“Radio On is music and weather, a pair of interesting German women, a bottled-up squaddie, a cameo by Sting, Silbury Hill; Weston-super-Mare as Lord Archer never imagined it even in his darkest moments; a Bristol hotel and flyover unmatched in British cinema for their power of poetic displacement.”Earlier this year I had the opportunity to photograph a building in Bristol, that although I’d long wanted to do so, the act had previously eluded me through want of time. The building was formerly the Grosvenor Hotel, which has been under scaffolding for a number of years. In its last incarnation it was a hostel for the homeless, now, currently without a use, in limbo, I had the chance to photograph the structure while waiting for a train back to London. The photographs were taken with an old box camera, for incidental reasons unconnected to this project.
Iain Sinclair, ‘Cinema Purgatorio’, in Lights Out For The Territory
The reason for this desire was due to the building being used in a key scene in Chris Petit’s 1979 film Radio On. The hotel first appears as an incidental feature of the background as Robert, played by David Beames, drives into Bristol over the flyover which passes directly in front of the building. Hoping to learn something about the circumstances of his brother's apparent suicide, Robert goes to the flat where he died, and, after being found there by the woman who discovered his brother's body - and who provides little information - he leaves. He is then seen at a hot-dog van, getting directions to a club. The next scene shows Robert being turned away from this nightclub in a long shot without dialogue (an instrumental section of Lene Lovich’s song 'Lucky Number' can be heard playing), looking out of place against the dinner-jacketed doorman, and a smart couple coming in, the man wearing a suit with flared trousers; in these scenes, Robert, who has worn a long raincoat for much of the film is now in a leather jacket. Here Radio On shows two divergent faces of 1970s Britain meeting; earlier, having his hair cut short, Robert remarks that "Ten years ago, you had to fight not to get it all cut off, now they want to leave it all on." He returns to his car. As he sits, the camera focuses on two female figures in the background. They talk to each other in German, then approach Robert's car. One of the women speaks English, and asks him, "Does the train still come?" He offers them a lift.
"Did you go to the disco?"
"We went as a joke. My friend likes to dance. And you? You go for the girls?"
"They wouldn't let me in."
I first read about Chris Petit in the chapter titled ‘Cinema Purgatorio’ in Iain Sinclair’s book Lights Out For The Territory. This had been recommended to me by a perceptive friend, someone I’d studied with, who died in 1998: I found the book quite by chance in my local library a few weeks after the funeral that summer, the unusual title must have stuck in my mind. Although Petit has directed a handful of feature films, most of the focus in Sinclair’s essay is on his first, Radio On. It was a number of years before I was able to see this, rather than just read about it, when the film was finally re-released for cinemas (possibly to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of its production, late in 2004), and it subsequently appeared on DVD: in a similar way to some of Wim Wenders’ films that I had read about as a student, I had carried in my head for a number of years the idea of a film without ever being able to see it.
“Meanwhile, expenses were good and he got to travel [as film editor of Time Out]: in Munich at the end of a sympathetic interview, he passed a script he had been working on over to Wim Wenders. Word went around that the script had been spotted under the director’s arm at the Edinburgh Festival. It took him a year or so to read it, but the response was positive. Why didn’t Petit direct it himself? [...] Radio On. A strong title. A beginning that labelled Petit for all time as a maker of angst-ridden road movies. Wenders co-produced and lent his camera operator, Martin Schäfer. The BFI kicked in and Keith Griffiths came on to the scene. It didn’t seem to concern anyone that Petit had never made a film in his life, had no technical training, and had never ever shot a roll of portentous 16mm.”Having picked up the two women outside the club, Robert’s car is then tracked in a panning shot passing the Temple Gate Garage, arriving at the Grosvenor Hotel with the adjacent flyover now seen from below. The scene cuts to a room in the hotel. Robert sits by the window, the German woman who doesn't speak English stands on the far side of the room from him. The second woman enters with a drink; they had been talking about getting a drink - in unsubtitled German - in the back of Robert's car.
Iain Sinclair, ‘Cinema Purgatorio’, in Lights Out For The Territory
"She's a bit strange."
"She's not so happy at the moment. She hates men."
"There's no word in English for that. The only word is for a man who hates women"
We discover that the two women are in England as one, Ingrid, who speaks English, played by Lisa Kreuzer, explains that she is looking for her daughter - called Alice - after being estranged from the girl's father. Her plan is to visit an aunt of her daughter's father in Weston Super Mare. Unlike previous encounters that Robert has had on the road (a damaged squaddie, running away from policing Northern Ireland; an Eddie Cochran obsessed petrol station attendant), this chance meeting changes Robert's trajectory, taking him out of Bristol, where a lack of resolution over his very reason for travelling to the city threatens to stall the narrative drive: as befits a road movie, this encounter allows him to go elsewhere.
“Radio On wears its German influences so brazenly on its sleeve that it's almost a surprise to find its taciturn anti-hero Robert B heading in the opposite direction, towards Bristol. Wenders had to go to the US to make his own most famous road movie, Paris, Texas [...], but Chris Petit succeeded with Radio On in making a distinctive and culturally English road movie, a peculiar exception in a British cinema rarely given to following highways.”I've already touched on Petit’s Radio On in 'Graffiti and The American Friend', but thinking about the sequence in which the Grosvenor Hotel appears provided the opportunity to look again at some parallels, the inevitable similarities that arose through the circumstances surrounding the production of Petit’s first film. Against Iain Sinclair's essay, Chris Petit gives his own account of the background to his film career in a short autobiographical essay called ‘Germany’. As an army child, Petit grew up partly in West Germany when his father was stationed there after the war, drawn by a burgeoning awareness of things in the adult world only half-understood.
Danny Birchall, Radio On, BFI Screenonline
"If England had been a regression after Hong Kong, Germany was another step back, into a strange country, darker than home, arrested by a past which everyone was careful not to mention, it being a time of economic miracles. Secretly I found this land full of the emptiness of defeat fascinating, with none of the scary otherness of Hong Kong."Petit opens Radio On to the sound of David Bowie’s “Heroes”/“Helden”, the extended collage of the song that begins with the original album version before the German-language single is edited in; the camera tracks around a flat, to be made sense of retrospectively, twice glimpsing a body in the bath, and it stops long enough to focus on a handwritten note posted on the wall long enough to be read:
"[Wenders] produced my first film in 1979, Radio On, a modification of what I admired about German cinema: weather and landscape, a taciturn romanticism, cultural climate, boredom and dreariness and an emotional soundtrack, courtesy of Kraftwerk."
Chris Petit, 'Germany'
"We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun. We are the link between the '20s and the '80s. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesisers and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality."This manifesto of sorts was used in the original poster for the film, placed on the dashboard of the car alongside some photographs, and a view through the windscreen with a plane low over the road ahead with its landing gear down. The poster looks both strangely old fashioned and simultaneously daring when compared to film posters today. The two father figures named became famous, or perhaps infamous, emigres from Germany; von Braun’s influence in the film may be more felt more as an underlying tone: the threat of nuclear war is one inference I draw from Robert’s remark “Everyone’s afraid,” in response to the aunt’s assertion that young people today are selfish.
"His aunt comes from Germany because of the war. How do you say?"
This scene in the hotel culminates in one long, slow exterior travelling shot with Robert and Ingrid framed, individually in two adjacent windows. The viewer has been reminded of the proximity of the flyover to the hotel as the lights from the cars outside traverse the interior during the dialogue between Robert and Ingrid. However, this is not a simple panning or tracking shot: the movement of the camera in this exterior shot is clearly that from a car driving over the flyover. It replays the shot of Robert first entering the centre of Bristol from earlier in the film, but in this shot the camera moves to the facade of the hotel, and pans to keep the two lit windows in the frame for as long as it takes the car to move past the building, and is also held long enough for the hotel's sign to pass over the screen. It may be that putting a camera in a car and driving past the hotel was the only way to achieve this exterior shot, which may seem initially clumsy (as opposed to a tightly controlled travelling crane shot, for example), and the clearest reading is simply that it's done to stress the separate framing of each figure, emphasising their isolation, the distance between them, but this shot does more than that. It calls attention to itself: throughout the film, all previous camera movements used in this way are understood to be from Robert's car, often, but not always, including the framing device of the windscreen, sometimes shot through side windows, sometimes shot from the back seat so as to frame Robert against the windscreen, driving.
