When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford. – Samuel Johnson
A faithful homage to the 1920s Soviet experimental film Man with a Movie Camera (directed by Dziga Vertov), London Symphony follows a day in the life of a city, splicing together documentary footage with a specially composed score.
It is totally silent and for the most part black and white, with no real characters. Instead, the city itself becomes the main character, worshipped, dissected and eroticised through the camera lens.
Blurring the lines between fascination and tedium, the audience is tempted into an infatuation with its subject as the camera fetishises the cityscape as something passive and consumable.
Man with a Movie Camera was ground-breaking at the time and remains an avant-garde staple. Director Alex Barrett stated that he wanted to avoid his film becoming a pastiche or a parody, instead he wanted to stay true to the grammar of the silent film, but at the same time make it his own. And that is exactly what he has achieved.
Keeping it interesting
Clever cinematic techniques serve to modernise the style and make it a little more palatable to a contemporary audience. One scene I particularly appreciated was the Go-Pro attached to the oar, which resulted in some playful, yet intriguing footage of a rower on the Thames.
Noticeable by its absence was any drone-shot footage. Although a bird’s eye view of the city is achieved in other ways, a camera drone seems like a modern eye view that could work well in this interpretation.
However, although the director didn’t specify this in the after-show Q&A, all of the other shots seemed to come from somewhere accessible, for the most part places accessible to the public and therefore part of an authentic experience of the city. Although there are (almost) bird’s eye view shots which essentially serve the same purpose, these are still shot from places you or I could access and see for ourselves. Obviously, this wouldn’t happen with a drone.
This stays true to the idea of the filmmaker as a flaneur, an urban explorer. Like a Victorian botanist trekking through the jungle and documenting the wondrous flora he comes across, the camera observes and records the daily activity as though new and undiscovered. But here the idea of the flaneur gazing wide-eyed at mighty skyscrapers is turned around. The camera is not so much looking up at things – in fact there are few eye-level shots – but instead a running motif I noticed was the use of shots from above, looking down on the subject. This achieved an almost critical viewpoint, like peering through a microscope at a specimen.
London Symphony is divided into four ‘movements’ or chapters, each with an accompanying score. Fortunately, I managed to speak with the director after the screening. Barrett confirmed that the four movements divided the footage into separate themes. In the most basic form, it represents times of the day, in-keeping with the original city symphonies. The first movement is morning, the second lunch time, and so on. In the morning, the city is waking up, not only from the night before, but also, as Barrett explains, it awakens from its own history. Shots of building sites and cranes are intermingled with statues and old monuments.
Brexit Britain strikes again
But, what actual commentary does it provide? Vertov’s movie provided a record of life in Soviet cities in the 1920s, setting out cinema as an art form in itself, without the crutch of theatre or art, and rejecting popular (Western) culture.
In this Brexit society, it’s more important than ever to celebrate, explore and critique the diversity we Londoners often take for granted.
It also reminded me of the Robinson film series by Patrick Keiller, particularly London.
Long shots of the cityscape are accompanied by a narrator recounting the excursions of the unseen protagonist Robinson. I came to view the film as a series of cinematic postcards, a subjective spotlight and voiceover, which focused on the quiet, unassuming parts of the city. Keiller however, shows us a grey, crumbling city choking in the grip of Thatcherism.
The third movement of London’s Symphony for example, celebrates the capital’s multiculturalism. Shots of various places of worship are spliced together to show London as a buzzing spiritual patchwork.
It treats the subjects in the third movement as it does the birds and wildlife in the one before it, with a kind of quiet, respectful fascination, picking up the subtle goings on happening in quiet corners of the city, that serves to define the entire metropolis.
However, Barrett’s vision of London compartmentalises the various identities of the capital.
Utopia doesn’t exist
This representation of diversity shows it as coherent, cohesive, but fails to explore the tension between the communities and shows an almost utopian view of London as a collection of different cultural exhibits, like a cageless menagerie of happily co-existing beasts. Is this false? Is this a fair record of modern London? I don’t think my privilege puts me in a position to answer that.
Don’t get me wrong. The film implies conflict. London is far from perfect. One scene, for example, shows London’s litter problem, another juxtaposes a Michelin star restaurant with shots of a food bank. After all London is a place of stark contrasts. But I’m not sure it goes far enough to be an effective commentary.
The question I really wanted to ask the director was: do you think a Londoner would be happy with this view of London? Again, I really don’t know. I certainly enjoyed the film, but I understand I may be in the minority as someone well-aware of the project’s cultural and cinematic contexts. I don’t think it is for the regular modern viewer though. But that’s kind of the point.
Barrett’s city is eternal and organic, like a concrete ant’s nest or an intricate machine. Shots of its inner (and outer) workings are expertly crafted and masterfully edited to create this 21st century cinematic love letter to London. Its making and subsequent tour is an event in itself, one I urge everyone to be part of.
Ultimately, it is a beautifully shot and cleverly composed ode to the city I call home.