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Urban Wanderings: Keiller’s Cinematic Psychogeography

Patrick Keiller's Robinson trilogy explores modern Britain through a psychogeographic lens, revealing how landscapes shape collective psychology. The films expose spaces that reflect political and social forces underlying the nation's fractures.

Psychogeography is the study of how urban environments impact people’s emotions, behaviours, and relationships. It examines the interplay between psychology and geography, focusing on how places shape our inner lives.

The avant-garde Situationist movement coined the phrase in the 1950s. Psychogeographers conduct studies by aimlessly wandering through cities, analysing how neighbourhoods, streets, buildings, green spaces, and other urban elements affect their perceptions, moods, and actions. The theory is that urban design has a profound influence on our mental states.

Specific locations can evoke certain emotional states or behavioural tendencies. For example, the disorienting layout of a corporate office space might induce feelings of anxiety and isolation. An open, grassy park might evoke relaxation and freedom. The towering buildings of a financial district may engender austerity and ambition.

According to psychogeography, manmade terrain structures human culture and subjects people to various political, social, and market forces. Urban design regulates movement and relationships, with huge shopping malls discouraging social gatherings. Psychogeography reveals how cities shape us psychologically and emotionally in ways we often don’t notice on a conscious level.

The field aims to expose how urban planning and architecture affect society. It draws attention to how city layouts reflect and reproduce power structures. Ultimately, psychogeography seeks to transform urban spaces to maximise human freedom, creativity, and connection to place. The theory highlights how places are not neutral but interact with our psychology in subtle yet profound ways.

Psychogeography on Film: Keiller’s Wandering Lens

With his enigmatic Robinson trilogy, director Patrick Keiller poignantly explores the psychogeography of modern Britain through the fictional lens of his elusive protagonist, Robinson, and narrator. London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997), and Robinson in Ruins (2010) chart peripatetic journeys through urban, suburban, and rural landscapes. Echoing the Situationist drifters of 1950s Paris, the films reveal how place and architecture impact society and the psyche.

Keiller studiously avoids conventional narrative in favour of visually sumptuous montages depicting ephemera and architecture overlaid with the narrator’s searching discourse. As Robinson quests for meaning in a deteriorating Britain, the psychogeographic perspective probes how built environments shape collective behaviour and politics.

“Keiller studiously avoids conventional narrative in favour of visually sumptuous montages depicting ephemera and architecture overlaid with the narrator’s searching discourse.”

The films expose the true face of postmodern Britain as Robinson wanders through bland housing estates, homogenous high streets, and monitor-filled offices gazing out at the Thames’ banks. Keiller reveals spaces reflecting neoliberal ideology and rampant commercialisation underlying the nation’s malaise. Decline pervades from the gutted docker’s union to defunct industrial sites like Liverpool dockyards.

“Decline pervades from the gutted docker’s union to defunct industrial sites like Liverpool dockyards.”

Robinson appears only fleetingly on the periphery, yet his spirit haunts each meticulously composed frame, whether depicting Oxford’s university buildings or notes pinned to a peeling wall. Keiller’s lens highlights how surroundings subtly delimit thought and action, with Brunel’s imposing railway bridge bearing down on those below.

Moreover, Keiller’s psychogeographical eye elucidates the zeitgeist leading to John Major’s surprise election victory in 1992, defeating Labour after Thatcher’s years of radical reform. London’s landscapes of disaffection and alienation mirror the national mood that would return the Conservatives to power, rejecting Labour’s vision. Keiller’s long shots of council estates and changing employment, the crumbling of the city’s soul, outline the backdrop of a London weary of change and clinging to familiarity. In the film’s prophetic gaze, we see the city’s coming disappointments under renewed Tory governance: derelict factories and disillusioned, impoverished communities lacking state support. Through London’s fragmented terrain, like a child kicking a can for a football, Keiller profoundly discerns the coming economic and social fallouts shaping the capital’s future.

Nature Reclaiming the Fringes

Amidst the built geography, Keiller powerfully juxtaposes motifs of nature—bird song, trees, rivers, and pastoral scenes appear interspersed throughout. Keiller seems to ask what dreams lie buried beneath the psychic weight of England’s industrial and imperial past. Trees frame housing blocks like green counsel, offering wisdom forgotten in modernity’s parade. As Robinson trudges onward, nature’s quiet presence hints at regeneration through changing seasons and returning wildlife. The psychogeographer finds solace against the capital’s hard edges, immersed in the country’s echoes of the cosmic order. Importantly, Keiller situates these natural elements on the fringes and interstices of development: birdsong echoes over the din of traffic, nature slowly claims abandoned factories, and a lone tree peaks through a dilapidated brick wall. Nature in the films emerges not in obvious countryside panoramas but steadfastly persists on urbanity’s edges, overlooked yet ever present.

“Nature in the films emerges not in obvious countryside panoramas but stubbonly persisting on urbanity’s edges, overlooked yet ever present.”

Brexit’s Roots in the Landscape

Intriguingly, Keiller’s cinematic psychogeography seems to portend the social fragmentation and rejection of the European Union underlying Brexit. As Robinson wanders a disjointed realm, a creeping sense of alienation and the breakdown of unifying myths pervade Keiller’s lens. In depicting provincial malaise and simmering nationalism, the films prefigure the British society that in 2016 voted to reject the EU community. Like Robinson lost in a country he no longer recognises, the Leave victory signalled a nation inwardly turned and unable to find its place in the contemporary world. Through his forensic dissection of the landscape, Keiller exposed the unconscious forces that would lead Britain into an isolating crisis of identity.

“Like Robinson lost in a country he no longer recognises, the Leave victory signalled a nation inwardly turned and unable to find its place in the contemporary world.”

Against the ruination, Keiller evocatively depicts glimmers of what could be – children laughing and playing in the street in front of Trussell flats, sunlight breaking through clouds over the Thames as a train trundles by, a plant persisting in the brick’s fissure. Yet these poetic moments are but fleeting before the malaise closes back in, the dreams dashed upon the rocks of indifference and inertia. The psychogeographer evokes a glimpse of the possible, yet the landscape’s weight inevitably reasserts itself. For now, potential remains unfulfilled, ever out of grasp.

In his patient camerawork, ambient soundscapes, and erudite commentary, Keiller creates a new kind of British road movie, one exploring what Robinson terms the ‘problem of London’ and the paradoxes of contemporary England. The films showcase psychogeography’s power to illuminate the hidden forces embedded in the landscape.

Ultimately, to grasp the fractured psychology of contemporary Britain—its simmering contradictions, buried dreams, and uncertain future—one need only immerse themselves in the wandering gaze of Keiller’s Robinson. As we traverse the country through the psychogeographer’s lens, we unveil the forces, both human and spatial, that have shaped the British psyche and its discontents. Keiller’s ambitious cinematic project remains unparalleled in divining the nation’s soul amidst the built terrain. His films reveal, above all, that the path to reshaping England’s destiny lies in transforming the very landscape that has moulded its people.


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