Julien Temple’s extraordinary film, London : The Modern Babylon was broadcast last week . It was glorious and irreverent, juxtaposing Edwardian footage with the Sex Pistols, keen to draw connecting lines between the large, multi-faith, multi-racial London of today with the London of a hundred years ago. It was chaos, but it tasted of a distinctly familiar ordered chaos. The slums of the 1920s were depressingly sliced up with footage from present day sink estates, slum children with the same hungry eyes and sullen mouths echoing, unaltered throughout the long twentieth century. It seemed also keen to present London as a riotous, constantly jumping, dancing, slapping, exotic whirlwind, pushing through and destroying any echo of the stiff upper lip or cold English placidity. The title was a nod to the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, an exposing series of articles regarding London’s thriving child prostitution market which appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. These articles were sensationalist, highly coloured by imagination and hardly faithful news reporting. The magazine’s editor, W T Stead, was sent to prison for 3 months for his unlawful journalistic methods, thereby starting another rich tradition of the British tabloid journalist using underhand methods to exploit members of the public and then write a lot of made-up things in a newspaper. But what the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” tale concerns itself with is the space between the image or the story, and the mode of reportage that it elicits. Julien Temple’s film of London : The Modern Babylon took this space and magnificently exploited it. The London we know, the London we see every day on our way to work was hardly evident, instead we saw a magical – yet real – city, a feverish – yet not joyous – flurry of fast-paced dancing, a plain – yet not defeated – man standing with his two children in a one room home, a homesick Jamaican being turned away – again – from a boarding house, as the landlord tells him he would simply love to let him in, but the other 14 English boarders would immediately leave.
The press, for a change, seemed to be in agreement : Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “London is where the dense swirl of creativity, energy and violence is to be found. In comparison, the rest of the country is placid and dull”. Bradshaw goes on, rightly, to point out the punk spirit of Temple’s film, describing what he felt was the vitally “pugnacious, bloody-minded…” spirit of the city and those who inhabit it. Over at The Independent, Jonathan Romney writes : “London has always been a vortex of changing social and racial identity – one of the liveliest (if not always the happiest) places on earth […] The result is a joyous, yet often also rueful, commemoration of one of the most multiple and uncontainable cities on earth.” The Telegraph‘s Mike McCahill commented: “It’s a tale of two cities – where the best of times coexists with the worst – and the film-maker doesn’t so much mind the gap between them as plunge, frenziedly and triumphantly, into it.” Over at the FT, Nigel Andrews was not at all charmed: “The film is as awesome as a Taj Mahal built of matchsticks, and some detractors might say as pointless. Documentarist Temple… has no evident viewpoint.” What a cow, eh?
It is an extraordinary piece of film making. What there is is movement, unceasing, fast-paced, jolting movement. It was like a peculiar mode of jaunty time-travel. Temple began with 6,000 hours of BFI archive material. His favourite technique seems to be juxtaposing time zones: a slim woman in a cloche hat in 1923 turns to the camera with an alert, slightly startled expression and an image of a coffee-cup carrying woman from 2005 appears to be the object of her gaze. Temple uses two images to create, in his own words, “a strange third meaning”. His apparently empathetic slant on the London Mob has some critics puce with indignation, but these critics are wrong. What Temple is pulling focus towrds is the visceral force of the London Mob, to recognise its effects and impact on the political temperature of whatever rows appear to be going on at any given time, and that the revolting aspects of the English become galvanized and distilled in a city that has lots and lots and lots of people in it. The mob is an almost inevitable result of various socio-political influences mashing and merging upon one urban space. It is not interesting to decide whether a documentary filmmaker is “for” or “against” the mob. His work is to document, and one would hope we all have moved on from GCSE binary arguments about “good rioters” and “naughty rioters”. Temple understands the spirit of London, and to leave out the mob would be as wrong as to leave out London pubs and horse-drawn omnibuses.
It is this “strange third meaning” of Temple’s that leaves us to a new view of our City. Perhaps this is what Mike McCahill meant at The Telegraph quote above, when he wrote of the film maker plunging “frenziedly and triumphantly” into the gaps. It is in the gaps where the mystery of London becomes realised. Images are crushed and pushed against one another, challenging and changing each other. The soundtrack was a meshed series of musical and vocal techniques, a varied voiceover of actor’s repeating poems and texts about London only when and if the voiceover was required. Although, frankly, I could have done without T S Eliot. But then I always can. After watching this, there was a strange feeling of environmental abandonment. What had I just seen? Do I know this place? What is this foreign, surreal, magnetic city? It took a moment to come back down to earth. London can be reborn, remade and reimagined at the touch of an editor’s hand. A truly imaginative and engaging film, filled with the lifeblood, stories and sense of our city. Whilst avoiding anything as wistful as nostalgia, it renews a sense of metropolitan enquiry, making the viewer want to explore more of its streets, its crooked turnings, its dark-bricked alleys, whilst you are followed by the sense that you could walk for a fifty years and never have a hope of fully knowing the true heart and tales of our city.
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