“Finisterre”, the title track of Saint Etienne’s 2002 album, was an aesthetic manifesto that among other things imagined leaping straight from the Regency Era
to Bauhaus-style modernism, in the process skipping almost the entire 19th Century. In a way, that’s what this DVD--an enchanting meander through London that’s less a documentary than a visual poem--does too. You get little sense of the city as Dickens would have understood it: the hustle-bustle of a place somewhere people work and produce. Finisterre’s first images are a suburban train heading into London at the crack of dawn, before the commuter crush, and the only sense of commotion and congestion come much later with footage shot at various gigs and bars.
There’s a sense in which the city could only be made beautiful by minimizing the presence of its inhabitants, who are either absent or typically appear on the edge of shot. Directors Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans strip away the hubbub to reveal a secret city of silence and stillness, reverie rather than revelry. The film is literally composed largely of stills--buildings, graffiti, faded posters, half-deserted cafes, store fronts. People, when they appear, are rarely in motion. The gaze of this flaneur-camera aestheticizes everything: a homeless man becomes a compositional figure (mmmm, look at the curvature of spine) and a neglected playground generates attractive patterns of rust-mottled metal and stained brickwork.
It would have been heavy-handed to use such images as signifiers of urban decay and dysfunction, but a teensy dose of Ken Loach wouldn’t have gone 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 by luring Saint Etienne’s already Anglophile fanbase abroad. 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 Cafes-- 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 too, and birth ain’t a pretty sight.