Radio On


UK & West Germany / 1980 / English & German

Directed by Christopher Petit

With David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer, Sandy Ratcliff

Still from 'Radio On'

At the start of Radio On we see a handwritten note tacked to a wall that surmises, “our reality is an electronic reality.” This is less a statement about an imaginary similacrum than it is a comment on the modern way of relating to things. The phrase is part of a short but grandiose tract that seems inappropriate for the scrawled-off letter whose significance (or, at least, meaning) will gradually materialize. Robert, a squarish, clean-cut man, inserts a cassette into his car radio. The computer voice from Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity comes on immediately, an unsettling spectre breathing away the comfort of the enclosed space. He leaves the cassette playing and gets out of the car.

Perhaps the voice had a chilling effect; as a disc jockey on the radio, he probably does not take lightly music’s ability to get under the skin. He lives upstairs from a London theatre that is screening Oshima’s Empire of Passion, in an apartment that could be described as precisely the opposite of that film’s title, all soulless, bohemian clutter. His cohabitor is a similarly sullen and unprepossessing woman who shuffles around in slippers while three stacked television monitors, one on the blink, show police brutality in Ulster. These are people living incognito for no apparent reason. A telephone caller’s news that Robert’s brother is dead seems to barely raises the VU meter in his brain. The note seen at the beginning of the film were the final thoughts of the man, the chaotic apartment the final scene for him. Robert sets off in his car for Bristol, intent on dissolving himself into the land – a very different response than seeking comfort or solace.

Robert’s job as a disc jockey, absently addressing a dead void, is essentially answered in kind by the posthumous dispatch from his brother, an envelope containing (what else?) cassettes. What he plays in his car radio provides a running conversation, but one that he cannot bear to listen to for very long. The people he does let in on his way from London to Bristol are as disturbed as he, but in a different, less comatose way. One is a young Scottish man who, without an invitation, hitches a ride with him. A veteran of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the young man unnerves Robert so much with his volatility and sadness, that he strands him at the first available opportunity. All the emotion he expresses disrupts the silence and placidity of the warm steed.

Still from 'Radio On'He is driving through a yawning landscape, silent but for the echoes of its own departed soul and vitality. The sterility of the city gives way to a countryside sodden with slush, rain, and billows of hovering mist. “I’m always crashing in the same car,” Bowie sings. Something about his brother’s death causes Robert a great deal of anguish, but it is not the loss itself that is doing it. Arriving at his brother’s apartment, he finds a woman living there, someone just as surprised to meet him as he is to meet her. He stays on, inhabiting the place because it is habitable. It appears as an impasse, a corner in which his brother’s life ended, and an enshrinement of his fixations. Perhaps Robert finds something intriguing about all the clues about someone he perhaps did not know very well, and it is unclear what sort of answers he wants to bring to light.

Outside of a nightclub he meets two German women, one of whom is on a search for her young daughter, kept out of contact with her by an estranged, vindictive husband. She is close enough to feel tortured by proximity. She and Robert spend a sexless night sitting and talking in her hotel room, making useless translations for one another between their respective languages. “There’s no word for [a woman who hates men] in English,” he tells her – only the other way around. Her quest is as nebulous and uncertain as his, and yet she drifts on regardless, because there is no other way to be. He continues to meet her, to trail behind her, or sit sullenly alone, inching toward the ocean. Meanwhile the car is no longer the liberating force it was when he was bound to the city, and is more like an insolent artifact of all that he has been trying to banish from himself.

Music acts as both the lifeblood and the pursuing phantasm that push the protagonist forward. Glimmering in the airwaves, between pylons, it can also blow through the lonesome pub like a draft, a product of momentary frustration or elation. It seems any attempt at excitement or self-fulfillment is bound to hit a wall, so it may as well be immediately. He sits on the edge of the bathtub where his brother died as though on the precipice of a tall building. He accompanies the German woman to visit her mother-in-law, who mentions the woman’s daughter, saying that she is being brought up and educated like an English child. There is a brief discussion of the contemporary dearth of manners, which, she reasons, is because “nobody’s scared anymore.” He proclaims that “everyone is scared,” which already sounds like a ripened platitude. The fact of the situation is somewhere in the middle, and is more or less a summit of those two equally nihilistic perspectives.

