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Interview with Chris Petit

Chris Petit likes driving. Most of his films, from his first Radio On (1979), to London Orbital (with Iain Sinclair, 2002) and his last Content (2010), show the perspective of the driver on the road: a ‘form of forward projection’, an unfolding horizon, the field divided by cat’s eyes and motorway signs.

 

Petit has directed over a dozen films, including those developed for television at a time when experimentation within this medium was still possible. He is the author of six novels, all of which position the people and the places of the margins in the foreground. His work documents unchartered landscapes and non-conforming characters. Technology is employed as a framing device, offering the possibility of many formats, cuts and edits – yet it advances also as a predator.His latest project the Museum of Loneliness operates as a nebulous cultural body, documented in pamphlets and a spoken word vinyl recording released by independent publishers Test Centre.   I interview Petit in London, in an apartment in the City overlooking the Thames, in a building that feels like it has only temporary inhabitants. We are both struggling to cut through the grey; instant coffee and semi-stale biscuits. The window of the living room, at which our small coffee table, now frames the upper portion of the Shard, which is shrouded in a mist characteristic of the winter of this year. Dirty water washes onto a small portion of riverbank. Sleet begins to fall before turning into drizzle. It is the kind of monochrome British weather that smears Petit’s films and fictions.  

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Before you made your first feature Radio On you were working as a film critic. There is the Cahiers du Cinema tradition of critic-filmmakers, but there’s also the opposing idea, that being a critic can impair actual production. Did you find it productive or difficult to come from a critical background and then to make films?

A

Chris Petit

— The transition now seems straightforward, but at the time, it wasn’t. The only thing I had worked out was that I was not a vocational film critic. So I set myself the test of writing a script, to see if it could be done. And then one step followed on from the next. As I was a critic I was able to mention the script of Radio On to Wim Wenders when I interviewed him.

 

German cinema was the first cinema that I’d seen where I thought I had understood on my own terms how I might make films. I wasn’t old enough for the French New Wave, which seemed inaccessible as a model. Although people like Lindsay Anderson had been critics and then moved on to filmmaking, I did not necessarily want to move on to filmmaking within the British film industry.

 

The problems didn’t really begin until after Radio On, when I had to redefine, or try to work out, what to do next. In fact, I got my feature films done fairly quickly, in five years – a fast rate, looking back. When we made Radio On for the BFI we worked with a crew of twelve, which was perfect. For An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, I turned up in one location and there were fifty cars parked there. I thought, well I don’t want to have to work like this. For Content, I went back to a cast of twelve and shot in twenty days, which made me more comfortable.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— How much of the process of filmmaking in Robinson is drawn from anecdotal autobiographical experience?

A

Chris Petit

— Everyone assumes that Robinson is autobiographical and it’s not. For years I suffered terrible consequences. Iain Sinclair was the only one who got it right when he described it as: ‘How does Harry Lime morph into Fassbinder?’

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— But aside from the insalubrious plot details, the drug use and violence, I’m referring to the details of filmmaking that you describe.

A

Chris Petit

— The book couldn’t have been written by someone who didn’t know how to make films. In that sense, there is a documentary level to the book.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— There is a distance that you choose to keep from characters. This removed camera eye.

A

Chris Petit

— It’s kind of Medium Long Shot. You don’t get much closer than that.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You may relate to the Isherwood line from the opening of Goodbye to Berlin: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.’ You employ a visual writing style in the novel, and sometimes refer to film directions: ‘INTERIOR NIGHT’.

A

Chris Petit

— I wanted a way to write the book without pretending to be a novelist. I didn’t think of myself as a novelist and I didn’t particularly want to say to anyone, ‘I am writing a novel.’ It was a way of carrying on making films without making films. I remember thinking: would it be possible to write a kind of prose film? I thought if I can set myself that task, then I can relieve myself of this terrible thing of writing a novel. Even now if I’m described as a novelist I feel slightly uncomfortable.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Would you describe yourself as a writer and filmmaker? Do you see those roles as mutual?

A

Chris Petit

— Increasingly. Always the problem was the slightly the maternal question:  when are you going to make up your mind? Initially for me, the critics’ reaction was very much filmmaker-writes-novel, probably dictated while driving around the Twickenham roundabout on the way to the film studio. Someone like James Wood had said: ‘Now is the time of the novel of place’. I remember thinking, before the first reviews came out, that’s quite good for us – Jonathan Meades with Pompey, I’m London with Robinson. In fact quite the opposite happened, and we were ticked off for daring to trespass.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— There was a new interest in space and place with your generation of writers, with Iain Sinclair, Patrick Wright, Patrick Keiller and others.

