The Idea of Failure: an Interview with Chris Petit

by Daniel Ribas / 18 11 2018

This interview is part of the focus on Chris Petit's films at Porto/Post/Doc 2018.

Q: You started your career as a film critic. What drove you to start making films?
A: I liked watching movies and writing about them but I was never a vocational critic and didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing that. At the same time, I had no career plan and didn’t see much further ahead than writing the script of Radio On to see if it was possible to get it made, through government funding for first features, which no longer exists; no surprise. I didn’t have any particular ambition to direct it, so in that respect, I fell into the job. That said, it was an accepted move then to use writing about film to progress to making them. In that sense I was incredibly fortunate, though, looking back, I sometimes think I used up most of my luck in my twenties, but then maybe I was always more interested in the idea of failure as the more interesting route because as someone once wrote, success is just failure deferred. 

Q: Your first film – Radio On – is a road movie about loneliness and music. Was it a film of a certain time?
A: And equally about weather and landscape. The soundtrack nails it as a film of a particular time, but also, which we didn’t know then, the edge of the quarry on which the car ends up stalled turned out to be Thatcherism, which came in just after the film completed shooting, leading to a sustained period of conservatism, so it is in a way a documentary or catalogue of the way things looked and were at a particular time. Radio On was the first of many stalled endings in my work. I was trying to make a film about the solitary: about J. G. Ballard’s key image of the 20th century, a man alone in a car driving down a superhighway. Seeing the film now, it strikes me that only a man with a sense of humour could make a film so relentlessly unfunny. But it was made in opposition to a lot of things, many to do with British cinema. Radio On was an attempt to take the national temperature: was the body heat that of something alive and comatose or a cooling corpse? ‘Restless and restless, full of yesterday’s zombies,’ sniffed one critic, righter than he knew. Radio On was a posthumous exercise; even the cars are ghosts moving through haunted landscapes. The influence no one got, apart from one critic, was French writer LF Céline and his Journey to the End of the Night, with the introduction: ‘Travel is a good thing. It stimulates the imagination. Everything else is a snare and a delusion. Our own journey is entirely imaginative. Therein lies its strength. It leads from life to death... everything in it is imaginary... Shut your eyes, that’s all that is necessary. There you have seen life from the other side.’ Radio On looks like a film that could have been made only by a man with his eyes shut.   

Q: A lot of your films deal with important figures of cinema or literature (Peter Whitehead, Manny Farber, Rudy Wurlitzer, or J.G. Ballard). What interested you in these figures?
A: Whitehead in The Falconer came about through Iain Sinclair. The way it worked on that film was Iain determined the subject and I took care of the look (using a Sharp-Hi-8 where it was possible to manipulate the material in the camera during the shot, so none of it was special effects). Then with Emma Matthews in the editing, we chucked everything up in the air to see which way it landed and then wrote the film in the cutting room because my efforts at synch sound were so pathetic that little of it was usable: necessity being the mother of invention. I have always been a fan of technical incompetence (in myself if not in others). Strangely, although Farber, Rudy and Ballard all had very cool careers which I admired, these films were all commissions, rather than pitching jobs, and each was a pleasure to do. Ballard, I like for his surreal urban landscapes. Wurlitzer especially for Two-Lane Blacktop, without which Radio On probably would have been impossible. And Farber for looking at movies in a different way, not just the recounting the story (about a man or woman who), instead defining movie space as the field of the screen, psychological space of the actor, and the area of experience and geography covered.

Q: Some of your work was made for television. However, your films are always pushing the boundaries of what is expected by a “TV documentary”. Was difficult to deal with the TVs or where they aware of the necessary transgressive mood of the films?
A: There was a gap in television for a while and budgets available, and no one cared much what went in that gap, which was for more experimental work. It also coincided with the development of new technology which made everything portable and do-it-yourself. The work became more progressive because it was possible to dismantle the conventional structure of filmmaking (crews, equipment hire, call sheets, permissions). We chucked the lot out, including scripts, and, frankly, nobody gave a shit what we were doing. Unbelievable, really, looking back. But that margin was only there for a few years before everything collapsed back into the middle and TV became a big carpet warehouse.

Q: Can you also comment on why did you want to confuse fiction with non-fiction? Certainly, that was very experimental at the time.
A: Well, you could say it’s all lies, so what’s the difference? Truth has always struck me as a commodity, like everything else, rather than an absolute. I was always impatient with distinctions between different forms of a film (documentary, fiction, non-fiction, etc).

Q: Negative Space is a special example of your work. We could say that is an “audiovisual essay” avant la lettre. Could we say that In a way it condense your ideas about cinema: the research of landscape, dealing with time, the idea of termite-art?
A: It was a lucky film which discovered itself as it went along, and I always liked Manny best of all the critics, plus he didn’t just write about movies, he was a painter, and you can see that in his writing, and I was enthralled by the way he didn’t always say whether he liked a film, just described how he saw it (rarely in terms of a story) and let you figure out the rest, unlike today where critics behave like ambassadors for film, with their stupid five stars and thumbs up or down. I don’t believe in templates necessarily, because drift has to play a part, but if you are going to use one then termite art seems pretty exemplary. I was also surprised and grateful that Manny said yes to being in the film when he had said no to everyone else.

Q: Dealing with “essays”, your work seems to be in debt of the major works of Godard and Marker. Do you feel so?

A: Yes and yes, of course, but I doubt if either would like what I did with their influence. They wouldn’t regard me as sufficiently ‘political’, therefore a dilettante, but as Robert Mitchum said in Out of the Past, with the line quoted in Negative Space, ‘Baby, I don’t care.’

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