London: The Modern Babylon (UK, 2012)

London-Modern-Babylon-DVD-FDirected by: Julien Temple. I went into this as a huge fan of Julien Temple and a huge fan of the city of London, in the absolute nerdiest, most intimately personal and irrational way possible. I mean, I’ve actually read the entire 1000-page Peter Ackroyd biography of London when I was 18—how many nerds have done that? (And I think I love that cover art so much I would buy a poster of it and hang it in my bedroom, not unlike an 18 year old.) I fell in love with Temple’s editing style and documentarian voice when I saw The Filth and the Fury and the Joe Strummer doc, and with this film, my appreciation of his singular mastery of the collage-film art form is cemented all the more. As with all his films, his tremendous dedication to the source material, the hours and hours of research he puts into it is truly astounding—roughly as much as Ackroyd, I’d wager. I was slightly disappointed at first to learn that he starts his history in the relative modern era—the invention of film, since I’m so fascinated with all of London’s history and prehistory. But of course, five seconds into the film the wisdom of this choice was evident. No Ken Burns-effected slow pans over a photograph with cheesy voice actor narration in this film, and no cheesy re-enactments with actors in costumes. The genius of Temple’s style is the way he puts such a personal artistic thumb print onto the basic formula for every documentary filmmaker in existence: b-roll and talking head narratives. His “b-roll” never feels like “b-roll”: every clip feels like an important piece of the puzzle, all of the music choices seem appropriate, even though (especially because) they bear little to no relation to the footage we’re seeing at the time. And his “talking head narratives,” usually the death knell of any boring, tedious, regular documentary, are so expertly crafted, so delicately used, that they feel like they belong in the movie, helping the movie achieve a seamless narrative voice. In this case, the film’s voice is the voice of a bunch of Londoners from all backgrounds and all age groups. Perhaps the most perfect example of this is Indian street barker, singing the price of his “cheap, cheap fish” at a crowded street market. Temple is smart enough to just point the camera and shoot, and let this Londoner tell his own story. I just might buy this damn movie.

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One response to “London: The Modern Babylon (UK, 2012)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2013 | Offhand Reviews·

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