London Calling: An Aesthetic Manifesto


“Finisterre,” the title track of Saint Etienne’s 2002 album, was an aesthetic manifesto that imagined leaping straight from the Regency era to Bauhaus-style modernism, skipping the entire 19th century. In a way, that’s what this enchanting meander through London does too. Finisterre’s first images are of a suburban train heading into London at dawn, and the only evidence of activity and congestion comes much later with footage shot at gigs and bars. There’s a sense that the city could only be made gorgeous by minimizing the presence of its inhabitants, who are either absent or appear at the edge of the frame. Directors Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans strip away the hubbub to reveal a secret London of silence and stillness. The film is composed largely of stills—buildings, graffiti, faded posters, half-deserted cafés, storefronts. People are rarely in motion. The flaneur-camera aestheticizes everything: A homeless man becomes a compositional figure (mmmm, look at the radical curvature of spine) and a neglected playground generates patterns of rust-mottled metal and stained brickwork. It would have been heavy-handed to use such images as signifiers of urban decay, but a teensy dose of Ken Loach wouldn’t have been amiss. A different Ken (Livingstone, the mayor of London) gives his thumbs-up in the DVD booklet, and no wonder: It’ll trigger a tourism micro-boom. Watching Finisterre made this London-born expatriate yearn to hop on the next flight home, too. But I suspect this is actually the last word in a certain way of looking at, and living with, a city that’s unmanageably vast and often pretty grim. File it next to Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographic walking tours or the greasy-spoon memory-work of Adrian Maddox’s Classic Cafés—forms of mourning for a city that’s always dying. Finisterre is a beautiful film about London. But beauty is only half the story, because cities are always rebirthing themselves, and birth ain’t a pretty sight.