing above the reflective letters of a motorway sign. In close-up you begin to compare the shapes of a seemingly prehistoric nature with the tessellated hexagonal surface of traffic signage. We also watch, uninterrupted, as a spider spins its web and listen to a point by point narrative of the financial events of September 2008 when it seemed the web of global markets faced total collapse. The theorist Fredric Jameson provides the epigraph to the film: ‘It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thorough-going deterioration of the earth … than the breakdown of late capitalism, perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations’.
During a Q&A session at the BFI, Keiler was joined on stage by three academics. They each expressed their belief in the film itself as a political act. An audience member asked heatedly: ‘but where are all the people?’ The question hit a nerve. Robinson is certainly no activist, indeed he’s nothing more than the figment of one’s imagination. But might he be the kind of imagination we need? Of all people, Robinson would know best. But that’s the problem with Robinson.