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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, May 08, 2009
    The gaze of Patrick Keiller
     
    Spent a good part of the week with the films of Patrick Keiller, particularly his two celebrated travelogues, London and Robinson in Space, both of which take a long look at the economic and cultural geography of the country (the second film follows a route suggested by Daniel Defoe's Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain).

    Actually, they take a gaze. For Keiller's photographic style is to hold the camera still on its subjects, for a very long time, allowing the eye to see details which would be missed by a glance, mimicing the style of 'heritage' films where the 'great' landscapes and country houses are framed in long shots and long takes which encourage the public to be awed (and kept in our place) by the view. Keiller applies this method to views of container ports and abandoned power stations, and picturesque villages appearing to be perched on the edge of superquarries, and consequently our vision of rural England is challenged and transformed.

    When Keiller films country houses it is usually from the outside, from over a wall or between trees. It's an outsiders' view; not even a National Trust members' view (though most National Trust members are hardly 'insiders' when it comes to the social relations indicated by permissive and direction signs around the grounds of these great estates). And so, in his films, Keiller is challenging what Raymond Williams challenged in his classic of cultural critique, The Country and the City:
    What these 'great' houses do is to break the scale, by an act of will correoponding to their real and systemtic exploitation of others. For look at the sites, the facades, the defining avenues and walls, the great iron gates and the guardian lodges. These were chosen for more than the effect from the inside out; where so many admirers, too many of them writers, have stood and shared the view, finding its prospect delightful. They were chosen, also, you now see, for the other effect, from the outside looking in: a visible stamping of power, of displayed wealth and command: a social disproportion which was meant to impress and overawe.
    Williams calls these country houses 'the explicit forms of the long-class society'. They're best gazed at from the outside by those of us who are outsiders: gazed at and contemplated and judged.

    Credit to Paul Dave for the chapter The Problem of England in Visions of England: Class and Culture in Contemporary Cinema
    from which much of the analysis, and the quotations above, have been culled