Radio On will enrapture and fascinate some, bore and alienate others, and leave many with unanswered questions.
In a recent episode of KCRW’s “The Treatment” with Elvis Mitchell, director Steven Soderbergh, while reflecting on how movies are received by critics and the public in the US, comments, “There was a time in the '70s when you made a film that split people, and it was cool because it got people talking.” He goes on to conclude that today a movie that polarizes will widely be considered a “failure”.
Soderbergh is not merely referring to dividing people over content, but over film itself, that is, what makes good, bad, effective, or appropriate cinema. Radio On, a 1979 British-German co-production directed by writer/critic/film maker Christopher Petit, is precisely the kind of work Soderbergh is pointing to in the interview. Shot in black-and-white, virtually plotless, constructed from static long takes of rundown landscapes and people engaged in everyday activities, the film runs against the grain of conventional movie making, particularly as it has been shaped by Hollywood. It will enrapture and fascinate some, bore and alienate others, and leave many with unanswered questions. As Soderbergh suggests, it is this very ability to divide people on the subject of its quality and meaning that makes Radio On worthwhile cinema.
The film’s narrative centers on a character, played by David Beames, who is never credited with an actual name, but who appears to be a DJ in London, and his attempt to uncover some details about the death of his brother in Bristol. It is not, however, a mystery or a story with deep insight into sibling relationships or family. There is some suggestion that the brother was involved in an underground pornography ring, and that his death may have had something to do with that, but, by and large, his death is treated in a matter of fact way. Whatever intrigue it generates dissipates quickly.
The primary narrative function of the brother’s death is to get Beames’ character on the road where he encounters a number of other characters through which the state of post-World War II Britain is examined. His most significant encounters are those with a solider (Andrew Byatt) who has deserted from the army rather than be sent back to Northern Ireland, a gas station attendant and wannabe musician played by Sting, and a pair of German women, notably one played by Lisa Kreuzer who has come to England seeking to be reunited with her daughter. Collectively these characters paint a picture of a country still adjusting to its decline as an empire. To varying degrees, each of the principal characters seem unmoored, unsure of where they fit in the world, although it should be noted that we learn very little about any of them.
Accommodation with (West) Germany, and that country’s post-War rise, seems like a critical subtext to the film. Radio On is littered with references to Germany, ranging from the use of David Bowie’s “Heroes/Helden”, the song that opens the movie, to the interactions, and acts of translation, with the German women. The fact that the film is a co-production of the BFI and Wim Wenders’ Road Movies Filmproduktion encourages a reading of Radio On that interprets at least some of the malaise of its characters as relating to changing geopolitical and economic realities, particularly in Europe.
The landscapes in Radio On further the impression of a Britain on the decline and in a period of stagnation. The camera lingers on rundown buildings, empty streets, and factories with foreign names like Gillette and AGFA. Indeed, the UK of Radio On is almost post-apocalyptic in its look and feel. One effect of the long takes of buildings and mundane activities -- teeth brushing, lying in bed, cars passing -- is to emphasize a lack of movement or dullness. The film also uses sound to imply this kind of emptiness. Certain scenes, and sometimes characters, are shaken out of silence and stillness by mechanical sounds – phones ringing, voices on the radio or television, the whirring of a wind-up toy – that puncture the quiet of spare spaces and draws attention to how few in-the-flesh people are present in the frame. The electronic quality of key elements of the musical soundtrack also contributes to the impression of a world more mechanical than human.
Despite its bleak subject matter, Martin Schäfer’s cinematography does not lack for beauty. For all of its technological hardness and early post-industrial emptiness, the film is shot in soft tones. This comes through most clearly in night scenes as streetlights gently flare and the image subtly flickers. The long takes are also treats for viewers who relish the details of mise-en-scène; the editing of these static images affords ample time for surveying what’s in the frame. The film’s final shots, which emphasize clearing skies, emergent sunlight, the soft organicity of the countryside, and the vast, rippling beauty of the ocean, smooth out the film’s hard, industrial / post-industrial edges, particularly coming as they do after Beames’ protagonist finds himself unable to get his car started. He ends up leaving it on the edge of an overhang that looks out onto an open pit mine.
The North American DVD release of Radio On includes a booklet featuring an introductory essay by critic Sukhdev Sandhu and a 1998 “Remix” of the film that retraces the movie’s road trip and revisits its locations by cutting together footage and stills from the original production with contemporary images, mostly in color and shot on digital video. Among the most fascinating shots in the “Remix” are those that are split in two between “now” and “then”, or at least between color and black-and-white. The visual images are combined with textual notes that emphasize themes of identity, memory, and place. The soundtrack excerpts from and mashes up music from the original film. The “Remix” runs about 24 minutes and is an interesting experiment in cinematic reflection and recollection, but not one that necessarily clarifies the original work for the viewer.
One need not be among those whose patience will be tried by this film to have open questions about its meaning and significance. For example, as Sandhu notes in his essay, Radio On does not fit neatly into the British cinematic tradition, which tends to emphasize acting and writing over photography and editing. There are elements and moments – the title, certain song choices as examples – that I have not written about here because I’m not yet sure what to make of them except to point them out. I was nonetheless thoroughly engaged by the film. The fact that I cannot predict with certainty how others will react to it is a sign that Radio On is, if nothing else, interesting and challenging cinema of a kind not often found at the multiplex.