December 2, 2023

Review : ‘London: The Modern Babylon’ dir. Julien Temple

“In the end I want a very ordered set of pictures, but I want them to have come about through chance, and chaos.”


The closing words of London: The Modern Babylon describe the task of the editor but apply equally to the metropolis to which the film is a pean – something I realize upon exiting the Sunday screening into celebrations commemorating Jamaican Independence. The centre of Brixton is a wild mess of people, an up-close, live and loud three-dimensional transcription of the verve and energy running through the documentary. And while the buzz of a circling police helicopter is a hint of residual fear of the chaos of last year’s riots, thumping reggae for the most part drowns out unpleasant reminders, and in any case people are here to enjoy themselves.


Temple’s film, which runs from the dawn of the moving image during Victoria’s reign to the present day, swings through the breadth and depth of London’s history in its multitudinous, ugly, scintillating glory and despair. From the opening shot of horse-drawn cabs crisscrossing the street to the dark days of the Blitz (‘If it weren’t so appalling I think it would be one of the most wonderful sights I’ve ever seen,’) to footage of the three-day week and rubbish collectors’ strike, to IRA bombings, David Bowie, punks and yuppies, Modern Babylon is breathtaking in scope and absorbing in scale.


Different narratives surface briefly, sink from sight and re-emerge in another decade. Temple goes through the mass protests and riots which pepper the city’s history (‘If you’re going to kick authority in the teeth you might as well do it with both feet’) – the Suffragettes, the Notting Hill Riots, the Poll Tax riots, the student fee protests, the Battle of Cable Street – against Sus law, unemployment, job cuts, racism, anti-Semitism and privilege. The life-spans of urban communities are documented in the context of the pre-WWII slums, the post-war utopian estates, the city’s markets and trade unions, and in its cultural movements – from thirties dancing and fifties jazz clubs in Soho, to hippes, artists and beat poets. Ariel footage shows the face of London pitted and altered through successive stages of destruction and development, we are given an insight into the changing roles and territories of children and women and rich and poor and working and upper and middle class and newly established immigrant communities. The plenty is almost to much.


Even the editing and narration are full to bursting. Oblique and explicit references to multiple influences proliferate – Man With a Movie Camera, People on Sunday, The Waste Land, Robinson in Space, the Carry On films – Modern Babylon absorbs and ingests them all, turning them into something different, something more than the sum of its parts. As Madness’ Suggs explains sauntering down Camden Lock people ‘get taken in and they become part of the city and they change the city.’ In a corollary to the film’s closing words, he might be talking of the editor’s practice. The very unpredictability of what the next clip will be, and even which decade it will be from, echoes Temple’s meta-narrative of the city as a voracious and absorbent entity, regurgitating and modifying as it hurtles towards the future.


There’s something slightly claustrophobic in this vast conception of the city, yet the film manages mostly to avoid complacency and predictable good-feeling twee-ness; perhaps simply through its variety in its spectacle or perhaps because it balances individual stories with mass movements. The 106 year-old Hackney resident Hatty Bower’s account of soldiers returning from the Great War is as moving as her endorsement of the Occupy movement is vigorous, and the best parts of the documentary bring surprising combinations into contact with one another. And for the most part there is an edge, sinister and brooding, threatening to transmogrify the scenes before our eyes and in our collective memory into something it was not, nor was ever like – a modern Babylon, indeed. Maggie Thatcher’s words are warped – hope in her mouth becomes despair – and a solitary figure caught on film photographing the Brixton riots appears later as a black-clad figure scrutinizing the leitmotif – a bank of flickering CCTV screens. The film doesn’t always achieve elegance – those CCTV screens are clever but not terribly deep, and Eliot’s poetry seems ponderous in its rather obligatory nature, but Modern Babylon mostly manages to convey both exuberance and menace: no mean feat. Somehow though successive golden years flicker and fade London has never succumbed to atrophy for each generation is replaced by the reinvigorated, kicking, and beautiful one which follows, and the film lovingly documents the birth and decay of as many as possible.


Memories are short and ignorance begets bigotry, even discounting the human to obliterate, to excise, to occlude and manipulate that which is no longer in front of our eyes or was beyond our births. This film offers the suggestion of an antidote – nothing so certain as a panacea, nor so strict as a proscription. It suggests that in recalling the variety, scope and scale of London across the decades, justice might be done to the mess of events and mass of people who have made a modern Babel. Nostalgic in parts, romantic in others, but forgivably so, the ordered chaos of The Modern Babylon is worth both a listen and a look.


London: The Modern Babylon dir. Julien Temple is on limited release in cinemas and will be shown on Saturday 11th August at 9.20pm

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