Chris Petit’s Radio On is certainly an exceptionally interesting film, maybe even a great one, a film that draws you back repeatedly but whose central enigma can never really be satisfactorily resolved. Interpretations here are even more provisional, even more open to revision than usual.
That said, off we go.
The radio itself occupies an ambivalent place in Radio On, it’s associated at best with the mundanity of football scores, at worst and most frequently with those things that Robert, the central character, wants to keep out of his safe and pristine, faintly melancholy world, those inevitable concerns, sex, death and politics. The IRA, pornography, industrial strife all come in via the radio. It offers nothing but trouble. As with many films of the Seventies (in say, Sunday, Bloody Sunday or O’ Lucky Man!) the radio, especially the car radio, is used to convey something of the background conflicts of the times.
But here the most immediate use of the radio is to forge a link between Robert, in his car, and The Dead Brother whose radio we see in the opening sequence on the end of the bath he has died in. The long steadicam-driven opening sequence, sound-tracked by Bowies’ Heroes/Helden, combines freewheeling, chaotic camerawork and the emotional intensity of the music to establish The Dead Brother as Dionysian, a representative of those same dark concerns that Robert has been trying to escape. The camera explores the flat at length, drunkenly weaving between rooms, intoxicated by its clutter and exotic detail, most notably a long quote from Kraftwerk, a manifesto of sorts, pinned to the bedroom wall.
The Brother is calling out to Robert from the land of the dead, via the uncanny, disruptive medium of radio. Robert’s first act within the film is in fact to turn the car radio off and remove Heroes/Helden from the soundtrack. The implication in the opening sequence is that Heroes is playing on the bathroom radio, but this idea is also clearly undercut by its being non-diegetic, both in its volume and fidelity and their remaining constant as the camera moves around the flat. There is a zoom in on The Dead Brother’s radio, followed by a static shot of Robert’s car radio, the song now reduced to the appropriate diagetic dimensions. He opens an envelope and removes some cassettes by Kraftwerk along with the message Happy Birthday, Brother though there’s nothing else in the film to suggest that this really is Robert’s birthday.
Here we have some of the core elements of Radio On’s mystery: the brother’s death, his intense involvement with Kraftwerk, the passing on of his cassettes with the ambiguous message Happy Birthday, the connection between them created through the radios in the bath and car by Bowie’s Heroes/Helden, a song which is itself split into two halves, recorded in a divided city.
The Dead Brother.
There is another possible, more audacious reading of the opening sequence which proposes to take Radio On further into the uncanny and render it a supernatural tale of a sort, a film in which Robert must assimilate the ghost of his dead brother, in order to free himself from the limbo we encounter him in at the start. Both brothers are dead, but in different ways. The camera at the start is the brother’s spirit, newly liberated, roaming his flat, revisiting those earthly things it has lost, searching for a way out, pausing at the windows and eventually finding it via the radio. Radio On starts where The Dead Brother, and what he represents, come to an end.
In a sense The Dead Brother is the music itself, is Bowie and Kraftwerk. The Dead Brother channels in through the radio, is shut down and then reappears again in an icy, interstellar blast as Robert plays a brief snatch of the start of Uranium in the car, waiting to pick up his girlfriend’s laundry: the voice that speaks at the start of the track, incomprehensible and Gnostic yet unquestionably futuristic is the voice of the Brother, and it is his voice, in the form of Kraftwerk, that accompanies Robert on his drive to Bristol. It is this ghost, this Geist which is assimilated both by Robert and the film itself in Radio On’s conclusion.
We know that the brother is dead, but not how he died, and we discover other things about him, hidden away in the film’s sparse dialogue, in a short but key scene where Robert looks through some of his slides. We learn from the girlfriend that there is to be an inquest into his death, we know that the police have been throwing their weight around, that they have had dogs in the house. Later Robert asks whose side the Dead Brother was on, only to be asked in turn whether he thinks it’s as simple as taking sides. The exact circumstances of the death are unknown but certainly natural causes can be ruled out. Suicide, drug overdose, murder? Why would the police bring dogs to the house? Heroin? Explosives? Is this why the IRA is referenced on the radio? Is this why Robert unwisely asks the AWOL squaddie if he has ever been to Ireland? And is this why there is the later, unresolved question as to whose side the brother was on?
Pornography is also referenced twice on the radio in news reports, and then discovered mixed in with the other slides that Robert projects on the bedroom wall, little flashes of hardcore and S&M. The brother may be gone, but what he has left behind, his legacy, is murky, dangerous, illegal. The brother here is both the ID, Robert’s Dark Half and also the era, the troubled 1970’s themselves that the film and the filmmakers are about to leave behind, which are about to be resolved by the brave new decade on the horizon, the Eighties.
