Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Jubilee & Radio On

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Jubilee & Radio On

British punk and post-punk have been popping up on the big screen 30 years after their musical heyday (see 24 Hour Party People and Control). But what about the first round of films? In 1977, Derek Jarman released Jubilee, his take on the then-peaking punk scene. Featuring a time-travelling Queen Elizabeth (the first) who is shocked by the lawlessness and lewdness of post-apocalyptic London, the movie presents a series of disconnected, seemingly improvised vignettes. Decadent punkers and anarchists cavort in their sparsely-decorated flats, brothers make out, a cartoonishly freakish record exec chortles and eats goldfish, et cetera. According to the documentary on the Criterion disc, the punks didn't take kindly Jarman's vision and fashion designer/wife of Malcolm McLaren even printed an open-letter T-shirt criticizing the director.

But if many found Jarman's film a too dystopian and decadent take on the vibrant new scene, within a few years a more bleak outlook had taken hold. 1979's Radio On unfolds in long, long (long) sequences with little to no dialogue, its main character travelling by car past post-industrial wastelands to his recently deceased brother's flat. Though scored by music that was already popping up in '77 (David Bowie & Brian Eno, Kraftwerk) it feels more characteristic of Thatcher's post-punk England than the already-past glory days of the Sex Pistols and the Queen's Jubilee.


It was that very Jubilee which supposedly inspired Jarman to shoot his guerrilla Jubilee, utilizing a mixture of trained theatrical actors and fresh-off-the-street punks. In many ways the movie feels like a nose-thumbing at the Queen and celebration of a 25-year reign: it clearly revels in the decadent orgies it presents, and its style seems to be characterized by a kind of free-spirited anarchism. Yet in the documentary Jarman is described by friends as essentially - sexual preference and aesthetic proclivities aside - "a radical Tory," distressed with the decline of his country. No wonder the punks recoiled. But Jubilee feels more ambivalent than mere anti-anarchy propaganda. To repeat, the film appears to enjoy its decadence, as the actors chew scenery and flaunt their genitalia. Furthermore, there's a slightly confused climax in which the police suddenly start killing punks at a bingo game, and the formerly apathetic young rebels go on a cop-killing spree. Hardly the stuff of proto-Thatcherism.

Still, I can see why Jubilee is considered more critical of England's decline than celebratory. The aforementioned record exec, fanning and exploiting cultural decay and youthful alienation, is entertaining but obviously venal; there are negative allusions to fascism and communism scattered throughout the picture; and in addition to the frank sexuality there is also bloody violence which doesn't seem to be much fun for anyone. The film becomes most articulate in its ideas when Queen Elizabeth and her advisor John Dee, led into the future by an alchemist, regard the centreless modern England with horror. There's something simultaneously melancholy, romantic, and elegiac in Elizabeth's final speech to John Dee, recalling their idealistic youth:

"Oh, John Dee do you remember those days? The whispered secrets at Oxford like the sweet sea breeze? Codes and counter-codes. The secret language of flowers...You were my eyes then as now with your celestial geometry. You laid a path through treachery and opened my prison so that my heart flew like a swallow."
Earlier in the film, one punk tells another (echoing Richard Hell's epitaph) that they belong to a blank generation. Elizabeth not only eschews this nihilism but finds it impossible to understand, a kind of hellish mystery from which she retreats in haste. When Dee tells her she is, "now as then before, balm against all melancholy," she responds, "Ah, but I was young then." Jarman's film winds up a mournful elegy for Britannia's youth, as the alchemist provides the coda:
"The waves break on the shores of England. The white cliffs stand against the void. We gaze seaward, contemplating the night journey...In the north a howling chaos into which a bleak rain falls without ceasing. Now is the time of departure. The last streamer that ties us to what is known parts. We drift into a sea of storms."
These are not the words of a proudly nihilistic punk (not that most punks were nihilistic - which is probably why some of them rejected the film) but a nostalgic whose acceptance of history's fluctuation and the duality of the universe saves him from being a complete reactionary. I didn't really enjoy Jubilee while watching it; the experience mostly left me indifferent. It seemed to belong to the avant-garde of Flaming Creatures, John Waters films, and the fictional portions of W.R. Mysteries of the Organism (my least favorite parts of that movie). The cinematography is undistinguished (the color scheme is nice but I'm speaking in terms of composition and lens selection), the actors appear to be given free reign, and the experimental credo is provided by "attitude." All of which I find a little offputting. But in retrospect, the film comes into sharper relief and I have a desire to see it again. I suspect that the chaos of its structure and style may fall into sharper relief on a second viewing, revealing more in a kind of alchemical realignment.

Radio On, on the other hand, had immediate appeal. With an antecedent in Michelangelo Antonioni and an obvious descendant in Jim Jarmusch (especially with Stranger Than Paradise), Chris Petit's debut film represents the alienation of Robert (David Beames) visually, isolating him in desolate landscapes and holding on his deadpan expression during long passages of driving down rain-soaked rural highways. Occasionally, post-punk, industrial, and/or electronic music provide a soundtrack. At first it seems that this impromptu score is also a reflection of Robert's outsider consciousness - but then he picks up a disturbed army veteran who shares his experiences in Belfast. Awkward silence follows, and Robert reaches over to crank up the tape deck. Turns out music is less about expressing his viewpoint than it is about blocking out his surroundings. (Later, Robert will abandon the hitchhiker when he gets out to take a piss.)

Eventually, Robert will connect with a German immigrant who's looking for her daughter; but even then there's a wistful quality to their relationship: two loners who connect but will probably move on and continue being lonely (Robert has a live-in girlfriend but she's glued to a multimedia set-up and they don't seem especially close). The film has gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of the spare-but-beautiful variety - my favorite shot being the isolated modern buildings standing alone above a desolate cityscape, shifting ever so slightly as Robert drives past. Later, there's another shot out of a moving car, peering in at Robert and the German woman speaking in their hotel. From the highway, we see one figure in each window; even as they speak, they remain disconnected.

While the punks of Jubilee glory in their "blank" nihilism, Robert very much wants something more. He seeks companionship - not desperately, but tentatively (waiting in his car by the two women, hoping they will approach him, which they do) - and tries to figure out why his brother killed himself. But he's adrift in that same sea of storms that Elizabeth's alchemist spoke of; in his case, not chaos, but certainly the void which the white cliffs no longer guard against. Finally he leaves his car on a precipice, blasting the stereo as it hovers on the brink of falling over. Here it is, as in Jubilee, modern society on the brink of collapse. But Robert doesn't stay in the car; he walks away. Perhaps he has broken the cycle, the numb hold of the "electronic age" which he has written about in a note tacked to a mirror in the first scene. Leaving the protective bubble of his car, where he can tune out violent war stories with loud music or drive away when a stranger becomes too threatening, he opts for a more public form of transportation. In the last shot, he boards a train, no longer in control of his journey, but surrounded by people, by society, leaving his comfort zone behind. As the train chugs away, it may bring to mind those final words of the alchemist: "[They] go along the same great highway and the air about them seemed somewhat dark like evening or twilight. And as they walked the phoenix spoke and cried with a loud voice: 'Come away.'"

(Happy 50th post to myself.)

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