For any movie character to be granted a third feature is pretty good going. But when that character has never been seen nor heard by any audience, the achievement seems really rather extraordinary. There is plenty though that is extraordinary about Patrick Keiller's series of Robinson films, the latest of which, Robinson in Ruins, has just debuted in Venice.
The politics of the Venice Film Festival are a trickier imp to pin down than those of its rival on the Cote d'Azur. While Cannes defines itself by the spirit of '68, when the political tumult of the day saw that year's festival cancelled (this affection for the socialist spirit curiously co-existing with the naked wealth of the Riviera, plus the festival's long-time addiction to glamour and stardom), Venice is something of an unwieldy tangle of liberal fashion and fascist history.
Though the vast majority of critics in attendance are surely left-leaning, as is practically the law for those who make their living from the arts, the Venice Film Festival itself was founded in 1932 by Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, finance minister to Mussolini. Indeed, between 1934 and 1942 the top prize at the event was named in honour of the fascist dictator, before being rechristened the Golden Lion in 1949. Consequently the fires of revolution can never blaze quite as brightly on the Lido as they are perceived to do on the Croisette, which in itself is fairly ridiculous, given Cannes's tie-in deals with the likes of Orange, Nestlé and Chopard.
So it should perhaps have come as no surprise that there was audible dissent in the Sala Perla auditorium ahead of the screening of short film, The Future Will Not be Capitalist, which in turn preceded the full premiere of Robinson in Ruins. Directed by Sasha Parker, the 19-minute movie was subtitled Or the Perspective of the Other Side (after Karl Marx), with the moniker assigned to the short being what set the French critic behind me harrumphing, he conversing in English with an Italian associate and sarcastically wondering aloud if it meant that we were therefore facing a future of totalitarianism. This was not, unsurprisingly, the angle taken by Parker's film, though inconsequential as said film was, it did underline the problem faced by the hard left in the 21st century; namely, that they have become marginalised to the point where they appear to be talking to themselves and no-one else whatsoever.
At a basic level The Future Will Not be Capitalist is all about the headquarters of the French Communist Party, situated in Paris's Place du Colonel Fabien, designed by the Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer, and opened in 1971. But as interesting as much of the architecture itself is – an illuminated igloo of a conference room, an area intended to mimic a clearing in a forest – the short was unable to avoid confronting the decline of communism in relation to mainstream politics. For example, a big song and dance is made about how the workers' cafeteria in the building is situated many stories up, giving the majority access to terrific views that in most organisations would normally be reserved for the privileged minority of management. Great. But no sooner had this piece of mold-breaking lunchtime idealism been explained than it was revealed that the cafeteria has been closed for some years, denying anyone, worker or otherwise, access to the Parisian panorama.
In spite of the admission that FCP support has declined at the ballot box (down from about 25% of the popular vote in the '60s, to a parsimonious 5% now), a note of defiance is struck when the argument is put forth that power is in the hands of humans, not elections. Er, humans who exercise this power by voting in elections, you would think, no? The final adamant assertion that the future will not be capitalist - infused as this claim is with all the hopeless optimism of a sobbing teenage girl crying that she definitely will one day be Mrs. Zac Efron - might indeed eventually prove to be true. But on the non-evidence provided by Parker's short, it's pretty bloody unlikely that it's going to be communist either.
From there it was onto the evening's main event, and the first point of interest for those who had seen either or both of the previous two Robinson films, London and Robinson in Space (the latter of which, it would be remiss not to mention, is available to watch on Indie Movies Online for users in the UK, as well as those in the US, Canada and Australia) was the identity of the actor selected by director Keiller to replace the late Paul Scofield, who had filled the function of narrator in those earlier flicks, playing the researcher travelling companion of the elusive title figure. The Oscar-winner's replacement proved to be another hugely respected British thespian, Vanessa Redgrave, taking the role of the partner of the Scofield character.
