Over a series of industrial and rural images of Britain, a narrator tells the story of his conception and birth, weaving in a mythic history of the formation of the world and its early inhabitants.
He is conceived, and his parents move to a new town. During his mother’s pregnancy, his father’s decline and unreliability lead her to contemplate abortion, but discussing it with a cousin, she decides against it and his future is assured.
The earth forms and giants live upon it: traces of them are still visible in the industrial landscape and processes of today. The narrator is born in a city of his time, built upon geological formations but multicultural and industrial. Before he can separate himself from the world around him, he too is a giant, but grows to ponder where free will can come from, and the hidden world that lies within the visible world.
As office blocks are built opposite the school to which he will go, he tells us that he is weary of life even before having entered upon it, but that tomorrow he will go to the sea with his family.
With its dense, poetic and philosophical text and its sequences of apparently unrelated images, The Clouds has many threads: the narrator makes parallels between his own conception and birth and the geological formation of the earth. Descriptions of geological time are echoed by images of rocks and water. Mythical giants who lived early in the earth’s history show their remains in electricity pylons that dominate the landscape; boats and bridges are the backdrop to Kathleen Ferrier’s rendition of traditional Scottish song.
Keiller’s characteristic use of shots in which the camera doesn’t move, but instead switches from one scene to another, or between different perspectives on the same scene, is reminiscent of the early British documentary tradition, of Humphrey Jennings and even Free Cinema. But Keiller has moved away from using images to narrate, using them rather to obliquely illustrate a fractured and personal text.
The Clouds is a film poem: its meanings are not exhausted in a single viewing, and one can return to it and discover new things, new connections between separate images, and between words and images. It also crystallises many of the methods of composition and narration that Keiller would use in his next, feature-length films, London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1996). —Screenonline.org
One of the most distinctive voices to emerge in British cinema since Peter Greenaway, Patrick Keiller was born in Blackpool in 1950. He studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, and initially practiced as an architect. Chris Marker’s film La Jetée (France, 1962) left a deep impression, but he only made practical steps towards cinema in 1979, when he joined the Royal College of Art’s Department of Environmental Media as a postgraduate student.
Slide-tape presentations blending architectural photography with fictional narratives pointed the way towards his first acknowledged film, Stonebridge Park (1981), visually inspired by a railway bridge in an outer London suburb. Images from a hand-held camera are accompanied by a voice-over commentary presenting the thoughts of a petty criminal panicked by the consequences of robbing his former employer. Norwood (1983) continued the ‘story’, and the technique, in another London… read more