Tuesday, January 08, 2008

[World Cinema Series] Radio On

Restless Radio

A programme of the National Museum Cinémathèque and co-presented by the Singapore Film Society, World Cinema Series is a monthly screening of works by the boldest and most inventive auteurs in the history of cinema. This series charts both the significant and less discovered territories of cinema - from the early silent era to underground films, and new wave film movements around the world, by some of the greatest mavericks and artists of film.

This month's screening is Chris Petit's Radio On (1980). Ben Slater, who co-produced the short Radio On Remix (which was also screened after the Q&A), was on hand to introduce the movie. As Ben puts it, it's an English road movie, from London to Bristol by car, which in actuality would approximate the running time of the movie. Happening at an interesting juncture of British history, the movie naturally has landscapes - the roads, buildings and even bad weather, while it also covers the inner landscape - the emotional world of the characters, as well as the sonic landscapes with the world of music and sound, which play an important role in the film. It's a cult favourite now and probably retains its resonance with audiences with the unconscious sense of anticipation that something is about to happen.


Radio On opens to the tune of David Bowie's Heroes, which modern audiences will probably associate it with the Hollywood Godzilla song, as performed by The Wallflowers. With the song blaring loudly, we are meandering inside an apartment, going from room to room, opening closed doors, and passing by a bathtub and catching a glimpse of a body inside. We learn later that radio DJ Robert's brother had died under mysterious circumstances in Bristol, as we follow Robert in a trip from London, planning on investigating his brother's death.

Or in actuality, nothing exactly happens. Road trip movies have recently been fodder for comedies and teen adventure, where either funny situations follow one another to send audiences into chuckles, or you can bet your last dollar that every character that comes into the picture is a quirky one. However, while the formula for quirky characters is there, with the Irish hitchhiker, the German girls, and even Sting at a petrol kiosk, there's something uniquely different about it, and that it is a challenge to sit through this movie, and I was struggling, hard.

Struggling to find some meaning. Struggling to fight the listlessness that creeped up, as shared by Robert as he mopes around looking for answers, and being reactive and waiting for something, anything to happen. We're thrust into a state of limbo as he flits from scene to scene, location to location, character to character, as we try to make some sense of it all, as the movie is almost devoid of a standard narrative structure to piece everything together. It doesn't take long for us to realize this is not a typical road movie, and we're witnessing, and experiencing, even manipulated I may say, to feel exactly how the main character feels in his quest for non-existent answers. Don't fret if you can't connect, or find it emotionally empty. If only it was as easy as 42!

And it's not just the narrative, but the technicalities that will leave you bewildered too. Shot in black and white, there's a deafening silence each time there's no dialogue (and it's so for the most parts), or a song. Dialogue between characters somehow are really soft, as if they know there are folks listening in, and have to resort to whispers. But it's not the volume control though, as the songs do get blared out loud, and background sounds, if any, are at your usual level. You'll need some level of patience to sit through Radio On as things move at an incredibly slow pace, and while as mentioned it is silent, there is a major chunk of dialogue in German, which without subtitles, is anyone's guess (though there are folks in the audience who understand the language and could chuckle at/with it).

All in, it's still a movie that's nicely shot, with bits of black humour that one could reach out, grab and connect to. It's not your usual movie, and something that you would probably not expect, but if you're up for a bit of a challenge, then you should watch Radio On if opportunity presents itself again. Rated R21 here for a slide show with pornographic images, though by the time they appear, it's unlikely you'll be shocked / in awe.


I wanted to reconstruct from notes taken during the Q&A on Ben's involvement in Radio On Remix, but guess what? He has a blog entry on it, so without further ado, click here to read all about it! (The wonders of hyper-linking, so I can turn in early on a nice, cool, rainy night) :-)

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