Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

16 April, 2007

WI Film Festival - Radio On

Radio On from 1979 was recently restored by the British Film Institute. Directed by Christopher Petit but co-produced by Wim Wenders, the shadow of the latter's existential style looms large over the film. Taking place in late 1970s England, it wallows in the decaying landscape that birthed that bit of nihilism known as punk rock.

A marvelous handheld shot opens the black & white film with the camera creeping up and into an apartment. We catch a glimpse of a man's legs in the bathtub but the camera soon moves on and meanders throughout the flat. At one point it stops on a piece of paper affixed to the wall which has some writing on it. It begins: "We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun…" The shot returns to bathroom with the lifeless figure in the tub and the radio sitting on the ledge.

We finally meet the film's protagonist, Robert, who is a DJ. He's a silent and dour figure. When his wife (or girlfriend?) leaves him, it seems to barely register with him. His demeanor barely changes when he learns of his brother's death which sends him on a road trip to Bristol to find out what happened. Preparing for the journey involves having lots of road music and we see him open an envelope that contains a trio of tapes from Kraftwerk. Music is important in this movie. It has one life when there's tune playing on the car's stereo and other in its absence which usually means near-silence. There's a scene in which Robert is driving around and, when the camera is in the car, we hear the music cranking. When the scene cuts to a viewpoint outside, the silence is almost deafening. Music seems to be how Robert navigates his workaday world and adds color to its greys.

This is a road movie but one that most Americans will find odd. Robert picks up a hitchhiker. Without a job or hope, the man joined the army only to desert. And a young Sting plays an aspiring musician living in a trailer behind a gas station whose hopes of making a go at the music business seemed to have been dashed long ago. All of the encounters Robert has end up being dead ends. These people are like the abandoned factories that Robert drives by on his way to Bristol.

When Robert finally gets to his brother's apartment, he finds that he had been living with a woman and she is not the least bit interested in so much as talking to him. There are no remains, no items left behind for him to take home. His goal turns out to be just another dead end.

I enjoyed the cinematography and the film's slow, quiet pace even if I did get a bit bored with repeated shots of Robert brooding as he looks out the window. Being a big fan of music myself, I appreciated not only the soundtrack itself (David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Robert Fripp, Devo, et al) but the use of music in the film. It seemed to breathe life into the lifeless and give a sense that there's something beyond the dull, drab landscape of the film's visuals.

Although I think one can certainly get something out of Radio On without knowing anything about what was happening at the time in England, but I feel I got more out of it knowing about such things as the factory closings, IRA bombings, and the "Protect and Survive" pamphlets & films which instructed citizens on what to do in case of a nuclear attack which were produced at the time. Knowing about these things helped me understand not only the bleak terrain passing by through the car windows, but also the sullen landscape in Robert's head. While knowledge of modern English history helps in understanding Radio On, there are certainly enough universal ideas and feeling here for everyone to understand the ennui.
|| Palmer, 5:37 PM

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