Sound and Vision
Chris Petit's 1980 movie Radio On got its DVD release earlier this month. (Spoilers below.)
Radio On documents a road trip of Robert, an affectless man in the 'Winter of Discontent' world of pre-Thatcher Britain in 1979. His brother has committed suicide in Bristol. Robert recently received a parcel from him for his birthday, which he reviews before he starts on his trip. In it, there are three Kraftwerk tapes. He puts one in his car tape/radio, but never seems to get to like it. One track is 'Radio Activity'; it's semi-appropriate. Robert is a DJ in a factory, though not really a 'radio' DJ, employed to play requests, which he reads out but ignores, playing his favorites instead. The workers don't mind; in fact they don't seem to notice. Perhaps they can't hear over the machinery. He plays "Sweet Gene Vincent."
He leaves his unpleasant lover and bare flat in Camden, driving via the Westway and the M4 motorway out to Bristol to check his brother's house. The car's radio is on, playing anthemic pop from the late seventies. He hears a news snippet about a porn bust, which may be a clue. We never find out. He meets a squaddie in a pub, gives him a lift, but abandons him at Silbury Hill when he finds out he's crazed with PTSD from a tour in Northern Ireland. He plays primitive video games at a motorway service station. He is roughed up by a woman for occupying a location that interferes with her pool shot. At a petrol station he encounters the outside world, the American Dream, personified here by Sting. They sing Three Steps to Heaven together, but America is inaccessible; we see a clipping about the automobile accident near Bristol that killed Eddie Cochran and crippled Gene Vincent. Robert meets two German girls. One of them hates men. "There's no word for that in English," he tells the other one. "There's only a word for a woman-hater." He finds out his brother had a live in girlfriend. She doesn't want to talk. He and the German girl visit her mother by the sea. They talk in German about the granddaughter. He can't understand them.
He reviews his clues, projecting pictures against the angle between two walls. Bondage photos and tourist photos intermingled. He stands in the image, his face incorporated into the scenery as a twist of geometry, looking keenly into the projected face of his brother. Nothing passes between them. He drives his Austin Rover to a quarry, and parks on the very edge of the vertical face, Kraftwerk's Ohm Sweet Ohm thrumming out over the void gouged in the bleak winter landscape. Too late he remembers that the ancient car requires a hand crank to start. He's too close to the edge to use the starting handle. The motor car can go neither forward nor back.
He takes the train back to Camden.
Radio On doesn't have to mean anything. As you watch it, you infer relationships based on your familiarity with the language of film. Your inferences may or may not be correct; it doesn't really matter. The film itself is beautiful, shot in black and white (the DVD is un-restored and not as luminous-silver as it should be) each shot carefully composed. Each scene is held for much longer than is natural in a movie. Where a current movie may have four to fourteen camera angles set up for each minute and literally dozens of cuts between those angles in a minute, Radio On has two or three angles for a scene and cuts every one or two minutes. The effect is like being led through an art gallery by a docent who moves you from one piece of artwork to the next at his own pace. I didn't like it when I first saw it in the cinema, and I think that's why; the feeling of being held hostage, restricted by someone else's sense of time, annoyed me. I'm more tolerant now.
The camera angles chosen are unusual. Here's a few: A long shot from a tower block window, following the car over a motorway junction. A shot from a flyover looking at a hotel where separate windows frame two characters whom we know to be in the same room, but are now explicitly shown to be in different frames of reference. A plane coming in to land, slightly leading the car we're following. A visual poem as we watch Robert downshift the car as he comes to a road junction. The famous scene of the thick, soapy rollermops flailing at the windows as he goes through the car wash.
The sound is perfectly ambient. The film leads us in by fading the music played over the credits from the normal sound of in-home DVD music to the tinny, enclosed sound of music played over a car radio as we transition to a scene inside his car. It's a common opening, and yet it signals very strongly how the sound is going to be treated throughout. You can hear every space that the film depicts; make out its shape and the materials that it comprises. Jukeboxes, seabirds, the compressed-air whoomph! of cars passing in the opposite direction, all sound natural and live.
The music soundtrack is justly famous. It starts over the credits with David Bowie's "Heroes"/Helden, a song that is equal parts wildly inspiring and suicidally despairing. Its effect seems to come from the song's completely non-English sensibility. Instead of hanging on in quiet desperation, the song directs the listener to struggle, because we can beat them, though victory will be just for one day. Half in German, it's a perfect match for Radio On, which is the same. The rest is a roster of seventies music: Wreckless Eric, Lene Lovitch, Ian Dury, Devo.
The film has one oral pun: "Why do the English like to be at the seaside?" the German girl asks. "It's the last resort," Robert replies.
(All images are from the DVD)