London: The Modern Babylon

London: The Modern Babylon

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

With more than 300 languages spoken on its streets and cultures from across the world flocking to it down the decades, the term 'modern Babylon' is certainly an apt one for London.

Julien Temple's immersive, impressionistic and, unsurprisingly, punk-driven and subversive documentary charts the last century or so of the city captured in both documentary and feature film, fleshing out the history with occasional captions and the recollections of some of the people who have made their home there. This trip through the BFI and BBC archives will particularly appeal to those who like a less prescriptive take on history and certainly shares a strand of anarchic DNA with the BBC's much-loved The Rock 'N' Roll Years.

Copy picture

One of the scenes shown is that of Churchill's funeral, in which a reporter refers to a "tide of memory" and this is the spirit that Temple is aiming for, although he also hints at the tricks memory plays - and a revisionist left-wing spirit - particularly in a moment when he perverts the words of Margaret Thatcher, inverting her famous St Francis of Assissi statement, so that she appears to be saying, "Where there is harmony, may we bring discord... And where there is hope, may we bring despair."

While many of us might agree that is exactly what the Tories achieved and Temple himself argues in the accompanying short interview on this BFI disc that "documentary is fiction", die-hard fact lovers may find this unacknowledged twisting hard to take and struggle with the film's wilful avoidance of context in favour of an intoxicating and vibrant rush of emotion.

The very artifice of Temple's film, however, with its constant references to CCTV snapshots of life and applying equal weight to fictional depictions of the city - such as clips from Peeping Tom and The Long Good Friday - in many ways reflects what the director is trying to say about London, namely, all life and opinion is here and take from this what you will.

Although river references abound, from TS Eliot's crowd flowing over London Bridge to tides of change, what emerges is something more akin to the Circle Line, emphasising the often cyclical nature of life in general. Immigrants arrive, are feared or even hated and are then gradually absorbed into the fabric of the city ready to fear and, possibly, hate the next wave who come behind them. Inspired editorial choices see dancing Twenties flapper girls juxtaposed against ravers from the Eighties or contrasting eras of people seen occupying the same street.

Beyond the racial, age and cultural differences, however, a bigger, more insurmountable divide is documented - that between the classes and, in this, Temple wears his politics on his sleeve. Unsurprisingly, the idea of the 'mob' - both in its family sense of the phrase and its altogether more violent guise - is never far away, from the 1911 Siege of Sidney Street and 1936 Battle Of Cable Street through to 2011's riots and looting. The suggestion is, as Madness frontman Suggs points out in reference to periodic flare-ups of racial tension, "It's just a process, man".

For all its beautiful editing, he most compelling aspect of the film remains the first-person testimony from 'ordinary' Londoners, particularly that of 106-year-old Hetty Bower, who has seen a lot more in her lifetime than most. From her dismissal of Kitchener - "They didn't need me, but I didn't like him and his finger" - to her embrace of change, you have to conclude that any city that harbours such a thoughtful soul and those like her is well worth celebrating even, if, one suspects, similar and even less familiar stories are just waiting to be told about other great cities in our Kingdom.

Reviewed on: 19 Nov 2012
Share this with others on...
London: The Modern Babylon packshot
Snapshot of England's capital from the turn of the 20th century.
Amazon link

Festivals:


Search database: