01 October 2004

Typically featureless

Chris Petit was a movie critic for Time Out for half a decade before he was a novelist, and in between, he directed a couple of movies. In the Guardian's Saturday Review, John Patterson identifies "Petit's quintessential Englishness" while asserting that his "gloomily beautiful road movie Radio On stands alone. There is no other movie like it in the national canon... It looks and feels like a fragment of the new German cinema." Which was what fascinated me when I first saw this debut: German movies were still exciting and Petit's movie seemed less derivative than haunted, as if the Germans had colonized his English consciousness. Recently, working in an eccentric essayistic style similar to that of Patrick Keillor's London and Robinson in Space, Petit and language-laden novelist Iain Sinclair have made several experimental video projects drawn from their shared fascination with how we move through cities and countrysides.

But 25 years ago, there was Radio On (after the Jonathan Richman song). Petit is less interested in narrative than in new and unEnglish ways of looking and seeing, Patterson writes in this keen appreciation, in love with the sensual delight of a camera moving forward through space. The film is peppered with long, coldly stirring shots from [a] clapped-out Rover, moving through a series of defamiliarised, Ballardian English landscapes—the Westway at night, the M4, Hopperesque filling stations... and what Petit's collaborator Iain Sinclair refers to as "typically featureless Petit fields." Petit attempt[s] to remake our understanding of British urban space, much as Godard discerned contemporary Paris's futuristic foreignness in Alphaville.