A

Chris Petit

— In a way Ackroyd started it. Because of that, this network in which Sinclair was dominant did grow up. I have very little connection with the literary scene, but on the other hand, Iain and I have collaborated. I think it was quite clear that the collaboration came out of the fact that we have common ground. There were crossovers. There was the shadowy figure of Keith Griffiths: my producer for Radio On. He never told me he was producing a film called Robinson, (Keiller’s), yet he knew very well that I was writing a book called Robinson. Keiller’s Robinson was Kafka.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— And your Robinson is after Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night.

A

Chris Petit

— Yes, the errant son of the original. In the Céline, whenever the narrator turns up anywhere, he finds that Robinson is already there, always ahead. Journey to the End of the Night was the first book I felt I was swimming downhill through – in comparison to the standard English Lit texts. There were very few English authors I liked. I struggled with Dickens, I’d always liked Conrad, but I found him slightly hard going. I liked Conan Doyle, for the sort of typewriter feeling behind it. With Wuthering Heights, I thought, I can really read this. But the psychology of the English novel is not something that I ever connected to.

 

I bought the Céline on the basis of the Penguin cover, a Delvaux painting of a train leaving a station. I’d been brought up as an army brat, and we were always moving all over the place, British Army Occupation on the Rhine, Hong Kong… so the combination of the journey, the derangement and the mad ending of the novel made complete sense. Céline was a very marginal man.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You’ve talked about the idea of travelling in and for itself, which runs through much of your work – the idea of drift as a productive means of creation.

A

Chris Petit

— Yes. Drift and boredom… Drift is a word for being caught in the middle.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Whereas the other male wanderers we mentioned like to walk, you like to drive…

A

Chris Petit

— It’s hard to imagine now but there was a time when getting one’s driving licence was the start of a certain kind of irresponsibility. I remember thinking when I got mine: ‘This is the last time I’m going to let anyone test me’.

 

I like driving enormously, as a spatial thing. I’d been on walks with Sinclair, and I could see exactly how this worked for him, as an easy way of gathering and logging material. Iain’s mode of research is very simple. I sort of walk behind him, seething with jealousy, thinking, well yes, he’ll have it sorted by tomorrow.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— The double framing provided by the car windscreen and the rear view mirror is a favoured device for you.

 

A

Chris Petit

— The great thing about filming in the car is that your options are limited. Once I’d worked out you have this double screen, it was easy. The other thing was being able to put a radio in the car, and even better, a cassette. Suddenly driving down the Westway at quarter-past midnight became a very different experience.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— The elevated perspective of the Westway, which you film from in Radio On, is unusual for Britain. You refer to it as ‘a relic of a London that never was.’

A

Chris Petit

— The first time I drove down it, I couldn’t believe it. I thought: why can’t we have more of this? It was part of that inner circuit that was never completed. It does stand as a tribute to the failure of modernism. I think Ballard called it ‘a stone dream’.

 

You see that the failure of Modernism wasn’t one of design but of maintenance. Golden Lane, which was something of a prototype, still works very well. It has become a kind of showcase for the Corporation of London, but it’s incredibly well designed.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— The other thing about driving and filming is that you encounter all these in-between non-spaces on the sides of motorways.

A

Chris Petit

— I’ve always liked the idea of non-spaces. I like sprawl and suburb. After a childhood dragged around country estates I said to my father – well I’d rather go to an industrial estate any day. In a way this is undocumented landscape; I wouldn’t want to be there permanently, but to pass through – I like to log it. That whole container world.

 

I may have been the person who introduced Sinclair to the suburbs, because when I first knew him he was relentlessly inner city. I can’t remember where I took him, to Brent Cross or – no, up to the Ikea estate – and it was like he’d found himself in an episode of Star Trek. To spend time in the suburbs is to really learn what boredom is. All those music movements of the Seventies and Eighties were surburban, and about migration to the city. David Bowie is a perfect example of the suburban boy’s career.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Ballard was also clearly interested in this world of the suburbs.

A

Chris Petit

— Ballard’s writing was influenced by memories of his childhood in ways we didn’t know until Empire of the Sun came out. I think his daily imagination did manage to transport him, to believe that the Shepperton he lived in, and that network of roads, was a small part of mid-America that had fallen into South West London. If you go to Shepperton, and you wander round, you realise that this was probably the greatest feat of imagination he ever managed. For our generation there was the thing of the liberation of greater America, and the sense of the freedom of driving around.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What about the Soho of Robinson, an inner-urban landscape, which you refer to as a raft drifting through the city?

