Monday, December 06, 2010

The Westway at night

Chris Petit's road movie Radio On (1979) was for years a film I'd heard about but never seen.  Iain Sinclair mentioned it, in that entertaining Jeffrey Archer chapter of Lights Out for the Territory, and the soundtrack alone made it seem worth trying to track down.  Now you can see it on a BFI DVD where the extras include an interview with Petit and producer Keith Griffiths (who has also worked with Patrick Keiller, the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer), along with the digital video essay radio on (remix) (1998) in which Petit retraced the route taken in the original film.  Returning to his original locations, Petit found, like Simon English in the England Revisited project I mentioned recently, some places unchanged and others completely altered.  The most striking shot in Radio On shows two characters illuminated in the windows of Bristol's Grosvenor Hotel, taken from the Victoria Street flyover - a structure that Petit fund being demolished when he returned in 1998.

Wim Wenders lent Petit his director of photography, Martin Schäfer, and the clip above shows another memorable sequence in which the film's protagonist, Robert B, leaves the Westway Interchange to the sound of David Bowie's 'Always Crashing in the Same Car'. As John Patterson's has written, '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 Schäfer attempt to remake our understanding of British urban space, much as Godard discerned contemporary Paris's futuristic foreignness in Alphaville.'

In addition to Bowie, the Radio On soundtrack includes Devo, Wreckless Eric and Ian Dury, along with the more cinematic sounds of Kraftwerk and Robert Fripp ('Urban Landscape' - see below).  Ian Penman wrote an article about the music to accompany the DVD, praising the way Radio On manages to avoid being date-stamped with signifiers.  'Spatially, and sonically, it doesn't feel like a UK film ... It's murky, strung out, hauntological.  Indeed there are long stretches of Radio On when we could be in some comparable backwater in Belgium, or France, or Germany.  Industrial estate, dockside, car park.  Rotterdam or the Ruhr or Weston-super-Mare.  Out of season arcades and signless avenues.  Suburban purgatory.  A DJ playing melancholy rockabilly to bored factory workers in spectral white lab coats - it might be anytime in Britain from the previous 30 years...'

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