The brother’s death is then in some ways simply the end of a decade, the impossibility of things continuing as they are, but in his becoming-music and passing over to Robert, birthing Robert’s emergent subjectivity (Happy birthday, brother!) and then flooding out to fill the frame at the end of the film the fulfilment of Kraftwerk’s Techno-Utopia is assured. Radio On then is fundamentally a film about epistemic shift and realignment, the retrospectively mysterious belief in the Eighties as the millenarian moment. Certainly the Kraftwerk quote at the start of the film sees the Eighties as the terminus and completion of the modern project, and the band as the bridge between the Twenties and the coming decade.
We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner Von Braun. We are the link between the Twenties and the Eighties. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesizers and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality.
If the Seventies is the point when many of the struggles of the Sixties came to have an impact on the fabric of daily life, when they were pushed through as legislation, began to impact on relations in the home and work, between individual and the State, an epoch of disorienting disruption and contestation, a decade of conflict and terror, then the promise of the Eighties is a peaceful revolution achieved through technology and art, a different kind of real will be realized here, the Eighties will transform us (and Robert) from Halber Mensch to ManMachine. The dead brother has been too ensnared in the dark domains of jouissance, the body, politics, the dead-end of Sixties and Seventies, but the liberatory Apollonian possibilities for technological transformation, transubstantiation are passed forward.
The living dead brother.
Robert then is the figure of the new man, and he can become this in many ways because of what he is not. The Dead Brother is flamboyant, involved, worldly, committed, Robert is cautious, inexpressive, watchful, removed, sexless. The contrast between the brothers’ flats immediately conveys the difference between them. The Dead Brother’s is a sprawl of images, books, objects, sounds. Robert’s is bare, bright and cold, located above a cinema which is, with supreme irony, screening Oshima’s Empire of Passion. His relationship with his girlfriend has deteriorated and she eventually leaves him, he works alone as a DJ, sitting pensively in the dark booth, watches the life of the city going on from the safety of his roof as the radio reveals to him all the world’s troubles.
One of the ways in which Robert’s detachment is conveyed in the film is the use of windows: just prior to his girlfriend leaving, as he learns of his brother’s death, Robert and his girlfriend are framed by two internal windows located directly opposite each other across the roof of the cinema. While Robert talks on the telephone his girlfriend looks back at him disappointedly through the far window as she departs. Later in the film there is a shot of Robert and the German Woman he meets in Bristol, standing in the same room in the hotel gazing out of different windows,. It’s a long take from the flyover that runs past the hotel and it appears as though they are in two separate rooms. The next day the German Woman tells him that she thought they would have sex the night before, but of course they didn’t. Robert’s anxious semi-comical response is to ask her, How do you say that in German? Women are difficult to communicate with or to relax around in Radio On, the German Woman’s Friend can’t speak English and is currently in a man-hating phase anyway, the German Aunt is sanctimonious and conservative, his brother’s ex-girlfriend mistrustful. Worse still is Robert’s only other encounter with a women in the film, the aggressive, pool playing girl who kicks his chair away and leaves him sprawling on the floor.
There is a reoccurrence of the window motif in the sequence where Robert looks at his brother’s slides; an ambiguous shot in which he stands against the wall, facing the image of what we assume is his dead brother. Though it’s unclear whether Robert is standing in the place which he himself occupies in the photograph the brother in profile on the left of the shot seems to be responding to someone on the right and Robert is correctly located in terms of scale. Here is the final distance in the film; the Brother is at an impossible remove. While the other barriers can be breached, the window Robert shares with his brother is split into two incommensurable orders of being, it is impossible to communicate with or to reach out to him now, even if Robert were capable of it. The roads may connect us, the radio may connect us, distance may have been abolished in one sense but other, deeper distances persist, new forms of distance come into play.
Radio On’s characters may be less voluble than those of traditional British cinema, but they are still integral to the film’s meaning. The central characters, the brothers, are inexpressive or completely absent. Many things have to be inferred about The Dead Brother as they do Robert. We can be certain what he is NOT: not a fighter, not a lover. He’s a man of taste in many ways, working as a DJ, living above a cinema, a connoisseur. There are also traces of pomposity, his refusal to play the track Help Me Make It Through The Night and instead playing Sweet Gene Vincent with the words "here’s something better", asking the Squaddie “Who’s that then?” when the Squaddie says “Bastards” in reference to his time in Ireland (and then being terrified by the response). By his abruptly walking out of the room while the Aunt and the German Women are talking.