However, in this shot a new position is imposed. It's a subjective point of view, but not one of any of the characters understood to be in the film. It forces the viewer, if only temporarily, to imagine being outside of the story, in another car, disrupting the narrative flow. This use of an unconnected subjectivity is, to me, strongly reminiscent of the opening to Wim Wender's Wrong Move: this begins with an aerial shot of the town of Glückstadt, an initially omniscient establishing shot which is then interrupted by the presence of raindrops on the lens, or more likely on the window of the helicopter, which suddenly gives subjectivity to this otherwise 'objective' viewpoint: the next cut shows a man looking back at a helicopter, a reverse angle, logically to the helicopter that we as viewers now understand the initial shot belongs to. Both scenes remove the viewer from the omniscient editing for continuity that conceals itself - the structure - and suddenly makes us aware - if only implicitly - of the fiction of the film: that the camera is understood as either an objective viewpoint, or, placed as a character’s subjective viewpoint integral to the narrative, it is the machine for creating the necessary suspension of disbelief. This one shot does neither. As well as its disruption, there is however, also a relationship to memory and the resonance of place in the way it doubles the shot from the earlier sequence of driving into Bristol. Being able to re-watch scenes at leisure, technology in the hands of the viewer enables the fetishisation of the particular, isolating it from the narrative, sequential flow (as Petit himself was to do later) in a way viewing a film live in the cinema does not allow.
Seeing these two characters in their separate windows, from outside of the story is, as much as anything, a compositional strategy that appears in a number of Wenders’ films, and, although moving, is derived from, or inspired by, the paintings of Edward Hopper - Petit channelling Hopper, through Wenders. Like a moving painting, this moment stills the narrative momentum, leaving the viewer as an observer of figures in an interior that we are denied access to, but can find a space for the imagination in, as with, for example, Hopper’s painting 'Night Windows', 1928, but also other paintings by him of figures seen through windows, such as 'Room in New York', 1932, or 'Apartment Houses', 1923. The cinematic qualities in the paintings (and prints) of Edward Hopper have been much remarked upon, his masterful sense of mise en scène seems to invite comparisons.
“But something, surely, has just happened or is about to happen. That’s the thing about Hopper: anything can happen, especially nothing. […] They have no memories, Hopper’s pictures. That’s why they generate such intense curiosity about what is happening either side of the moment depicted. It’s not surprising, in these circumstances, that people have often been tempted to formulate answers to the questions posed by Hopper in the form of imagined or possible movies. ‘An Edward Hopper painting is like the opening paragraph of a story,’ reckons Wim Wenders.”My own work as a artist has produced works directly and indirectly inspired by Edward Hopper, including a modern reconstruction of his 1927 painting 'Automat'; I have also used a still from Radio On for a painting. It wasn’t this nocturnal scene though, but the exterior shot of the Art Deco house in where the aunt lives; I called my painting 'House By The Sea', and, although shot and edited to appear as if by the sea, this building is not in fact in Weston Super Mare, but a house on Brislington Hill on the A4. Regarding Dyer’s assertion that in a Hooper painting “anything can happen, especially nothing,” Iain Sinclair’s quote at the head of this post describing Radio On continues: “Nothing that engages our attention actually happens, but the film is superbly shot.”
Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment
Dyer’s description of Edward Hopper (in a book about photography) is redolent of Robert B. Ray’s analysis in ‘The Mystery of Edward Hopper’: “What might come before or after this incident?” and that “Hopper seems to have grown aware that by structuring his images to imply narratives, he could intensify his depictions of everyday life.” Ray likens Hitchcock’s set up in Rear Window to Edward Hopper, but equally this scene in Radio On epitomises what Ray describes as: “a glimpse through an open window that reveals the fragment of a story.”
After visiting the aunt, there is a scene on Birnbeck Pier, Weston Super Mare ("Why does the English always want to live by the sea?" "They always think it's going to be better than it is.”), where Robert reads from Ingrid's German-English phrasebook. There’s an irony in that, of the two German women in the film, Lisa Kreuzer plays the one who speaks English, and who speaks for her companion. When Wenders left Germany for America and the protracted gestation of Hammett after The American Friend, Kreuzer, who had been Wenders’ partner was left behind: it’s commonly cited that her English was not good enough for her to work abroad. The dialogue with the aunt in Weston Super Mare switches between English and (deliberately unsubtitled) German, and contains some telling quotes, ostensibly about the absent Alice's father: ”The same man who left me nothing." and ”I have my own life in Germany." (The aunt responds, with the German word, said dismissively: "Schauspielerin" - actress); here Kreuzer’s character could almost be talking her relationship with Wim Wenders.
