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Patrick Keiller
"Formless... is a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. " (Georges Bataille)

Just as Tristram Shandy begins his life story with his father's monthly winding of the clock, this trip towards birth begins with a technological milestone. Jodrell Bank, the first radio telescope looks like a remnant from a misguided age, a fifties' folly. Its skeletal body, squat and impish for all its modernity, sports a perfectly round white head poised to receive messages from space. Dwarfing trees and buildings, the construction participates in a cosmos built on another scale altogether, suggesting both pre-historic and futuristic landscapes. "Now at last I have got back to the beginning," begins the narrator's voice, rich in Gaelic presence.

The film operates like a periscope from the womb, the narrator marking the moment of his conception while his parents peruse a museum display of the earth's evolution. With the hubris of infancy, the narrator freely accounts for the earth's genesis, idyllic prehistoric society, and the unmediated perception we enjoy before language. While the film shows views of housing and industry from a train window, the narrator reveals the shared atomic nature of things. In the earth's beginning, we're told, 'floating plates of granite covered the still molten metallic matter'. The earth will end in complete atomic homogeneity: 'cars are made of iron, as at the end of time will be all matter'. The shared elemental nature of things through time and space makes the material world, thought Lucretius, and his philosophy understands the world through its matter. The next narration on the virtues of pre-history is set against the image of the ubiquitous high voltage wire tower and you imagine dinosaurs frolicking about. This is terrain fit for giants. Such moments (and there are many in Keiller's films) when the archaic breaks out in the modern, sets loose dialectical tensions, tensions that are performed in images.

This sequence is a bold one. For while it is easy to talk about second nature, the nature that culture makes, at some point one has to acknowledge first nature as the unspoken referent. Moreover, because second nature is such a mimetic phenomenon, so good at taking nature's place, stark distinctions are rarely possible. Take, for example, the estrangement effect of his description of Stone Age economics, of a world in which the absence of enlightenment rationalization frees us too of migraines and all manner of woes, when he concludes, 'and they didn't live on someone else's land'. The tenor of the voice is almost accusatory. But just as he makes the concept of ownership seem unnatural, the insidious way in which second nature metamorphoses to appear natural creeps up from behind. Roads burrow up a mountain pass where atop identical semis carrying prosperity's products - 'mattresses, cat litter, cable drums, ready meals' - move steadily across the horizon.

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