Andrew Mead takes a look at the past Patrick Keiller is known as the director of films such as London and The Dilapidated Dwelling, but his latest project, The City of the Future, is based on other people’s films – 68 of them, brief, silent and forgotten. Retrieved from the British Film Institute’s collection, all date from 1896-1909 and are now presented on five screens in the National Film Theatre’s gallery (www.bfi.org.uk). The sites they show, scattered right across the UK, are linked to maps through which you can cue your own selection of films. But the screens are arranged in such a way that images other than your chosen ones are always peripherally in view: the streets of Bradford are seen from a moving tram, Liverpool docks at their mercantile height, the City of London thronged with horse-drawn carriages. It’s an ever-changing collage (see image).
A century on, the film stock is blotchy and scarred, making the scenes seem emphatically remote, though Keiller suggests the world they show is more familiar than you might expect – that ‘city space has not changed in quite the ways that (some) people said it would, or should’. In that Bradford sequence, is it just the adverts, the shop fronts, the fashions that differ, and not the city’s fabric? Keiller’s comment makes you look again. But a film of troops embarking at Southampton for South Africa in 1900 strikes a different note, anticipating the mass embarkations of the next decade. With a generation abruptly absent, the streets in Keiller’s films would soon be very different, and the future would seem much less secure.