Still from 'Radio On'The neon-and-charcoal cinematography has the twofold effect of blotting the edges of things, losing their lines in deep chasms of chiaroscuro, and at the same time extending the image to vast, vertiginous or prairie-flat proportions. Every space runs outward, wider than it should be, winter trees advancing with monolithic slowness. An insignificant figure in the midground is strung along the sort of Earth-curve that would not be out of place in Stranger Than Paradise (1984), a film that owes a lot of its look and temperament to Petit’s. It seems unthinkable that such boundless, eerily utmost mappings could be done of England – then we reach the sea, which perversely feels like a first encounter with life, a beginning just past the darkness.

The sound of German speech – its cadences in the women’s conversation crisscrossed with English, transposed in Bowie’s singing on the soundtrack, or in a plaintively uninflected form in the Kraftwerk song that he listens to in five-second snatches –  seems to act as an arcane, ambiguous shadow to the character’s own deadpan responses. This is, by all rights, a bilingual film, but one with a decidedly strained larynx, syntax forming, coral-like, its barriers and dead-end corridors. At the same time words and idioms cross boundaries with facile, almost embarrassing liquidity. People are so convinced that their speech has become desiccated of meaning that they feel freed to plumb it effortlessly and ohne passion.

The film does not to want us to be interested in the characters’ particular traits. They function as shadows, fated to vanish at any moment, but that instead hang around, leaden. Lines of dialogue trickle out into aimless murmurs. Even the camera unhinges itself from the action to drift off into the darkness, the soundtrack consumed by a miasma of halogen hum. Perhaps the future is contained within these trapped souls, indulging in non-indulgence and philosophy – or perhaps that is simply what they have been trained to believe. Robert is like an old house that is haunted only by its own abandonment, and he is unable to express anything that cannot come from doleful, engorged eyes or a remote stare.

Still from 'Radio On'Each character is, in varying ways, at a remove – not from reality, but from human connection, thus making the vagaries of the real world well-nigh impossible to navigate. The self-conscious garments draped over the film – its soundtrack (all of the names of the bands preceding even the opening credits), the nouvelle vague and German references that blanket it (piled on too thick to be easily parsed) – situate it on the wasted interiors of a certain culture map, but are ephemeral. Additionally they are tardy accoutrements, their intended purpose to arrive here somewhat drained of currency, like bounced satellite signals that have rounded the solar system frayed. It is the tonal combination of severe disengagement and the harsh immediacy, the unadorned and undignified reality, that make the film such a seminal text of its historical moment, and to a greater extent than music or fashion could do for it. More than they could individually, the two-pronged feeling achieved by the various musical choices (spent glam and cold retro-futurism, anthemic outer shells of words with a brooding core) put together is so very apt for the protagonist and the detached unconscious that Petit is exploring.

Wir sind dann Helden für einen Tag.

Radio On is pushed at a narrative pace but divulges so little, and does so at such infrequent intervals, that movement itself is almost superfluous, at least in the service of its atomized discourses. The restless structuring itself pays homage to punk filmmaking of the 1970s, its pained energy slowed down to a drab, immovable ache. Early on it seems to toy with the expectation of anti-formal trespasses, but never quite sees the point, embracing instead silence, monotony, exhaustion. There is no longer any need for deconstruction because everything has already been deconstructed (by philosophy, television, even pop music…), or at least worn down beyond the possibility of jagged juxtaposition.

It has the road movie’s apocalyptic sense of things collapsing behind its protagonist, felled by commodification, yearned for only at the point of their demolition. And, typically, there is little in the way of nostalgia, even if the places visited are, at their core, of nostalgia, and possibly laid waste by successive eras in Britain’s history. There is more of a frustrated cataloging going on, the film a postcard album of things already in an advanced state of decay and in the grip of malaise. The wayside petrol pump has already gone postmodern, inhabited by a singer (Sting) obsessed with the auto death of another singer (Eddie Cochran); the charm has been leeched from a seaside town’s dereliction, as salt from the rocks; the dismal pub (still attended to by a lifeless old gent) is now partially mechanical with the frigid crinkling of pinball machines. We traverse these places only because we have seen them before, albeit in a less pure and hollowed-out condition.

Still from 'Radio On'The German woman asks him why English people all seem to want to live by the ocean. It is a question that invites countless silly, romantic speculations but the answer gets subsumed by the spray of white noise. The film is at pains to embody vacancy, to mask itself in its pop soundtrack much like Robert does. Like him, it is at pains to embody vacancy, to spin its songs on and off mechanically and without summoning any feeling in response. Less a picture about disconnection than about a wrapt belief in disconnection, Radio On depicts characters and environments so intent on the very idea of emptiness that they continue rolling even after the motor has died, continue listening even after the broadcast has gone off air – at which point, there is only the sea.


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