David G. Hughes on Alex Barrett’s ‘London Symphony’ (2017)
IN OUR VISUAL MEDIA CULTURE, the prevailing believe seems to be that to “see” a city, to know it and appreciate it, we must witness its complete topography in glorious landscape. Perhaps this is the residue of the Romantic painters, those who ascended to Godly heights with their paints and canvas in toe, until they reached the most effective point of overwhelming natural beauty and duly replicated it in acrylic. Now elevated positions that direct you to the point of wonder have become a designated, what we may call “official”, site of appreciation — “look this way for wonder” — as if we need be didactically told where to find beauty. But rather than appreciate the majestic formations of mountains and ravines, the city is humanity’s achievement; when we ascend Primrose Hill and look down towards that line of iconic architecture, we marvel at civilisation’s craft, not God’s. This is the desire for order – to condense a multi-faceted metropolis into a snow-globe size, to master it; the same ego that celebrates its size is the same one that seeks to condense it. As such, we’ve all become too aware of that familiar London establishing shot — a helicopter shot soaring above the Thames as we catch the London Eye, the House of Parliament further up and the Shard in the corner of the frame. London, in all its diverse complexity, begins to feel pretty small and very prosaic — like the opening credits to The Apprentice and little else. But of course, we can never truly understand or gaze upon the essence of the city in this manner.
London Symphony, a fascinating new documentary by Alex Barrett, features very few wide vista shots, and it isn’t all that interested in iconic landmarks as we know them. Rather, it captures the city in fragments, a telephoto lens voyeuristically recording moments of seemingly insignificant interest — a duck floating in the park pond, a man looking at postcards, a worker at his corporate office desk, a man rummaging through trash. These brief windows, vignettes of various lives, are edited together to orchestral accompaniment and structured in four phases. Cine-literate director Alex Barrett makes use of canted angles and arresting compositions to formulate the mood of a city as an abstract expression, as towers protrude towards the sky at an angle, bridges shadow over pedestrians below, and pathways interlock, London begins to feel like an abstract Cubist painting, made of lines and shapes of things recognisable but incomplete. In other words, London can not be condensed, it has no coherent identity; it is chaotic, expressionistic, diverse and quite beautiful.
Few films have managed to capture the essence of London like this, specifically focusing on diversity as its central theme — a diversity of architectures from Elizabethan to Brutalism, a diversity of faiths from synagogues to monasteries, and even a diversity of rubbish as we look upon the various council logo’s of Camden, Southwark and so on emblazoning a multitude of bins. The photography is striking, filled with pictorial magnetism and an anachronistic monochrome that imbues the film with a sense of timelessness and reverie. This is a crucial feature for a film that folds time around it; not only are medieval buildings placed alongside the corporate high-rises of Canary Wharf, it is the antithesis of a “Slow Cinema” as real-time is condensed so that we may travel from Brixton to Wapping in the fraction of a second: one of cinema’s oldest and most distinctive tricks.
Indeed, ‘London Symphony’ rather explicitly showcases it’s heritage – this is a direct continuation of the same “city symphony” film that was presented to audiences during the 1920s, like Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and Berlin, Symphony of a Metropolis (1927). London Symphony, as its contemporary counterpart, lacks the same ideological drive and sense of urgency or technical revolution that made those films so historically significant, and it does often come close to feeling like an introverted aesthetic experiment by and for the intelligentsia, but credit to the director for having the courage to place himself in this forgotten arena and take up not only London as his subject, but also cinema itself. In a self-reflexive manner, we visit the Cinema Museum in Elephant & Castle, have a segment dedicated to photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, and we even catch glimpse of the Revolutionary Art exhibition at Tate Modern, that movement which granted us Eisenstein and the techniques of montage used to great effect here. However, Barrett is not above making a few ideological points of his own, taking time to showcase the operations of a food bank and the homeless problem which plagues the streets of the capital. What a filmmaker decides to show (or not show) has always been a political act, and Barrett has an empathetic eye necessary to capturing the soul of his chosen milieu.
Through its editing and photography, London Symphony succeeds in poetically translating the impression of the city it loves. This is no small achievement. Crucially, It understands that London’s essence lies in its malleability, its evolution, not in what it has been, what is has become or what it seeks to become, but in the very act of eternal becoming as lives are lived all around us.
Walking home one late neon-lit London night feeling dejected for a reason I fail to recall, I remember turning into my street corner and halting my tracks to gaze upon a red fox frozen before me. We stared into each others eyes for what seemed like an eternity, and in this moment of connection all the engines of the city seemed to have elapsed, the perpetual noise had become distant, and all my angst was displaced with a strange serenity. It stood there illuminated under a lamppost, and in this seemingly mundane happenstance, it was as if I was being told “everything is alright.” This has become, for reasons I struggle to articulate, one of the most profound moments in my city life. So what a poetic coincidence that ‘London Symphony’ features an almost exactly identical moment — a nocturnal fox looking into the camera lens; perhaps this, in its random profundity and exhibition of animate consciousness, is experiencing the essence of the city — watching a fox as it silently parades in the streets of a sleeping city, pissing up a car wheel and disappearing into the night.