London, The Modern Babylon

London, The Arts

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.

3 comments on “London, The Modern Babylon”

  1. martin says:

    Are there any London dvds you would recommend?

  2. admin says:

    There are a couple of new ones, ‘Wonderful London’, an hour of unseen footage from the 1920s, and I think the other is called ‘Let’s All Go Down The Pub’ (or something similar) which features short films about pubs.

  3. Jez Winship says:

    There’s a good dvd collecting some of the Look At Life cinema shorts from the 60s called Swinging London, which offers great glimpses of Carnaby Street, the Post Office Tower and other locales redolent of the times. The second disc of the bfi Roll Out the Barrel collection about pubs starts off with film called Under the Table You Must Go, a late 60s tour of London pubs and clubs which is particularly grimy and seedy, and thus perhaps a more authentic glimpse of the city as many experienced it at the time. The bfi flipside dvds London in the Raw and Primitive London, made by the same people, show a similarly seedy side of the city. Patrick Keiller’s semi-fictional London (again released by the bfi) is a more cerebral and distanced look at the city, with lots of literary references. My favourite is Finisterre, directed by Paul Kelly and produced by Saint Etienne, and with music from their album of the same name, which takes an impressionistic look at London from dawn to nightime. Kelly also made the film What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? with Saint Etienne a few years ago, which looked at the Lea Valley before it was redeveloped for the Olympics. It’s just being released on dvd now. Some of the Free Cinema films from the late 50s have great London scenes as well – Nice Time in Picadilly Circus, Lindsay Anderson’s Everyday Except Christmas in Covent Garden when it was still a vegetable and flower market, Refuge England following a new refugee as he wanders out from Waterloo Station, and Lorenza Mazzetti’s excellent Together, set around the East End docks. They’re all on the bfi Free Cinema dvd set (if that’s still in print). The London That Nobody Knows, based on Geoffrey Fletcher’s book, with James Mason drily leading us on a walk around neglected and crumbling parts of London, is also excellent, and is twinned on dvd with a rather charming 60s mini-musical Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, which gives a good tour around Hampstead and its environs. It’s included in the London Collection, which gathers various films set in the capital from the 50s and 60s including Sparrows Can’t Sing, with excellent East End settings, and The Small World of Sammy Lee, which is set around the streets of Soho. Portrait of Queenie (that’s pub owner, singer and TV actress Queenie Watts) from the Shadows of Progress bfi box set of post-war documentaries also offers an excellent tour around the changing East End and docklands of the mid-60s.

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