On of my favorite films: much misunderstood is the moody Black & White jewel Radio On. It haunted me when I saw it first on screen at the Indian International Film Festival, Bangalore, 1980
I didn’t realise that years later I would cross paths with Chris Petit. More on that remarkable director and writer in another blog.
But in the meanwhile here’s something from the Guardian.
More about Radio On
In British cinema history, Chris Petit’s gloomily beautiful road movie Radio On stands alone. There is no other movie like it in the national canon.
A film without a cinema
When the film critic Chris Petit turned director in the 1970s, his road movie Radio On – a metaphor for the state of the British industry – was misunderstood. John Patterson wonders if we are ready now
Saturday October 2, 2004
In British cinema history, Chris Petit’s gloomily beautiful road movie Radio On stands alone. There is no other movie like it in the national canon. It followed no major domestic cinematic currents or trends, and generated none of its own. It looks and feels like a fragment of the new German cinema, cast adrift in the sun-starved, post-punk England of Sunny Jim Callaghan. It was made according to the Cahiers du Cin?ma career playbook, by a film critic – Petit worked at Time Out from 1973 to 1978 – with a screenplay burning a hole in his pocket as he interviewed one of his favourite directors. The only glimmer of Hollywood glamour associated with Radio On occurred in pre-pre-pre-production: the story of how Neue Deutsche Kino kingpin Wim Wenders accepted, read and admired the script, then offered Petit – who had no film-making experience worth mentioning – some money, his camera operator Martin Schafer, and even his wife, actress Liza Kreuzer.
They weren’t ready for Radio On in 1979, and one can’t be sure they’ll be ready now. The NME sneeringly called it “moving . . . like, toward the exit”, which gives the general flavour of its reception in the broadsheets as well. Other critics gamely struggled to understand what it was saying, if anything, about the state of the nation, failing to realise Radio On, more than anything, is a movie about the state of the nation’s cinema, a diagnosis of its pathologies and discontents, as well as a modest proposal of different paths to follow, different gods to worship. It genuflects occasionally in the direction of American pop culture – jukeboxes, Eddie Cochrane, big-fin Detroit automobiles – but in the main it looks to Europe and the European art movie and insists British cinema’s destiny lies there. Only Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, writing in Screen, understood its uniqueness, calling Radio On “a film without a cinema”.
British cinema – meaning movies made by British film-makers on British themes with British money, and for British audiences – was in a parlous state by the end of the 1970s: a wasteland stretching bleakly from Brian Forbes’The Slipper and the Rose, to Confessions of a Driving Instructor and the last gasp of Hammer horror. The American studios had drastically trimmed their London outfits and taken their money home – the same money that had bankrolled much of the great British film-making of the 1960s. The so-called new British cinema of the 1980s, the ghastly Goldcrest years, was still some way off. The top 1960s directors – Boorman, Schlesinger, Reisz, Cammell – were taking their licks in Tinseltown. Precious few financing structures were available at home to experimental, or even slightly offbeat directors until the advent of Channel 4 Films in 1982. Therefore much of the trailblazing British work of the period was partly financed by the state, particularly the BFI, and was seen by no one. Terence Davies made his debut short, Children, with the BFI’s aid in 1976. Bill Douglas made his shattering autobiographical trilogy between 1972 and 1978, and Petit, having beefed up his budget with Wenders’ Deutsche marks, happily topped it off with BFI funds, niggardly though they may have been.
A mere thread of narrative holds Radio On together. A man learns his brother has committed suicide and drives from London to Bristol to investigate. He uncovers little; indeed Petit and his protagonist/surrogate Robert B (Robert Beames) both seem overcome by ennui and barely do any investigating at all. The brother, never named, may have had something to do with the West Country porn sweep we occasionally hear mentioned on the car radio, and B will later glumly strobe through a hardcore slideshow projected, in the decentered Petit manner, in the corner of his brother’s living room. If the audience wishes to make the connection, it is there to be made, but it’s not insisted upon. Petit adheres to a formulation of Wenders, articulated in The State of Things: “The story should unfold in the spaces between the characters.” And so it does in Radio On .
