Sunday, August 30, 2009

Radio On

Radio On opens with Bowie’s euphoric “Heroes”, but that’s as cheerful as it gets. The camera prowls round a drab empty flat with a dead body in the bath, while “Heroes” segues seamlessly into the German version “Helden” and the camera pauses on a note on the wall. It is the quasi-manifesto of electronic pioneers Kraftwerk: “we are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun”: standard-bearers of disillusioned fatalism and humanity’s self-destruction via its own technology. Cut to a night-time urban exterior with the film's title rolling across a bulletin display: it’s the refrain from Jonathon Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’, in which he is in love with these neon lights, the late-night highway, rock and roll, but safe only in his car. Isolation comforted by road travel, music; the dream-crushing modern world; the anxiety of late '70s Germany: the film’s major preoccupations are encapsulated in the first five minutes.

Radio On seemed to have few precedents in British cinema. An independent black and white feature, artfully photographed, with minimal narrative and plot, it was the first film by former Time Out film editor Chris Petit and, most unusually for that small island, a road movie to boot. Our hero, Robert B. is a man of few words. His first are “I’m off”, an appropriate start for a road movie. He travels from London to Bristol to investigate the death of his brother. He finds there an empty flat much like his own, complete with disengaged girlfriend, no answers, no direction and no hope. We’re given few further details; the plot, such as it is, is merely an excuse for Petit’s project of psychogeography – the influence on the inner life of the surrounding landscape and, in art, the expression of the same in reverse. His influences included J.G. Ballard’s ambiguous distrust of urban and mechanical modernity, tinged with the anti-humanist futurism of Alphaville, and his desire to show contemporary Britain as Wim Wenders had done for Germany in his own glum road movies. He persuaded Wenders to co-finance, and the influence is almost overpowering. There’s a juke box, of course, and inconsequential encounters including one with Sting, living in a caravan, channeling Eddie Cochran; and when Robert drifts into helping a German woman Ingrid look for her daughter, she’s played by Mrs Wenders, Lisa Kreuzer (that the daughter is called Alice is perhaps a cross-reference too far).

Wenders also provided DP Martin Schäfer who bathes the film in darkness. The magnesium flare of streetlights punctures the night-time cityscape; out in the country, details disappear into inky shadows beneath a lowering overcast sky. But as Ingrid points out, electricity pylons can be beautiful too, and so Petit and Schäfer find a bleak lyricism in the tangle of slip-roads and overpasses, monolithic tower blocks in the drowsy morning light, the service stations and motorways that never make it into cinemas. The portrait of contemporary Britain extends, despite Petit’s claims to the contrary, to the political landscape. The Irish troubles dominate the TV and radio news; the Glaswegian squaddie Robert picks up had “fuck all else to do” but join the army, but two tours in Belfast have left him unstable. When Robert abandons him, the disparity between their accents reminds us of the working class’ treatment at the hands of the “bloody British government”. Robert next encounters a man who pretends to be asleep rather than help with a run-down battery. It is a society of individuals out for themselves.

Human connection/communication is a problem throughout the film. In Robert’s DJ booth in London he reads a request for ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ but says “Here’s something better”, spinning Ian Dury’s ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’ – personal iconography replaces the possibility of human communion. The hint of romance in Ingrid’s thought that they might have slept together is met with “How do you say that in German?”: language used to deflect connection. The film’s one joke – “why do the British always want to live by the sea?” “As a last resort” – is undercut by the fact she surely won’t get it. When the brother’s girlfriend watches a mute TV it is not only because it has subtitles, but because, in confirmation of the film’s own taciturn method (deliberate or not, the dialogue is often murky) silence and images are more reliable forms of communication than language. This collides with the psychogeography in a bleak night-time shot across a motorway, as Robert and Ingrid stand in separate windows of what we know to be the same hotel room.

Asked what he found out about his brother, Robert replies “I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t so important anyway”. When ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ comes on the radio, Robert is more cocooned than ever, in a carwash; it’s not even the Stones’ version, but Devo’s soulless cover. The nameless ennui that swamps the film is that of Wenders’/Handke’s goalkeeper, itself derived from L’Etranger. But unlike another of Petit’s existential models, Two-Lane Blacktop, the film musters a glimmer of optimism: in another moment of grim, slight humour, Robert is denied the chance finally to take decisive action by parking his car too close to a cliff to restart it with the crank handle. Forced to abandon it, he ends the film boarding a train, traveling with other people, as for the first time Kraftwerk’s accompanying music has a semi-cheerful lilt to it – the appropriate/ironic ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’.

In Robert’s quest, and his brother’s suggested involvement with a porn ring, the most suggestive British precedent is Get Carter, as sour a postscript to the sixties as Radio On is to the seventies. For all Petit’s denials of a political angle (and the background grafitti referring to imprisoned Baader-Meinhof member Astrid Poll can be no disingenuous coincidence), in his portrayal of physical and spiritual isolation, disillusion and directionlessness within an alienating modern environment, he shows a nation ripe for the Thatcherite individualism of the 1980s; the Wenders influence may weigh heavy, but it proves at least that the borrowing of foreign methods and perspectives is often the most useful route to finding a new way of looking at one’s own country.

d/sc Chris Petit p Kieth Griffiths ph Martin Schäfer ed Anthony Sloman, Stefna Smal, Stuart de Jong ad Susannah Buxton cast David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer, Sandy Ratcliffe, Andrew Byatt, Sue Jones-Davies, Sting, Sabina Michael
(1979, GB/WGer, 102m, b/w)
posted by tom newth at

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