This combination of timidity, a tendency toward grandiosity, a simultaneous desire for and fear of closeness which the “third-space” of culture serves to mediate, a restlessness with their particular era, are the characteristics of an identifiable English type, the malcontent, the dreamer, the man apart. Rather like the Squaddie Robert is in a kind of internal exile: internal in two senses, both adrift within the country and within himself. The Dreamer is only half in the world, part of him is always at a remove, located somewhere in the future he yearns for, the future that will bring fulfilment, that will allow him to fully occupy himself, fully live within his time and place. The Dreamer is perhaps in a germinal stage, in the process of becoming an artist: the artist is ahead of us, beaming back messages from the future. This is what has traditionally given the artists their aura, the way they are lit by the dazzle of the other dimensions they partake off and which we can not see.
The dreamer has always been born too early or too late, is fated to be here rather than destined to be there, where life is. Instead he has England’s damp pubs with their ancient beers and peasant faces, the constant humiliation of having to live in the hidebound present. Press the fast forward button on life, the future is calling.
Robert’s detachment is not only emotional detachment then. When he stands against the slide of his brother, and it is uncertain in whose place he is standing, the image sets up and sets off a complex set of interrelations and divisions. It is his attempt to connect with The Dead Brother, who is now fully absent, who has perhaps become identical with himself through death, has been reduced to, or acceded to the state of pure image, pure sound. Robert is still half in and half out of the frame, posing the question of how to resolve his condition, which world to live in, the world of exile, oriented toward the future or the escape into death.
The ghost of Rock and Roll.
Robert is also in limbo in the sense that he occupies the zone between the death of rock, the end of the American dream, and the new European future the film anticipates is just on the horizon. Sex and drugs and rock and roll, the only things that Ian Dury’s brain and body needed will be superseded.
In Bristol, Robert, wearing a leather biker jacket encounters a cheeky street kid wearing exactly the same jacket, who offers him drugs and girls, repeating a line from Eddie Cochrane’s Three Steps to Heaven that has been used earlier in the film. Robert, naturally, wants neither but instead wants to hear some music, though he is turned away from the smart club the boy suggests, probably on sartorial grounds. Even the German women he then offers a lift to comment on his old fashioned rocker look, and later when Robert sits disconsolately in the back of a Cadillac in a motor museum in Weston he is told "It (the car) doesn’t suit you ." The car has been consigned to history; Robert’s glum attachment to it is faintly absurd.
The clash between Rock and the New Music of Bowie, Kraftwerk and Devo, the tension between them and their association both with the brothers in the film and with different epochs, the generational overlap and the necessity of moving forward into a new Europeanism is given a visual correlate at the start of the film, again in the investigation of the brother’s flat. Held in the frame, directly adjacent to the Kraftwerk quote there is a postcard of the tail fin of a Fifties’ gas guzzler. The Post-War dominance of the American Sublime, its style and freedom, its modernity, played off against Kraftwerk’s statement of technological optimism and their own manifest destiny, of a European modern that predates it and will flourish again in the coming decade.
We are given glimpses of this latent European future, in the shots of tower blocks and motorway intersections as Robert exits London and the plane taking off ahead of the car as he drives, in the video games Robert plays, in his wintery flat with its three TVs (an echo here of Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth) and the clean, quiet spaces of the factory with its blazing lights and gleaming GILLETE sign at the front. These are harbingers of the future, the dream of a pristine capitalism, of life finally liberated from murk, dust and toil: speed, light, technology, a world transformed.
But not just yet, we are still in 1979 and the redemptive Eighties have yet to arrive. Dead Rockers and Rock haunt Radio On. The soundtrack includes Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World, Robert’s choice on the pub’s American style jukebox, a song about the impossibility of finding love, and Ian Dury’s Sweet Gene Vincent, which Robert rather high-handedly plays in place of the requested track. Here Dury’s lament for the loss both of a rock giant and also the rock era, which begins with a spectralised sample of "Blue Jean Baby!" from Vincent’s Blue Jean Bop is itself warped and distorted in the factory’s harsh, antiseptic environment: we are at a third generational remove perhaps, a third level of attrition.
Both Vincent and Eddie Cochrane are referenced later in the film when Robert, refuelling, meets up with a garage owner played by Sting, not far from the place where they were killed in a car accident. The Garage Owner is himself in limbo, living in a caravan and waiting to hear back from an A&R man about his band. Together they sing Cochrane’s Three Steps to Heaven a song which The Garage Owner reprises at the pumps as Robert drives away. Three steps to heaven in this context, takes on the dimensions of a pun, twinning sex and death. Robert sings enthusiastically along to the Garage Owner’s rendition of the track, one of the few moments of rapport that develops between Robert and another character in the film. This is Robert’s only means of connection, through a shared cultural passion, finding a girl and holding her in your arms is not heaven, in fact it’s too close up, too invasive, too intense, finding a boy who shares your passion for songs about finding girls is the closest he can get.