A cinematic show puts a new twist on historical perception

How much has the world really changed in 100 years?

According to Patrick Keiller, the best prophecy of the 20th century comes in Emmanuel Goldstein's revolutionary text The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, in a passage that reads: "In the early 20th century the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly and efficient - a glittering antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete - was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person."

The point is that this is a book that was never written: it is the book that was presented to Winston Smith by the secret policeman (as he turns out to be) O'Brien in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. And the future that Goldstein refers to was never written either. True, we're richer and more leisured than our ancestors were, and a Londoner of 1907 visiting the city today would find plenty to gawp at: the gaudy clothes, the traffic, the plasticshopfronts, the way people walk around muttering into small plastic boxes, things not smelling of smoke and horse manure. But the Londoner would also find an awful lot that was familiar: a large number of buildings, and the barely altered contours of the streets; and that's true of many of our cities.

This insight is the basis of an installation that Keiller has designed, which opens at the new BFI Southbank Gallery later this month (and is accompanied by a season of Keiller's own films as director). The City of the Future consists of 68 pieces of film footage, assembled after deep delving in the National Film Archive, shot around the turn of the 20th century. Most of the footage consists of single shots, lasting perhaps a minute, of street scenes in London, Bradford, Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow, Dublin and elsewhere. Crowds waving at trains, a ship being launched, the mayor of Halifax entering his carriage; or, more usually, crowds and traffic obliviously going about their business. It is, as you will know if you have seen any of Mitchell and Kenyon's films of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, utterly riveting.

By wandering between the installation's multiple screens, or by clicking on an interactive map on screen, the viewer can go on a tour of Britain, and then the world (travelling to Jerusalem via north America, Shanghai and the Boer War). What should strike the viewer is how little the spaces we navigate have altered in a century. Compare Piccadilly Circus as it was filmed for the Lumière brothers in 1896 with Piccadilly Circus today: Eros isn't quite where it was, a one-way system has changed the flow of traffic and pedestrians, and one block of buildings has gone; but it is clearly the same place. Go back a century before that, and it would be unrecognisable: the 20th century, in which so much happened, was also an era in which a surprising amount didn't happen at all. The City of the Future is also the city of the past.

The fact that all the films were shot within more or less a decade of one another is not coincidence. Critics and social theorists have raised the idea that at some point shortly before the First World War, Western civilisation experienced what Keiller calls a "moment" - a shift in the way people saw the world. A whole bundle of new technologies - faster trains and boats, cheaper bicycles, the motor car, the telephone, the transatlantic telegraph, recorded sound, film itself - changed the way we experienced time and space; this fracturing of old certainties is reflected in artists' invention of Cubism. Perhaps the reason these films ring a bell is that they show a society that is starting to think the way we do: when BBC 4 ran a season of programmes on the Edwardian era earlier this year, they called it "The Birth of Now".

In more practical terms, what changed around 1907 was the style of filming. Until then, most films were very short, lasting around a minute. For the most part the films consisted of a single continuous shot. The camera was mostly static, and showed actuality: the world as it was.

After that date, as the technology advanced and the novelty of seeing the world on a screen wore off, a new style emerged. Films became longer; the camera zoomed and panned far more, the films were often made in a studio, with an artificial landscape. Outside shots were brief - the world became a frame for the action of a story, rather than a space for the camera to explore.

So it is that the latest film in the BFI installation was made in 1909 - the camera travels from Whitehall up the east side of Trafalgar Square, for the first time surrounded by motor vehicles; every other film was made before 1904. In another non-coincidence, the lingering style of these early films is close to Keiller's own films. He is best known for a pair of films he wrote and directed in the 1990s, London and Robinson in Space, in which the unnamed narrator - voiced with dry humour by Paul Scofield - goes on a series of journeys with Robinson, an academic studying the "problems" of, first London, then England.

Neither of the travellers is ever glimpsed: instead, the camera pauses over landscapes and cityscapes like a series of postcards. Building-sites, ports seething with mechanised activity but barely a human in site, a factory in Derbyshire that makes rubber for fetish wear, a Cambridge college, a London language school named for the Renaissance essayist Montaigne...

In their different ways - Keiller thinks London is a film that confirms its own prejudices; Robinson in Space has them confounded - the two films compose a picture of a country that is both more modern and more weighed down by the past than we usually imagine; it is slightly chilling and wholly absurd.

In his films and this new installation, Keiller shows that there are other ways of looking at the places in which we live. On top of that, he shows that there are other ways of doing cinema. We've become obsessed with the notion of the movie camera telling a story - even when it records the real world, in documentaries, it is as stories. What the moving picture does that no other medium can, is record movement in space. If we allow it do that, and only that, then what emerges from the screen can be arresting, bewitching, and wholly new.

The City of the Future, BFI Southbank Gallery, London SE1 (020-7928 3232; www.bfi.org.uk), 23 November to 3 February

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