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Patrick Keiller’s ‘London’ and Homosexual Reminiscings

By Eve Reid

Still from London, 1994, directed by Patrick Keiller.
“For Londoners, London is obscured. It’s social life invisible, its government abolished […] there is nothing but a civic void. The true identity of London, he said, is in its absence.”

In his 1984 interview ‘Friendship as a Way of Life,’ Michel Foucault remarked that ‘it is the recollection rather than the anticipation of the act [sexual intercourse] that assumes primary importance in homosexual relations.’ Foucault supports this statement by referring to renowned homosexual writers such as William Burroughs and Jean Genet, praising their ability to reminisce on encounters through their writings. While Foucault here is primarily concerned with ‘reminiscings’ of a sexual nature, I would like to apply his thought to aesthetic and political reminiscings that define queer experiences particularly within urban topographies. This ability to reminisce is exemplified within the narration of Patrick Keiller’s docu-fiction film, London, released in 1994. Keiller’s film follows the psychogeographical ponderings of two lovers living in London in 1992, the year the general election was won decisively by John Major and the Conservative Party. The film’s narrator is unnamed and never depicted, functioning as the 'witness and chronicler’ for ‘Robinson,’ his erudite partner who also remains unseen. Through the reminiscings of Robinson’s lover we are given a guided tour of the city represented through a collection of still shots, forming a curated palimpsest of urban life. The melancholia of Keiller’s London, as well as its exploration of a cityscape through a queer lens drew me towards a Foucauldian analysis of the film.

London begins with Robinson’s lover describing Robinson’s sudden desire to reconnect with him after a period of absence. The two once had an “uneasy, bickering, sexual relationship” which has transformed into what seems to be a relationship of academic vigilantism. The two are united in the film with a politico-artistic goal of discovering the anachronisms of the city. Robinson’s style of living is described as almost ascetic, saying “everything he wants is unobtainable.” Robinson throughout the film is an elusive figure, but this only does more to locate him within what theorist Jack Halberstam describes as queer ‘cultural narratives of failure.’ He is neither here nor there, never present in voice or in any physical/visual respect. He is described as a retired “flaneur” who has become reclusive due to his “wrestling with the problem of London.” Halberstam writes, in The Queer Art of Failure (2011):

I propose that one form of queer art has made failure its centrepiece and has cast queerness as the dark landscape of confusion, loneliness, alienation, impossibility, and awkwardness.

This is certainly exemplified in Keiller’s ‘London’. The urban landscape becomes a projection of homosexual longing for a different way of life. Robinson is described as “listening at the gateposts” at the entrance of Vauxhall Park, worrying about the buses and the library “all of which will be under threat if the [Tory] government does not lose the election.” The looming threat to public spaces and services under the Tory government adds another layer of significance to the act of reminiscing. The fear of losing these spaces becomes intertwined with the queer community's struggle for visibility within an increasingly conservative political climate. Robinson is described as longing to see himself as a romantic, seeing himself from the outside––his intellectualism positing him as an enemy of “dirty old Blighty.” His desire for a drifting, flaneur lifestyle illuminates his actual spatio-temporal anxieties. This is again exemplified when the couple begin a ‘pilgrimage to the sources of English romanticism’ to the house of Horace Walpole in Strawberry Hill but are distracted by the events on Wandsworth Common. Here we see a shot of the cordoned off area of Wandsworth Station after a bomb exploded as part of an IRA attack. The ironic juxtaposition of the men’s “pilgrimage” for romantic illumination and the terrorist obstruction to this complicates notions of the literary city with material political trouble. The imaginary and the historical becomes physically violent, both in the narrative and the aesthetic components of the film. The indulgent “psychic landscaping” and “free association” of Robinson’s urban explorations are soured. As a viewer, we become increasingly cynical about the couple’s intellectual pursuits but empathise with their frustration with the political climate affecting urban experience.

Robinson is described as an autodidact, everything we learn about him is transmuted firstly through the words of his lover and secondly through great works of art, music, literature, and architecture that he admires pertaining to the city. His character is introduced to us through reminiscence and nostalgia, a process which is inherently disruptive and disrupted by the politics of urban space. Robinson’s intellectualism plays into what Foucault described in ‘Friendship as a Way of Life’ as ‘guarding against the onset of sadness.’ While for Foucault this was specific to the post-coital homosexual experience, we can contextualise this within the relationship between Robinson and his lover. The onset of sadness, however, is unavoidable within the landscape of London for queer people in the 1990s. There is a desire to be anywhere else, to be out of the world even, within the film’s narration. This cynical lamentation revolves around a fear of social death; Robinson is described as foreseeing his own death in the next four months. This hyperbolic image is juxtaposed with Robinson being “full of plans of the future.” This general sense unease and uncertainty of place is furthered by the collage of images of London’s sights: the BT tower, Goldfinger’s Alexander Fleming House, the Stockwell Bus Garage and a burning pile of wooden pallets outside of an industrial park, to name a few. There is a sarcasm imbued within the imagery but also a desire for cultural memory and personal connection within the spatial practices of the pseudo-documentary style. These elements function as a form of reminiscence, serving as a testament to the power of memory in shaping queer experiences.

In essence, London invites viewers to contemplate the multifaceted nature of queer identity and experience within the city, mirroring Foucault's idea that the recollection, rather than anticipation, assumes primary importance in homosexual relations. The film's engagement with queerness, melancholia, and the urban landscape not only deepens our understanding of these themes but also calls for critical reflection on the challenges and opportunities faced by queer individuals in an ever-evolving urban environment. Through the enigmatic figure of Robinson and his unconventional relationship with his lover, the film encapsulates the fluidity of queer identity and relationships. Their quest for understanding the city's anachronisms and complexities aligns with Foucault's concept of resistance to normative structures of power within space.


Suggested Reading

Anderson, David. ‘A Melancholy Topography: Patrick Keiller’s Vision of London in the 1990s’. In London on Film: The City and Social Change, edited by Pam Hirsch and Chris O’Rourke, 147–62. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Foucault, Michel. ‘Friendship as a Way of Life’. In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, edited by Paul Rabinow, Vol. 1:135–40. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault: 1954-1984. New York: New York Press, 1997.

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011.


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