London, The Modern Babylon
Rightly or wrongly, Julien Temple is best known for ‘The Great Rock and Roll Swindle’, his wild-child Sex Pistols movie, and the studio-destroying flop ‘Absolute Beginners’. His scattergun approach to pop culture stands him in good stead, however, for his two hour epic ‘London – The Modern Babylon’, which was shown on the BBC last week. The BFI film (which appears to have no DVD release date yet) feels like a picture book coming to life as it explores London’s history on film, chucking out some brilliant juxtapositions as it does so.
Starting with the reminiscences of a 106 year-old peace campaigner it races through the 20th century, constantly threatening to split its seams with the sheer wealth of footage from all over the capital. The dense stew of imagery on display here is enough to rivet the attention, with footage I’ve certainly never seen before, together with some startling mixes combining shots of different eras, the whole thing knitted together with eclectic music choices, some obvious, some obscure.
It’s a chaotic, anarchic mess of course – how could it not be – and perfectly reflects the life of the city. The main criticism I’ve seen to this approach is that the lack of a viewpoint turns the film into an exhausting exercise in style at times, an immense living wallpaper of sights and sounds that can only wash over you, and I do wonder if someone with the rigour of, say, Adam Curtis might have brought more depth and insight to the same material.
But as a primer on an extraordinary population and a rip-roaring ride through the moving images of the metropolis it’s impossible to turn away from. Here’s Churchill and the Siege of Sydney Street, the suffragettes, the jazz-age and two world wars, hippies, riots, police clashes and punks (a somewhat toothless movement given undue prominence compared to the London heroes who actually did something to change society).
Temple has his politics on the left, and really it’s hard to feel that anything else would be appropriate for London’s melting pot. I hope it appears as a BFI DVD in the future.