Robinson in Space (UK, 1997)

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This cerebral made-for-Brit-TV documentary is a travelogue of England as seen through the eyes of one who is sort of touring with the ghost of Robinson Crusoe, following the cities and villages that Daniel Defoe had either lived in or set his stories in. It’s cinematography is stupendous, not just in terms of its use of light (which becomes more and more surreal as we get heavier into industrial territory), but in its sense of composition. The camera rarely pans. It sits statically on whatever its subject is, allowing only what comes into the camera’s view to give us a sense of context with the surroundings. In some shots it’s people who pass by, in others, it’s cars that whiz by, and in others still, it’s tankers or enormous cranes that sluggishly churn across the frame as if they’re being driven by doddering old ghosts on Prozac. Keiller also uses a natural soundtrack to give us context and fix us in the reality. Early in the film, England almost seems like a giant aviary; the air is filled with the tweeting and warbling of birds. Little by little, their twitter is overrun by the drone of cars and trucks and the screeching and metallic whizzing of heavy machinery. It’s hard to say what the saddest sights are: the factories spewing a haze of ashen smoke into an already dingy sky, the proliferation of Americanized strip malls, the olde English villages dotted with Pizza Huts, or the seemingly infinite highways that have invaded the serene rolling countryside. No, what’s worst is what this film shows us most eloquently: the layers of history that have at best, become a sideshow of British culture, and at worst, are rotting away in a forlorn state that’s imposed by the indifference of the culture as a whole. There’s a surprising shot later in the film where we see the queen’s convoy as it rolls along a super-highway. She’s old enough to remember olde England. What does she think now? I wonder… does she look out the window? Does anybody?

My grade: 10

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