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Capital Gains! London: The Modern Babylon Explored
Jenny Horwell , October 27th, 2012 09:40

Jenny Horwell weighs the pros and cons of Julien Temple's cine-portrait of London, which is released on DVD by the British Film Institute next week

In the year when London managed to not embarrass itself in front of the other Olympic kids, and Londoners tentatively entertained feelings of pride in their city's various achievements, comes Julien Temple's winningly partisan history of the capital. It's told through archive footage from the turn of the 20th Century to the start of this golden year.

London: The Modern Babylon is a giddy and rich experience, weighty with detail and pinpricked with startling moments where connections and allusions suddenly shine through. But for all of its scope and intricacies, it's also too brief. It has to be: how can you possibly tell the story of 100 years and millions of people in 2 hours and 8 minutes? Temple had no choice but to narrow his focus and create a narrative within the material, a thread within the massive ephemeral tale of a city over a century. His masterstroke is to make it the story of working class people with Blitz spirit and a rich history of immigration – the kind of "multicultural crap" that bothers Aidan Burley MP. There are good times, there are bad times, but us Londoners are in it together and ultimately there's room here for everyone.

Temple has assembled his film from a vast range of material mined from the BFI's archives, from reportage to documentary, fiction film to public broadcasting. The sheer wealth of moving image is exciting, particularly of course the very old and the very rare, of which there is plenty.

Binding it together are newly filmed interviews with a fascinating although seemingly arbitrary mix of people – from Tony Benn and Michael Horovitz, via musicians familiar and unfamiliar, and on to a few good old common folk, most memorably 106-year-old Hetty Bower, born in Hackney in 1905, who has probably, literally, seen it all.

The soundtrack is just as varied and dextrously collaged as the images. Temple's score to a century is comprised of pop(ular) music from 'Knees Up Mother Brown' to M.I.A, by way of Bob Marley and The Shamen. The music is used alternately to give the flavour of a certain era ('The Lambeth Walk' accompanies V-Day celebrations, the Pet Shop Boys soundtrack a 1980s trader-yuppies montage), or completely out of context, so that 'Born Slippy' serenades early street and factory scenes like a strange premonition of what London life will become.

The alchemy of the best archive filmmaking is the way that the whole can become more than the sum of its parts. It can trade on the watcher's ability to perceive implicit connections, subtle messages and flashes of the uncanny that elevate it to something pulsing and interactive.

The Modern Babylon is filled with these moments, but there are also times when the subtlety of the art is lost, when connections and patterns are a little too heavily underscored. In the early sections, flashes forward in time to today remind us both how familiar and how foreign the past really is. During the last decades of the film, flashes back in time to the 1920s point out just how much has changed.

Time feels flexible and fluid, full of wormholes that might suck you into a different era. In this film-world of London, the Kinks are around to help clear up after the Blitz.

But throughout it all, there are two ideas that drive the work forward, becoming more and more meaningful every time they reappear. There's 'the mob taking to the streets': the Siege of Sidney Street, the Battle of Cable Street, the Brixton Riots, the Poll Tax Riots, the August 2011 riots (which we really need to name properly). Then there are the waves upon waves of immigration, from Victorian Jews all the way through to contemporary Eastern Europeans.

It's not a revisionist history of happy swathes of immigrants being welcomed into the protective bosom of the capital though. The small successes of integration have been hard-won, and for every shot of thriving new communities there are also acknowledgements of mistrust, resentment and painfully raw xenophobia. The fear that fuels the prejudice is conveyed, chillingly, by an unnamed interviewee from the '70s: "When you walk through Southall you can hear them talking, you think 'What are they on about? Are they talking about me?' This I don't like."

It's down to Suggs, of all people, to hammer home the social and moral message that the film bears out: life is cyclical. New cultures come, people feel scared, eventually they settle in, and then new cultures come, people feel scared, etc.

The London that Temple conjures up through a century of film is a seething, growing, integrating, rejuvenating place. It's a powerful message, reinforcing to already-proud Londoners just how special their diverse, overcrowded city really is.

But this isn't real time in the real world; this is a world where major events and drastic population changes follow one upon another within minutes. At this speed, London is a giant self-healing organism, which incorporates new matter and excretes by-products as it goes, always churning and growing ceaselessly.

There's no hiding that the city has failures as well as successes, traumas as well as triumphs, but at this speed all wrongs can be righted. There isn't time to really explore the trauma of post-WWI society, or the long-term effects of mass unemployment, or the generational implications of the closure of the mines. We've got decades to get through in the next 40 minutes. There are some broad brushstrokes, and most of the time they reinforce what we already know. There's no room here for other narratives, other experiences, because there's simply no time.

London: The Modern Babylon is an extraordinary, complexly crafted piece of filmmaking: a visual and auditory epic poem made with ardour and wit, and released at a time when London has never been more pleased with itself. Like many histories, it's really an act of mythmaking, of rounding-off-the-edges and making good, but the story it tells is a fantastic ride.

London: The Modern Babylon is released on DVD on Monday October 29 by the BFI.