The View From The Train
British filmmaker and photographer Patrick Keiller’s The View from the Train features thirteen essays written over a period of almost 30 years – roughly overlapping with the length his career – dealing with cinema, architecture, public housing system in the UK and physical space in general, seen in the context of the city of London. Presented in the order they were written, these essays were written originally for various architectural journals and catalogues and hence contain considerable repetition of material. While some of these pieces are not very rewarding for those unfamiliar with London’s townscape (or the works of Charles Dickens, which forms the subject of one of the essays), the others offer valuable and original insights into not just the subjects discussed but also Keiller’s own filmography, his working methods and his artistic ambitions.
Like his third feature film Dilapidated Dwelling (2000), The View from the Train deals primarily with London’s public housing in whose dilapidated state Keiller finds a kind of contradiction in late capitalism’s promises of material abundance and universal prosperity. To be sure, since the Industrial Revolution, the general condition of life has improved in Europe. The life expectancy has seen an increase while access to luxury goods has become easier. The cost of housing, on the other hand, has not stopped increasing, especially in London where, Keiller says, the rate of construction of new buildings has saturated and the majority of the existing structures are over a century old. He points at the economic system as reason for this domestic malaise:
…under advanced capitalism it is increasingly difficult to produce and maintain the dwelling…Modernity, it seems, is exemplified not so much by the business park or the airport, but by the dilapidated dwelling.
Moreover, he sees this characteristic as belonging to a bigger tendency in modernity, perhaps descending from the protestant work ethic that dominates Anglo-Saxon nations: the glorification of the values of work over those of domesticity. He summarizes thus:
The dominant narratives of modernity – as mobility and instant communication – appear to be about work and travel, not home. They are constructions of a work-oriented academic elite about a work-oriented business elite.
As a response to this near-impossibility of changing public and domestic spaces of London, Keiller proposes, the idea of subjective transformation of space enjoyed a growing popularity in the city. This, he believes, harks back to artworks and movements of the past, such as the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and Eric Baudelaire, in which we witness a subjective capacity to reinterpret the city space, and the theories of Surrealism and Situationism, whose proponents sought a subjective metamorphosis of everyday reality in their ‘rediscoveries’ of abandoned objects and buildings. Keiller reminds us that this is not an academic concept without practical application:
Transformations of everyday space are subjective, but they are not delusions, simply glimpses of what could happen, and indeed does happen at moments of intense collectivity, during demonstrations, revolutions and wars.
This remark above recalls the aesthetic transformation of public spaces during moments of great political crisis (as demonstrated in Sergei Loznitsa’s recent film, Maidan (2014), where the central square in Kiev becomes a site for the theatre of revolution). Nevertheless, according to Keiller, this return to popularity of Surrealist and Situationist – movements with revolutionary intentions – practice and philosophy in the 1990s in London doesn’t signify as much an atavism as the bourgeois appropriation of these movements:
The dérive and psychogeography were conceived, in a more politically ambitious period, as preliminaries to the production of new, revolutionary spaces; in the 1990s they seemed more likely to be preliminary to the production of literature and other works, and to gentrification, the discovery of previously overlooked value in dilapidated spaces and neighbourhoods.
Elsewhere, Keiller investigates the mutual influence of architecture and cinema. He argues that cinema in inspired by architecture, but more importantly, it opens up various possibilities for the latter in the form of spatial critique. Cinema illustrates and critiques existing spaces and points at the possibility of new, unrealized spaces. Old films reveal historic changes in architecture and landscape and help us reevaluate current day architecture and city design.
The best passages of the book, are however, the last essays in which Keiller studies the relation between cinema and trains. Cinema is intimately related to the railways ever since its birth. The first films of the Lumière brothers present a train arriving at a station. The rapid succession of passing landscape seen from inside the train bestowed in the spectator-traveller a thoroughly modern mode of perception which made the comprehension of cinema’s moving images possible. He writes:
Both cinema and the railway offer more or less predetermined and repeatable spatio-temporal continuities, so that it is perhaps not surprising that railways crop up in cinema as often as they do. Films even physically resemble railway tracks – long, parallel-sided strips divided laterally by frame lines and perforations, as is the railway by sleepers.
In the best essay of the book, Phantom Rides: The Railway and Early Film, he analyzes films made before the 1900s and characterizes two film genres in which the railways played a pivotal role. The first consists of films that depict passing panoramas during a train journey. Scholars call the second category Phantom Rides – films that present the view of railway tracks as seen from the front or the rear end of the train. Taken together, these two genres of early cinema offer perceptual experiences which embody in them a unique image of modern times:
This sequence [from Brief Encounter (1948)], with its added superimpositions and narration, confirms an interpretation of the railway panorama – suggested by Promio’s first examples – as an image of the stream of consciousness. In 1913 Sigmund Freud wrote, famously, that psychoanalysts might usefully tell their patients to ‘say whatever goes through your mind. Act as though, for instance, you were a traveller sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views which you are seeing outside. The phantom ride, on the other hand, more particularly resembles Henri Bergson’s ‘predatory’ image of duration introduced in Matter and Memory (1896), in which the present is ‘the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future’
(Originally posted here)