Radio On (1979), Dir: Christopher Petit, Plexifilm
Radio On represents a melancholy requiem from another time, another place. It slides into view with a muted and yet precise focus, a film existing within its own definitions, mining its own seam as it ponders its own mysteries. Despite or rather because of the film’s relentless and rigorous fluidity, the journey goes nowhere in particular, at least not in terms of geography as it circles endlessly around itself, arriving at questions and emotional roadblocks that, one slowly realizes, will never be answered. Inside its relentless alienation the bleak compositions of its ruined and soulless landscapes become isolating and yet strangely elegiac; a hypnotic and intimate embrace relating image to language to sound, with no one expression upstaging the other. The film becomes a circular spiral turning in on itself, a rhythm that transcends the whole notion of what it means to go anywhere in particular.
There is no race, no winners or losers, and finally no quest, only a lost strung out series of highways and emotional by-passes that hopelessly wind beyond their initial vague intentions, a journey that leads the viewer far away from the usual formulas and manipulations involving a beginning, middle and end. There is no reward or summing up or sense of completion that waits for us the way it usually does at the end of an arranged journey.
The film leaves us with something more, and a whole lot less: an act of measuring darkness with no hope of redemption or even the relief that might come from briefly turning on a pocket flashlight. This refusal to offer any kind of compromise is the film’s strength, a tensile almost perverse decision that becomes in its totality a strikingly original contribution to the whole genre of road movies. Radio On leaves us in the middle of a road that is without direction, going nowhere, for no reason, and then not even that; until there is only an exhausted echo, a refrain that one can’t go on, even if one does go on...and on...and on...until there is no distinction between being on the road or off the road. One is finally alone, ready or not, in the middle of the ominous present, with no past and no known future, surrounded once again by unanswerable questions ... like sitting alone inside the silence of an empty cineplex.
This review will also appear in the printed booklet accompanying the British Film Institute’s forthcoming UK DVD release of Radio On.
Rudy Wurlitzer's new novel The Drop End of Yonder was published in April 2008.