London (Patrick Keiller, 1994)

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From the formal statues of its center to the supermarkets and bus stations at the outer reaches of the underground map, Patrick Keiller spent the year of 1992 training his camera, always static, on England’s capital. An architect turned filmmaker as flâneur, Keiller is keenly attuned to the fissures of history, whilst not immune to creating new mythologies. Throughout London, a playful sensibility meets sincere anger at the ravages inflicted on the city and its inhabitants through thirteen years of Tory rule.

The two protagonists of London remain unseen. Our narrator (Paul Scofield), a cruise ship photographer, is recalled to London following a seven year absence by his erstwhile lover Robinson, to join his “exercises in psychic landscaping, drifting, and free association.” Journeying by foot and by bus, the two delve into the “problem of London”, whilst searching for the roots of English romanticism. Robinson’s character is named for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, making the narrator his Man Friday, and the city itself an island. The exiled Russian socialist Alexander Herzen is quoted: “there is no town in the world which is more adapted for training one away from people and training one into solitude than London.” The narrator considers the city is “full of interesting people, most of whom, like Robinson, would rather be elsewhere.” On a series of walks across the capital, their meditation through literature, politics and the urban environment blurs the edges of narrative, documentary and essay filmmaking, making London an engaging cousin to the work of the Left bank directors, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Agnes Varda.

Through image and narration, the past and present rub together, but this is to be no nostalgic expedition into the city of the popular imagination, as this observation by the narrator quickly confirms: “Robinson is no conservationist, but he misses the smell of cigarette ash and urine that used to linger in the neo-Georgian phone boxes that appear on London postcards.” His taste is for the uncelebrated corners of the metropolis, its street markets and shopping malls. Reflecting this, Brent Cross Shopping Center is the only location privileged with something approximating a tracking shot, thanks to the camera’s placement on an escalator.

On two occasions the couple cross paths with a pair of Peruvian musicians, successors perhaps to the foreign visitors of the past whose travels are alighted on: the aforementioned Herzon, the romantic interludes of Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Apollinaire. And Monet. Mischievously delaying a cut to the River Thames, Keiller discusses the view seen from his hotel window as the camera trains its attention on a huge billboard displaying a member of the male striptease troupe The Chippendales. Of such distant travelers to the city, the one perhaps most apposite to the project of London is Laurence Sterne, a regular visitor to the city following the success of Tristram Shandy in 1759. For Robinson, Sterne’s claim that “duration is the succession of ideas which follow and succeed each other in our minds like the images on the inside of a lantern turned round by the heat of a candle” marks him as the inventor of cinema. Tristram Shandy itself is a novel built on a series of comic digressions, much as the route of the flâneur consists of one digression after another.

London contains plenty of digressions, from an excursion to the trooping of the color ceremony that marks the Queen’s official birthday, to a lunch in IKEA. More seriously, the couple are repeatedly waylaid thanks to the regular planting of bombs by the Irish Republican Army. While the link isn’t made explicit, we are invited to consider the atrocities of the IRA next to the actions of the British State when couple witness the Queen Mother unveiling a statue commemorating Sir Arthur Harris. The statue today sits largely ignored in the Aldwych but, as documented in the film, it was highly controversial in 1992. ‘Bomber’ Harris was responsible for devastating attacks on German civilian centers, including Dresden, during World War Two, and protests against the monument came from both citizens of London and from German officials.

Contemporary politics give the film some of its most memorable monologues. The backdrop is an election year, the first after Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, and for Robinson, as for all of us living in London at that time, the stakes were high. He worries for his job, the libraries, public transport, and the city continuing without an elected local authority following Thatcher’s politically motivated abolition of the Greater London Authority. On election day itself, the couple observe a trio of confident young urban professionals exiting the polling station on Charing Cross Road, and late that night they stand out of place on the edge of Smith Square where re-elected Prime Minister John Major addresses the crowd. Robinson ruefully observes that “the middle class in England had continued to vote Conservative because in their miserable hearts they still believed it was in their interest to do so,” before predicting a series of horrendous consequences leading to his early demise. “For the old or anyone with children it would be much worse,” he continues.

Keiller has directed two sequels to London. While Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010) depart from the city to explore other parts of the country, twenty five years after Robinson and his Man Friday ventured across their island, I find myself wondering what a return to the capital might look like. Whilst I doubt Robinson would have admired New Labour (I have not seen Robinson in Ruins at the time of writing ), Blair did resolve two “problems of London,” reintroducing an elected body to the city and ushering in the Good Friday agreement, bringing an end to attacks by the IRA. Today, London faces a very different kind of terrorism. A fancy of Robinson’s, that the financial center of London might again become a destination for bohemians, was undoubtably unrealistic. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth, the well heeled City workers having now settled into the then affordable, artist filled neighborhoods of Stoke Newington, Hackney, and even King’s Cross. The last, highly insalubrious in 1992, was one to which I myself was making regular pilgrimages at the time, my nascent interest in cinema drawing me repeatedly to the still much missed Scala Cinema.

