Chris Petit: Content and Radio On

Sight and Sound profiles the work of the British director

In an online exclusive for Sight and Sound magazine, Mark Fisher explores the Ballardian landscape of Chris Petit's new film, Content, and reflects on it as an 'informal coda' to his hypnotic debut feature, Radio On:
At one point in Chris Petit’s haunting new film Content, we drive through Felixstowe container port. It was an uncanny moment for me, since Felixstowe is only a couple of miles from where I live – what Petit filmed could have been shot from our car window. What made it all the more uncanny was the fact that Petit never mentions that he is in Felixstowe; the hangars and looming cranes are so generic that I began to wonder if this might not be a doppelgänger container port somewhere else in the world. All of this somehow underlined the way Petit’s text describes these “blind buildings” while his camera tracks along them: “non-places”, “prosaic sheds”, “the first buildings of a new age” which render “architecture redundant”.

Content could be classified as an essay film, but it’s less essayistic than aphoristic. This isn’t to say that it’s disconnected or incoherent: Petit himself has called Content a “21st-century road movie, ambient”, and its reflections on ageing and parenthood, terrorism and new media are woven into a consistency that’s non-linear, but certainly not fragmentary. [...]
Radio On, Petit said in a recent interview, “ended with a car ‘stalled on the edge of the future’, which we didn’t know then would be Thatcherism.” Ahead lay a bizarre yet banal mix of the unprecedented and the archaic. Instead of accelerating down Kraftwerk’s autobahn, we found ourselves, as Petit puts it in Content, “reversing into a tomorrow based on a non-existent past”, as the popular modernism Radio On was part of found itself eclipsed by a toxic-addictive confection of consumer-driven populism, heritage kitsch, xenophobia and US corporate culture. In this light, Content stands as a quiet but emphatic reproach to the British cinema of the last 30 years, which in its dominant variants – drab social realism, faux gangster, picture-book costume drama or mid-Atlantic middle-class fantasia – has retreated from modernity. It isn’t only the poor and the non-white who are edited out of Notting Hill, for example – it’s also the Westway, west London’s Ballardian flyover, which now stands as a relic of “the modern city that London never became”.

Yet Content isn’t just a requiem for the lost possibilities of the last 30 years. In its use of stunning but underused locations – the ready-made post-Fordist science-fiction landscapes of Felixstowe container port, the eerie Cold War terrain of nearby Orford Ness – Content demonstrates not only what British cinema overlooks, but what it could still be. [Read the article]

Content shows on More4 on 9 March. Independent cinema screening dates and venue details to be confirmed

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