London Symphony

Directed by Alex Barrett

In the 1920s a form of cinematic documentary arose which came to be called ‘city symphonies’. While literally ‘documenting’ the actuality of urban life in specific cities – Berlin, Amsterdam, New York, Paris among others – they did far more, finding abstraction and emotion in the images themselves and utilising the montage technique of their juxtaposition, creating a new kind of poetic cinema. After the coming of sound the form all but disappeared with the new flowering of documentary using commentary or sound recorded in situ. Alex Barrett has taken us back to this early form with a black and white silent film in 4 movements accompanied by a score by James McWilliam, showing a London familiar but strangely distanced, at times exotic, and beautiful.

The film has no agenda other than providing a portrait of this city. Like Wordsworth’s Thames under Westminster Bridge, it flows at its own sweet will, segueing from old to new buildings, from the abstract patterns of brutalist architecture to printing blocks to phone boxes, from cycling to rowing to water, from tidy garden produce shows to food markets to a slick of vomit outside a door. From memorials for combatants to those for refugees.

The first movement is all urgency and movement, a changing city of ancient and modern buildings bedecked with cranes on its skyline, the trudging crowds in the tubes, transport and movement of those with something to do, somewhere to go, work or leisure. The second movement takes a more pastoral turn, with dreamy music and images of what you might think is the countryside. Wild life, parkland, thence to a produce show, figures, for the most part relaxed, in landscapes. There a solitude, rather than a loneliness, about the single figures Barrett‘s camera settle in on, a man on a park bench laughing at his phone, exercisers and walkers. In what is one of the few overtly political moments we go from luxury dining at Bibendum to a food bank where basics are ticked off on a list, packed up into bags and handed over, a sequence which shows only hands and moving bodies at work as briskly as the kitchen staff we’ve just seen preparing top end dishes.

Hands. The human hand is so busy, preparing food, gesticulating, blessing, paying, working keyboards, boxing, as busy as the feet tramping the tube escalators or park paths or pounding the pavements shopping. But just when the franticness becomes almost oppressive, along comes a serene view of water, a graceful building, or the permanence of a sculptured figure of public art, a row of shop models, or a religious image, which seem to look gravely out over the dashing mortals with a knowingness of mortality. London, the city, is there, made by us but destined to survive us. It’s seen it all before, and it knows how futile the getting and spending, the urge towards constant movement, is. If the spirit of Wordsworth lies within the film, so does that of Eliot, with the crowds flowing over the bridges, so many, and the ‘Teach us to sit still’ of the sections moving between the varied religious centres in the third movement, each with their quiet contemplation. This extends to temples of culture, where museums both engage their visitors in thought and do their own version of the marketing the shopping-bag-carrying hordes have fallen victim to. Meanwhile in the libraries, the books representing wisdom stand dizzyingly row on row like architecture themselves.

In the fourth movement we’re back again in the urgent crowds, crossing the river on bridges, under it through tunnels, on boats and trains. And then more water, the rain, the city at the mercy of nature, up go the umbrellas and on go the macs as we plod along the puddled pavements. Finally comes the night, beautiful and exciting, shiny with promise in the dark, sordid with its clubs, thrilling with its theatreland, in a nice classic old Hollywood-style montage of theatre signs, promising the inexhaustable nature of the city as glamorous entertainer. A time when people come together. Shame there’s nothing of those in the box you step over when you leave the theatre, but maybe that would be too easy a point to make. Then back home down the urban street, and the film ends on the image of something from beyond the city, an urban fox, glaring then stealing away, unafraid. Within and all around the city there is still the natural world, untouchable.

Much as the film is a hymn to London, it’s even more one to city life. And whether you love that or hate it you can’t fail to be moved. There are few of the standard ‘tourist’ come-ons to the city, and one of the joys is to recognise little obscure corners that are familiar, or pick up clues to search out what you see. So much is intensely beautiful – many of the images would make terrific individual photographs in themselves – and it rewards a second viewing, when you spot not just its subtle motifs but also the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quirks. What’s more it has an intense empathy with its figures. A city is made up of its built and living components, and though we may look and act as a crowd, every individual touched on, from the man in the inexplicable hat in the tube concourse to the one who has foraged for sticks on his walk in the park, exists in his own world. And that thrilling nausea that sometimes comes over you as your train approaches the seething centre of the Great Wen, a kind of panic at the enormity and complexity of the city, is here to thrill you too.

For screenings of the film (alas, none so far in the North East) see




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