By Tom von Logue Newth.
When it appeared in 1979, Radio On seemed to have few precedents in British cinema. An independent black and white feature, artfully photographed, with minimal narrative or plot, and a thematically-integrated soundtrack of electronic krautrock and new wave ‘hits’, 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. The title takes the refrain from ‘Roadrunner’, in which Jonathon Richman declares himself in love with neon lights, the late-night highway, the modern world; but he only feels safe isolated in his car, the radio on. Petit feels the same way.
Our hero, Robert B. (the quietly charismatic David Beames) is a man of few words. His first, after ten minutes, are ‘I’m off’ – an appropriate start. He travels from London to Bristol to investigate the death of his brother where he finds another ugly conurbation and a drab flat much like his own, complete with disengaged girlfriend, no answers, no direction, no hope. We’re given few further details; the plot is an excuse. Petit’s project is one of psychogeography – the influence of landscape on the inner life, and the expression of the latter through the former. His influences included J.G. Ballard’s ambiguous distrust of urban and mechanical modernity, tinged with the anti-humanist futurism of Alphaville and the music of Kraftwerk. Foremost, however, was an urge to show contemporary Britain as Wim Wenders had done with Germany in his own glum road movies. Wenders was persuaded to co-finance, and the influence is powerful, in the inevitable juke box, inconsequential encounters on the road, and when Robert drifts into helping German Ingrid look for her daughter, she’s played by Mrs Wenders, Lisa Kreuzer. The feeling that we could almost be watching a sequel to Alice in the Cities is reinforced perhaps too strongly by Ingrid’s daughter’s bearing the same name as Wender’s heroine child.
Wenders also provided the director of photography, Martin Schäfer, who shot the film in stark high contrast: the magnesium flare of streetlights punctures the night-time cityscape. Out in the country, details disappear into inky shadows beneath a lowering sky. But as Ingrid points out, electricity pylons can be beautiful too, and the film finds 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 rarely make it into cinemas. The political landscape is even bleaker, however, with the Irish troubles dominating TV and radio news; the Glaswegian squaddie Robert picks up had ‘fuck all else to do’ but join the army, and Belfast has left him unstable. Robert doesn’t understand what the problems are and when he abandons him, the disparity between their accents further reminds us of the treatment of the working class 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; the society of individuals choosing self-isolation. As Ingrid’s mother-in-law says, ‘there’s no respect left’.
Human connection/communication is a problem throughout the film. In Robert’s DJ booth he reads a request for ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ but deadpans ‘here’s something better’, spinning Ian Dury’s ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’ – personal iconography replaces the possibility of human communion (just as Robert’s bond with a stranger over Eddie Cochran is undone by the latter’s dislike of Kraftwerk). 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. And when the brother’s girlfriend contentedly watches a mute, subtitled TV it confirms the film’s own taciturn implication (deliberate or not, the dialogue is often murky), that images are a more reliable form of communication than language, though this notion collides with the psychogeography in a bleak night-time shot across a motorway, showing Robert and Ingrid standing in separate windows of 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’. Later, Devo provide the film’s meaning with their soulless cover of ‘(I can’t get no) Satisfaction’. The nameless ennui that swamps the film is descended from that of Wenders’/Handke’s goalkeeper, who keeps on moving to avoid the pit of despair. But the film manages a glimmer of optimism: in a moment of grim 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; the film ends with him boarding a train – collective, public transport – and Kraftwerk’s accompanying music has for once an almost-cheerful lilt: the appropriate/ironic ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’. The ennui may be old hat, but in Robert’s journey and the brother’s implied involvement with a porn ring, another suggestive 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, in his portrayal of physical and spiritual isolation, disillusion and directionlessness within an alienating modern environment, he depicts a nation ripe for the Thatcherite individualism of the 1980s. 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.
Tom von Logue Newth is a freelance writer and film-maker based in Los Angeles. He is currently engaged in a critical overview of the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Radio On(UK, 1979)
Director Christopher Petit Screenplay Christopher Petit Producer Keith Griffiths Director of photography Martin Schäfer Production design Susannah Buxton With David Beames (Robert B.), Lisa Kreuzer (Ingrid) Sandy Ratcliffe (Kathy), Andrew Byatt (Deserter), Sue Jones-Davies (Girl), Sting (Just Like Eddie) Runtime 100 minutes DVD, UK 2008: Produced and Distributed by BFI (Region 0) Aspect ratio 1.85:1 anamorphic Sound mix Dolby Digital 2.0 mono Extras new filmed interview with Chris Petit and Keith Griffiths; Radio On (remix) (Petit, 1998, 24min): a digital video essay with original soundtrack disruption by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert; original trailer; illustrated 28pp booklet with multiple contributions, director biography, credits.