Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Robinson In Space

Possibly I am the only person in the country to be excited by the news that the BFI is issuing Patrick Keiller's "Robinson In Space" on DVD. Partly this is just because I thought it never would make it out. After all, it is a rather niche film, consisting as it does of a series of static, peopleless shorts of modern Britain with the narrative drive coming solely from a commentary that touches on Daniel Defoe, spying, shopping, "The Anatomy Of Melancholy" and the annual tonnage of goods passing through Tilbury Docks, among other things. It just goes to prove how long that long tail really is.

The film is made more precious in my mind by the circumstances of the only time I saw it. It was showing in that fleapit du jour, the Prince Charles, off Leicester Square. The cinema publicity had managed to mangle the schedule for the week, and the precis of "Robinson In Space" had been replaced by that of another film (probably this one). Consequently, a large chunk of the audience were expecting a film in which radio astronomer Charlie Sheen makes contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence. What they got instead was:

Base of a clock tower.
(V.O.) When the bus finally arrived, Robinson had disappeared to a sexual encounter with a stranger he had contacted through the Internet while we were waiting at the bus-stop.

The astonishing thing was how long some people waited before they realised Charlie Sheen wasn't going to turn up and left. Those who remained got a fascinating meditation on Britain's history and modern decline as a commercial and trading power.

Of course, the film is a lefty's view of the impact of Thatcherite Conservatism so it will interesting to see how it holds up after eight years of, well, Blairite Conservatism. Really this is a film that ought to be remade every five years (instead of tedious seventies TV retreads) but I can understand why Keiller would not want to keep poring over the fortnightly edition of Port Statistics. The trouble is, nobody else wants to either. The last time I pondered the annual tonnage of cargo passing through Tilbury docks was when I was doing my geography O-Level. At the time I couldn't have been less interested. Now I appreciate that all history (and most if not all human activity) is economics. But that still doesn't make the prospect of those HMSO statistical reports anymore appetising. So watch "Robinson In Space" and be thankful to Mr Keiller: he read those dreary publications so we don't have to.