The Sunday Cult Film corner: “Radio On (1979)”

24 Feb

So, So Lazy….

Even though yours truly was going to take it easy after SONAR pretty much cleaning me out of funds till pay day, I still somehow managed to get rather pissed last night thanks to friends who had come from the bleak southern countryside. It was fine meeting them, but man are Mrs Sex Farm and I feeling it today.

We should have tried to leave the house to go and watch the final instalment of Bíó Paradis’ of their extreme cinema season tonight, the rather estimable John Waters film, ‘Pink Flamingos,’ but instead i feel the pull of ennui and darkness come over us. So for this evening’s instalment of the SUNDAAAAAAY CUUUUULT FIIIIIILM CORNAH-AH-AH-AH, we have a expertly made period film of the crumbling façade of post war Britain in the late ´70s. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you RADIO ON.

Directed in 1979 by Chris Petit, it tells the rather sparse story of Robert B (David Beames), a London Radio DJ who learns that his brother has died in mysterious circumstances. At a crossroads in his personal and professional life, he decides to journey from London to Bristol to find out what happened. On the way he meets an assortment of assorted loners and misfits, including a squaddie on leave from northern Ireland, a wannabe rock star, and a German woman who is looking for her son. And um… that’s it really.

So granted, the plot is not that strong, and there is very little in the way of dialogue or narrative drive. But RADIO ON is definitely a film that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It´s been described as a “Post Punk” film in the way it depicts the utter bleakness of Britain in the late ’70s. Ugly brutalist tower blocks and soulless factories sitting atop a crumbling post war landscape, to the cold, grey and barren countryside. In the background you hear news reports blaring pieces about the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. As a picture that describes the feeling and atmosphere of a country at a particular time, then RADIO ON perfectly captures the sense of Ballardian ennui and dislocation that had near crippled the country at a time just before Margaret Thatcher entered the national consciousness. .

At the heart of it all, RADIO ON is a road movie. Britain doesn’t do road movies that well. America has its long desert highways and Europe has their gleaming Autobahns. But Britain often feels too small, too parochial to pull of a decent road move (The only other one I could think of was “Soft top, Hard Shoulder”). You could do the journey taken in the film in 4 hours. But RADIO ON does seem to provide a certain grace and smoothness to the travelling scenes. there’s a real understanding of the urban spaces of Britain that is very much like that of Goddard’s portrayal of the alien landscapes of modern Paris in ‘Alphaville.’

But throughout it all there’s a stark beauty to it. Petit is not so much interested in things such as plot, narrative and character development, rather than using the camera to linger on moments at empty spaces. Filmed in black and white, it’s in love with the darkness of the night. Many of the scenes contain the lights of the neon of the city of the cold shivering fog of the countryside. One of the best moments of the film is the opening shot as the camera slowly moves with a voyeuristic relish through the dimly lit flat of the dead brother, focusing on the minutiae contained within. Even the opening and closing credits with it’s harsh typesetting and teller machine movements, give a feeling of sparse simplicity. 

If you think that this film shares a similarity to the Neu Deutshe Welle of Wim Wender’s road movies, then you’d be right. the Teutonic hand of Wenders is all over this movie. As well as a being a co-producers and having a German as one of the main characters, you get a feeling that this is a near transplanting of a film from Berlin to the M4. You even have the credits in both English and German, as well as a small moment at the beginning where you come across a piece of graffiti saying “FREE ASTRID PROLL,” referring to a member of the  German terrorist group the Baader-Meinhof Gang, who had been imprisoned at that time. 

Another Germanic aspect of the film (and a main reason why RADIO ON was called a post punk film), is the use of music to define the feel of the film. There is a heavy use of David Bowie’s Berlin-era music (Low, Heroes) as the soundtrack, along with Kraftwerk along with other artists such as Devo, Ian Dury, and Robert Fripp. But it’s also the way that the music is used. Much of the music you hear in the film is transmitted through car stereos, cafe jukeboxes, and radio transmissions, much like the aural flotsam that you encounters on that regular journey from Reykjavik to Akureyri.

When RADIO ON was initially released, its different look and style confused many people who couldn’t understand why the film was trying to say. Many critics hated it, and it quickly sank into obscurity, being largely unseen by the public until its recent reissue. Granted, it’s not a film that gives up its secrets all that easily . Many of the plots developments are merely inferred and you really need to watch closely to pick up the many images and symbolism that is littered throughout the movie.But as a snapshot of a country in the grip of an existential crisis, it’s rarely been bettered. So get that cold vodka on the go and start playing that PiL soundtrack as you watch this with the lights off.

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Posted by on February 24, 2013 in Film


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