Friday, April 4, 2008

Radio On

Chris Petit's post-punk film Radio On uses its soundtrack to propel the narrative in ways that are evocative and memorable. For example, a long tracking shot at the film's beginning explores the nondescript, dimly lit apartment of protagonist Robert's brother, who has committed suicide in the bath. The camera finally comes to rest on a radio at the foot of the tub, on which David Bowie's "Heroes/Heldon" plays at high volume. Those familiar with "Heroes" will recognize the dialectic in operation here: the romantic, desperate bravado of the song's lyrics and delivery in relation to the context of the suicide itself.

Later, Bowie's tune "Always Crashing in the Same Car" (a tribute to J.G. Ballard's novel Crash) plays while Robert cruises past a seemingly endless array of identical high-rise condominiums. The song ends strategically as Robert leaves this ultramodern, over-lit realm (the same high-rises can be seen, incidentally, on the cover of The Jam's LP This is the Modern World) to descend into the grim depths of nighttime Bristol, the site of his brother's suicide.

Finally, towards the film's end, as Robert succumbs to his own disaffected despair he leaves his car in an abandoned quarry while Kraftwerk's static-laden Radioactivity blares on the car's tapedeck.

But still, the film ends on a high note as Robert catches a train, fleeing this overdetermined and alienating landscape. This is an idyllic, panoramic scene (shot from overhead) of the station bordered to one side by the sea and on the other by the English hills, and I always imagine it with Kraftwerk's "Airwaves" thrumming urgently and lyrically (surely their most plaintive melody) along in the background, the low key vocals intoning simply, again and again:
"When airwaves swing
Distant voices sing."

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