"As an aspiring film-maker stuck for a subject, I envied the Germans their past. It was there, implacable, a reference the size of an iceberg (so much submerged). The solemnity of Wenders, even playing pinball, was part of that German existential package of being able to take oneself seriously. He announced that rock and roll had saved his life and in his films thought nothing of stopping the action while he played a record."Petit clearly thought the same. In Wenders’ Alice in the Cities, there is a scene cut to Canned Heat’s 'On The Road' playing on a jukebox; Petit has a scene in Radio On in a pub where Robert selects Wreckless Eric’s 'Whole Wide World' on the jukebox, and lets almost the entire single play until cut at the final emphatic “Yeah!” (music is used diegetically throughout the film, occasionally to disruptive, frustrating effect; the songs by Kraftwerk on the soundtrack are introduced by tapes, sent to Robert from his brother as a birthday present). Other echoes and parallels to Wenders films from the 1970s crop up throughout Radio On, which sometimes appear as direct quotes or references. Although Robert had been wearing a long overcoat for much of the film, in the Bristol scenes described, he’s seen in a black leather jacket, which reminds me of nothing so much as in Kings of the Road when Bruno is off duty, and, out of his dungarees, the uniform of the European artisan class, he is wearing a black leather jacket, notably in the scene when he goes to the fairground with a woman who works in one of the cinemas he is maintaining - played by Lisa Kreuzer.
Chris Petit, 'Germany'
In the short exchange at the hot dog van, the boy who directs Robert to the club quotes a line from the Eddie Cochran song ‘Three Steps To Heaven’: earlier in the film Robert meets a character played by Sting in a caravan behind a seemingly abandoned garage, with a guitar and singing ‘Three Steps To Heaven’. This character is named (in some sources, such as IMDb) Just Like Eddie; various newspaper clippings inside the caravan door prompt a dialogue between them as they discuss the untimely death of Eddie Cochran in an accident on the A4 road from Bristol (Eddie Cochran was travelling with Gene Vincent, who in turn is referenced in one of the records that Robert plays in his job, 'Sweet Gene Vincent' by Ian Dury and The Blockheads); ‘Just Like Eddie’ was the 1963 tribute record by Heinz, the German-born bass player of the Tornados that Joe Meek attempted to make into a star - and it’s one of the records that Bruno plays in his cab in Kings of The Road.
The flyover was long gone by the time I came to photograph the hotel. Chris Petit revisited the location for his short film Radio On (Remix). An impressionistic retracing of the journey from London to Bristol from the original film, it includes shots of the flyover's demolition with the caption "Victoria St Bristol flyover dismantled 13.06.98" appearing on screen. In this film, Petit layers the contemporary video footage of the journey with sequences of the original film, text and production stills, and much use is made of the qualities achieved by filming direct from a screen or monitor, especially when 'scrubbing' through the footage. The travelling shot I have been describing is used early on in this mediated form, being momentarily stilled on a video screen to show the figures in the window. It also replays this shot again at its very end, just before the credits, but this time it's not mediated, distorted, degraded by being filmed playing on a monitor, its telecined clarity suggesting that of all the individual shots that make up Radio On, Petit thought something of it, attributed it with sufficient importance to let it play out.
"In retrospect, I date the day of his [Fassbinder’s] death, exactly one week before my own thirty-third birthday, as the start of the end of my own enthralment with cinema. The momentum continued for another couple of years but my obsession was on the wane. I had managed to make two feature films, was planning a third in Paris at the time, which fell through and relocated to Berlin, followed by one more in Berlin in 1984, after which I stopped. I often wonder why. Nothing was resolved nor was anything missed: a reserve perhaps, a lack of adventurousness in my own life, and indecision about my own direction, in front of and behind the camera. [...] Cinema was never a matter of life and death to me. I hadn't been saved by it or anything else, undone by English diffidence, stubborn but not combative, too easily discouraged."Bibiliography
Chris Petit, 'Germany'
Danny Birchall, Radio On, BFI Screenonline http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/496265/ Retrieved 22/07/16
Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment, Little, Brown 2005
Sean Kaye-Smith, 'Radio On to Bristol', Vertigo Issue 15, February 2008 https://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/vertigo_magazine/issue-15-february-2008/radio-on-to-bristol/ retrieved 23/7/16
Chris Petit, ‘Germany’, in Granta 86: Film, Summer 2004
Iain Sinclair, ‘Cinema Purgatorio’, in Lights Out For The Territory, Granta 1998
Robert B, Ray, ‘The Mystery of Edward Hopper’ in How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies, Indiana University Press, 2001
The Grosvenor Hotel, Bristol Post, February 2, 2009. http://www.bristolpost.co.uk/gateway-west-country/story-11303487-detail/story.html Retrieved 22/07/16