Petit is less interested in narrative than in new and unEnglish ways of looking and seeing. He and Schafer are in love with the sensual delight of a camera moving forward through space. The film is peppered with long, coldly stirring shots from B’s clapped-out Rover, moving through a series of defamiliarised, Ballardian English landscapes – the Westway at night, the M4, Hopperesque filling stations in deepest Wiltshire, and what Petit’s collaborator Iain Sinclair refers to as “typically featureless Petit fields”. Between them Petit and Schafer attempt to remake our understanding of British urban space, much as Godard discerned contemporary Paris’s futuristic foreignness in Alphaville . The opening shot – a long, dark, nosy peek through the dead brother’s flat – passes a handwritten sign reading, “We are the children of Fritz Lang and Wernher von Braun” and comes to rest on the suicide’s feet in a bath, to the sound of David Bowie singing Heroes/Helden, half in English, half in German. Already we are are in unfamiliar territory.
It may also be the darkest movie ever made. Schafer’s camerawork, using high contrast black-and-white stock, is wedded to darkness, to neon at night, to rain and fog and to the weak angle of the pale English light. When it comes to shot duration, Petit thinks nothing of showing, say, a jukebox playing all three minutes of Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World, or the lazy circular transit of an old petrol-pump dial, because he’s taken with their beauty.
Along the way Robert B encounters Sting, then just bubbling under with the Police and playing a dour rockabilly purist living in a caravan near the site of Eddie Cochrane’s fatal car crash. Sting was cast to put bums on seats, Petit has admitted, and he’s the least interesting aspect of the movie. A Scottish squaddie, just back from a second tour in Belfast and apparently a little psychotic, hitches a ride with B and his horrifying flashbacks offer a foretaste of Petit’s magisterial Northern Irish thriller The Psalm Killer. Ulster and the occasional reference to the Baader-Meinhof group lend elements of political paranoia and existential dread.
It is important to understand that Wenders was not merely Petit’s financial enabler; his greatest films of the mid-1970s – Kings of the Road, The American Friend – exerted a profound influence on Radio On. Both films seem to be about the friendships between wayward and lonely men, and critics often simplify them by reading them merely in the light of Ford-Hawksian male bonding. Yes, they’re about that, but only in the way Radio On is about a drive to Bristol. Their real theme is the David and Goliath relationship between Hollywood and the dream of a legitimately German national cinema. Kings of the Road mourns a cinematic culture with no fathers (except the Nazis), only grandfathers (Murnau, Pabst, Lang), a culture colonised by American imports, with pornography as its only domestic offering. It ends with a close-up of a cinema billboard reading “Weisse Wand” – meaning “white screen”, or blank slate, time for renewal. The American Friend can be read as a rejection of Hollywood narrative and thematic tropes. “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” asks Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley. Plenty, it turns out.
Much of this can be transplanted to a discussion of British cinema, narcotised then and now by Hollywood and the false security of a shared language, fearful of a European destiny. Petit emphasises the possibilities of the latter, and Radio On is drenched in German references: Bowie’s Heroes/Helden , Kraftwerk on the soundtrack, von Braun/Lang, scads of unsubtitled German dialogue from Kreuzer, credits in English and German, plus Wenders, Schafer and Proll. British and German cinema have strong and enduring connections, from Hitchcock making his bones at UFA, and Emeric Pressburger doing likewise before encountering Michael Powell. At the time of Radio On, the German cinema of Wenders, Fassbinder, Herzog, Kluge and Schl?ndorff/ Von Trotta was the most invigorating in the world. Petit’s appropriation of many of its underlying themes allows him to offer a pessimistic diagnosis of “the state of things” in not-so-great Britain – the film ends with B’s car stalled on the brink of a quarry, no way forward or backwards – and also to make suggestions for other, new directions. None of which were ever taken up by other British directors. Which is why, despite Petit’s quintessential Englishness, his own film industry still treats him like a foreigner.