The researcher has, like the actor playing him, passed away since 1997's Robinson in Space, though we latterly learn that on the back of the document represented by that film, he became some kind of government consultant, involving himself with the institute for which the new female narrator works. The opening of Robinson in Ruins establishes that this is the newest and almost certainly the most unlikely in the recent, yet lengthy, train of 'found footage' movies, a sequence including [Rec], Paranormal Activity and Harmony Korine's incomparable Trash Humpers. The journey undertaken by Robinson on this occasion, we are informed, is constituted of material taken from 19 film cannisters discovered when workmen were dismantling a disused caravan.
Okay, before I get any deeper into a description of the movie's content, it might first be advisable to drag any newcomers up to speed regarding the formal construction of the Robinson series. Because for those who have not seen either or both of London or Robinson in Space (I know, implausible as it seems, these people do exist. I am related to several), there will have been some bemusement about my talk of unnamed narrators and an unseen title character who is never heard to utter so much as a solitary peep. The Robinson films exist somewhere between the visual political essay and the documentary travelogue, they being made up of a series of shots filmed from static positions at various locations around (primarily) the United Kingdom. These locations are the spots visited by the dissolute Robinson, with the narration detailing both his travel path and the real-life political, economic and cultural points of interest affixed to each place.
Now this aesthetic approach married to the erudite, informed soundtrack rendered Robinson in Space a really rather absorbing viewing experience as far as I was concerned (Robinson in Ruins is slightly less successful, but more on that in a minute). However it is hard not to concede that this unusual style is not for everyone, so it was no surprise that within the first ten minutes there were a number of walkouts, including the harrumphing sat Frenchman behind me, as folks realised what the movie was all about – although you would also have thought most of them would have been pretty embarrassed that they had to slink past Keiller himself on the way out, the director being sat in the dead centre of the theatre. What was more baffling to me was that plenty of people stuck the film out for another 60 or 70 so minutes before making a break for it, as if they each had some kind of impatience energy bar that gradually filled up and needed to be acted upon once it had maxed-out, in the manner of a video game character building up to the unleashing of a 94-hit combo.
For those who did make it to the end, what did Robinson in Ruins have to say for itself? Well, considering Keiller's previous pictures were powered by an appalled contempt for the policies of the Conservative government, it is perhaps no surprise that the event which appears to have spurred the director into reviving Robinson was the near-collapse of the global financial system back in autumn 2008. The unearthed cans of film pick up his odyssey on 22 January of that year, as he is released from prison and begins seeking to commune with non-human intelligence in order to preserve life on Earth. The threat posed by climate change is a key thread of Robinson in Ruins, with the narrator making the observation that at the outset of the third millennium it is easier to imagine the end of human existence than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.
Robinson spends most of his time in rural areas in this second sequel, with issues of defence policy repeatedly cropping up in the first half, particularly the US stationing of nuclear missiles on UK soil. Robinson's own erratic behaviour is woven around these history lessons, he still being something of a drunk and prone to flights of fancy, such as his theory about landed meteorites offering forewarning of social upheaval. As the film winds on, it builds towards the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and the wider storm which ensued that case of banking bust.
As noted above, I was not as gripped by Robinson in Ruins as I had been by its immediate predecessor. The running time is noticeably longer, with long stretches of silence inserted into the film, as Keiller dwells on various images (a butterfly, a combine harvester). The narration from Redgrave, while perfectly acceptable, is not as rapid-fire or cynically amusing as that provided by Scofield, and I was disappointed that the director did not offer much in the way of observation about how the modern capitalist model has survived into 2010 without significant amendment, despite coming so close just two years previously to dragging the global economy down the toilet.
With the way the UK coalition government are shaping up, I would suggest Keiller will not need leave it another 13 years before reviving his prophet of doom, Robinson, for another cinematic journey. Though before I start speculating about any possible fourth film, it is worth noting that those attending the London Film Festival next month will get the chance to check out Robinson in Ruins for themselves.