2012 Film Challenge #64 - London: The Modern Babylon

Having never seen The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, Absolute Beginners, The Filth & The Fury or Earth Girls Are Easy, my introduction to Julien Temple came in the form of his 2006 Glastonbury documentary.

Halfway through my initial viewing of said documentary, it had already become one of my favourite films. It captures perfectly the life-affirming wonder that is a weekend at Worthy Farm. It's hard to put into words as to quite why Glastonbury is unlike and superior to any other festival, but somehow that film nails it in one long montage of disjointed archive footage set to the best possible soundtrack. Every time I watch it these days, within seconds I yearn for the Brigadoon which has for me become almost as important an annual experience as Christmas.

I suppose total sensory overload is the only way you can contain so many strong and disparate themes and emotions in one manageable running-time. Not only is each image worth a thousand words, but each is also liable to be interpreted in a completely different way by any given person. Through being presented with what is, quite possibly, far too much information, you're free to thread your own narrative, tell your own stories and to will the film to be whatever you want it to be.

Well, he's done it again. And this time he's tackled a theme so impossibly sprawling that he's made his success with Glastonbury look amateur by comparison.

Glastonbury remains one of my favourite films simply because I feel that the festival itself is such a big part of me. But even though Temple achieved the impossible in capturing something as elusive as the feel of a music festival, you have to consider the relative parameters. The festival itself has only been taking place for about four decades, and when it does take place it does so for less than a week each year.

The subject of London: The Modern Babylon is a dense metropolis of liquid culture and monumental history which has been in a state of continuous existence for millenia.

With Glastonbury, Temple could, at the very least, structure his film in the same way as the festival itself: You start with people arriving on the Wednesday and you end with people leaving on the Monday. Indeed, it struck me on repeat viewings how the “narrative” progresses from morning to night over the course of three days. Simple, when you think about it.

But how do you even begin to approach the throbbing orb of humanity and gravity that is a city like London?

I suppose we must start like Temple doubtlessly started – by assessing as to what he actually wanted to achieve. I believe that, like with Glastonbury, he wanted to capture the feel of the city– to ask why so many people are so drawn there – why it occupies not just such a large land-mass, but also such a large part of our shared thoughts and histories. I mean, how many degrees of separation are there between London and anyone in the world who you could possibly care to mention?

Temple doesn't start at the very beginning, as that would be insane. Rather, he starts with the invention of film. I suppose he had to; otherwise his film would open with a series of static rostrum camera shots of engravings and paintings.

Instead, then, it begins with shaky, hand-cranked silent images to which have been set a soundtrack which alternates between then-contemporary and now-contemporary. This footage – presumably shot to capture existence for the sake of posterity – are already filled to the brim with life. Incredibly though, they're painted in even broader colours with interviews with people who were actually alive back then.

One such woman, 107 years old, has an absolutely astonishing memory. She speaks of things like they happened a decade ago rather than a century. And when she speaks, she does so in a halting weariness behind which you can feel every single one of those hundred-plus years. It's powerful stuff.

The film progresses from this shaky starting point through following affairs on a loosely decade-by-decade basis. As a historical essay, without a doubt it's of the cultural history school. The emphasis is very much upon how events effected the lives of people on a daily basis.

And throughout we're therefore struck with just how resourceful people are. We progress through decades of war, unrest, urban-renewal, immigration and depression, yet the one recurring theme seems to be humanity's ability to live through anything. No matter what happens, we're shown time and again that people still have lives. They still work and they still have fun.

Another more distressing theme is that of fear, distrust, hatred and violence. Like a depressing rite-of-passage, identical suspicion and hostility is directed at successive generations of minority groups as they first come to the city. Never mind man's inhumanity to man: Man's distrust of man is distressing enough.

It ends on a positive note as implied by the title: London is the new Babylon, a place where each and every culture in the world can coexist if not in harmony, than in mutual tolerance – everybody's free to do as they please in London. The city and, by extension, the country is better off as a result. One of the most endearing moments is when one of the veterans interviewed tells of how his grandchildren don't feel like inhabitants of the British Isles. Rather, they feel like members of the human race.

Be that as it may, another strong implication is that fear and loathing between cultures has simply been replaced by fear and distrust between the classes. The gulf between rich and poor is far greater than ever truly was that between black and white. An early theme introduced is that of the London mob, and it's near the end that alarming footage of last year's riots fill the screen. The suggestion seems to be that we had better get used to such carnage. It's always been inevitable, and it's only just starting to break.

Despite this, though, I found the whole viewing experience to be positively life-affirming. Over a century of history and culture was crammed into just over two hours of running-time. In that time, hundreds, if not thousands of stories were told – and every single second is infused with passion, vibrancy, poignancy, energy and the marvellous incandescent glow of human experience.

Of course, having never lived in London, I cannot possibly comment upon whether or not it succeeded in capturing the feel of the place. But in its own right, as a freewheeling open piece of cultural history, it's nothing short of a masterpiece.

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