From the children playing in the street by their council estate to the Notting Hill Carnival, Patrick Keiller focuses on a London defined by its diversity. This is a city that welcomes millions of incomers every day, be they commuters from the suburbs or stray musicians from another continent. It is a city that has welcomed those, like Alexander Herzen, forced to flee their own country, whilst colorful figures such as Rimbaud and Verlaine, and so many names unknown, have added their own patchwork to the metropolis. Viewing the film today, one of Robinson’s most poignant laments regards the Londoner’s fear of Europe. Brexit, and the weakened Conservative government seeking to usher it in, would surely loom over a new version of London. Robinson might get cold comfort from the knowledge that the closed vision of Britain which narrowly won the referendum was roundly rejected by the inhabitants of its capital.

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The Small World of Sammy Lee (Ken Hughes, 1963)

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Soho, that once seedy web of central London streets, plays host to Ken Hughes’ enjoyable early sixties film about a desperate man who needs to make quick use of his legs and even faster use of his tongue if he is to dig himself out of the trouble he’s in.

Following a disastrous all night poker session and a failed attempt to recoup his loses on the horses, Sammy Lee (Anthony Newley) discovers that the mob are demanding payment of his debts in full, and he is able to negotiate just five hours to come up with the money he owes if he is to end the day intact. Between shifts as compere at the tawdry Peepshow nightclub, Sammy races through the London streets from one contact to the next, pushing a dizzying array of deals in every corner of his manor in a bid to hustle the money he needs. To complicate matters is the arrival of his sometime object of affection Patsy (Julia Foster), off the train from Bradford having been spun a yarn about her boyfriend’s glittering career in London. She quickly discovers that Sammy can’t get her the job she hoped for, but that the club manager might have a less savory use for her.

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The central performances are superb. Lovable rogue Sammy Lee is a great creation and Hackney born Newley, who famously began his showbiz career as the Artful Dodger and ended it as a Vegas crooner, is a natural in the role. His Sammy is sympathetic and ultimately almost heroic, despite his willingness to take advantage of those who support him,with his treatment of Patsy being particularly appalling. Given little by way of exposition, Foster beautifully conveys a cocktail of love, disappointment, fear, and horror at the situation in which she unwittingly finds herself. Peppered throughout the film are an array of actors who in the years to come would become stalwarts of British comedy: Wilfred Brambell (Steptoe & Son), Warren Mitchell (Till Death Do Us Part), Lynda Baron (Open All Hours), and Roy Kinnear. Characters are generally rich and entertaining, not least the bickering heavies played by Kenneth J. Warren and Clive Colin Bowler, their constant antagonism bemoaning a lowering of etiquette amongst London’s criminal class.

Ken Hughes is best known, to the extent that he is remembered at all, for the kids film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). The Small World… is adapted from his own TV play Sammy, which was broadcast by the BBC in March 1958. In that drama, Sammy (Anthony Newley again) is alone in the confines of his flat, frantically using his phone to make deals and raise the cash. In a moment of particular tension in the film, Sammy is at home when an unseen neighbor begins playing his drums. The beats crashing through the ceiling reflect and exacerbate his mounting stress. It is a great use of the diegetic sounds that abound in the crammed city quarters, and beautifully complements Kenny Graham’s jazz soundtrack.

The Small World of Sammy Lee opens on Soho in the early hours, a cleaning truck hosing the down refuse from the night before. Accompanied by the splendidly melancholic score, the camera leisurely guides through its still empty streets. Soho is a draw for those on the fringes of mainstream society. Not just the strippers working at The Peepshow, or the prostitute welcoming johns to the apartment down Sammy’s hall, but those set apart by birth, be it through race or sexuality. Restaurant frontages speak to the Italians, Indians and Chinese who live and work in the area. Black men eke a living playing jazz in the clubs, and the protagonist himself, as we discover when he pays a visit to his brother’s Whitechapel store, is Jewish. Sadly Derek Nimmo’s gay nightclub assistant plays to the comedic conventions of the era, but the film proves more remarkable for its time in its representation of race. Having made a stereotypical assumption about black musicians that might pass without question in a much later film than this one, our hero is given a righteous dressing down.

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As Lee runs from one meeting to the next, cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky takes his camera back into the bustling streets and alleyways, and the crisp black and white location shots from half a century ago provide one the film’s great pleasures. With day turning to evening the tone changes and what begins as a witty crime caper turns darker, Suschitzky investing seedy pool halls and basement rehearsal spaces with the chiaroscuro of classic noir. As night falls, potentially happy endings crumble and Sammy makes his final stand on a grim patch of bombed out wasteland. The main light source comes in the form of an empty billboard standing above the scene, projecting bright white like an empty cinema screen penetrating the darkness. For years, this empty space might have represented The Small World of Sammy Lee itself, prior to its beautiful restoration and home release by StudioCanal in 2016. It’s a welcome return, because The Small World… is a classic of sixties London cinema.