A

Chris Petit

— At the time, London didn’t exist as a catalogued entity. I’d built up quite a lot of second-hand library books in the researching of Robinson, which you really had to hunt down. When I began writing, I was supposed to write a documentary book about Soho. I was interested in the notion of a red light district as a kind of free port… something that was of the city but still quite self-contained. Soho was also like a plughole, or Alice’s rabbit hole – a place where you could go to transform yourself, or get lost. Its boundaries were blurred, but you could go through the terrific entrance of the arch of Manette Street and have a sense of all obligations being lost.

 

But I didn’t really want to write a non-fiction book – I’d have to go and hang out with all the famous dead drunks, which I was too old to waste time doing. I thought: if I’m already thinking in terms of an imaginative space then it makes sense to transform the experience into an imaginative one. By then, because I’d already spent a lot of time hanging around Soho, I knew its topography pretty well. Then I started to rearrange this geography of inner London.

 

I’d read quite a few London and Soho novels: Elisabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, Charles Williams’ All Hallows’ Eve, Nigel Balchin’s Darkness Falls from The Air – all of them Blitz novels. I thought that the ending of Robinson should be just as apocalyptic. I was thinking too of John Martyn and his rather ghastly portraits of London. And of images of ships – maritime paintings and shipwrecks.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What do you think of the homogenisation of the area now?

A

Chris Petit

— It was inevitable, it was starting to happen in the early Nineties. If I were writing Robinson now, I don’t know where I’d set it ­– there isn’t anywhere to go anymore that matches the entire mental state of the book. There are still clubs that deal in porno-slash-celebrity. But the access is graded.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

Robinson becomes about the crossing of thresholds – the crossing of Manette Street, and then the moral transgressions that follow.

A

Chris Petit

— It’s a cautionary tale of what happens if you drink too much in Soho. Whereas The Hard Shoulder is a cautionary tale of what happens if you drink too much in Kilburn.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— It’s a very masculine universe, however. This idea of the solitary male, the drifter or the wanderer, that goes back to the solipsistic males of Romanticism. Vanessa Veselka said recently: ‘The male on the road can be solitary, whereas the female on the road is alone.’

A

Chris Petit

— It’s true. But the concept of the romantic hero is not particularly interesting to me. Asylum does have a female protagonist, as does Unrequited Love and the book I’m writing at the moment – albeit in an extremely male environment. Much of the film work I’ve done has also been done in collaboration with my wife, Emma Matthews, so there is a presiding female influence there.

 

The other thing is that I’ve had very little exposure to women, for great tranches of my life. So I didn’t have the material. In a way Robinson is to do with group or institutional behaviour – most of my observations are based on this. The concept of the alpha male I find vaguely incomprehensible.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— It’s not as though you’re presenting any kind of positive male quest. These characters are not conventional, they are marginal.

A

Chris Petit

— Things become more interesting if you knock the middle out. Part of the problem I always had with English culture was its obsession with the middle. In the movies I grew up with there was a cinema of the underdog, which was always more interesting to me.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your ongoing Museum of Loneliness project seems to situate itself at the margins – just as your previous ephemeral project with Iain Sinclair The Perimeter Fence did. Can you describe how the Museum of Loneliness came about?

A

Chris Petit

— The Museum of Loneliness was created in a response to the evaporating margin. It was a way of channelling some nebulous stuff that I felt was moving outside limits and areas where you could comfortably get commissions. I thought that with the digital revolution there would be more choice. But all the main institutional thinking actually became more conservative.

 

Sinclair and I had a period where it was possible to exploit marginal spaces within television commissioning and broadcast. That margin disappeared, just at the point where we thought that the work ought to follow on from itself. We’d just done London Orbital. Something you think of as being the start of the next stage ends up being the end of it. I logged the domain name for The Perimeter Fence, but it sat around for years doing nothing. It’s no longer traceable.

 

Museum of Loneliness came about when I was in Berlin. I was lying awake in the middle of the night thinking that although I was meeting people, I was staring at a screen most of the time. Our main relation now is with the screen, which is both lonely and not lonely.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— So establishing something for yourself, which is called a museum, serves simply as a parameter in which to do things, to produce?

A

Chris Petit

— I envisaged the Museum of Loneliness as a parasite, which would work through other bodies, but on its own terms. This means that you can do things for yourself; you don’t have to be validated by someone else.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Is the Museum of Loneliness anti-internet? The strategies you use for disseminating your work resist over-availability.

A

Chris Petit

— It’s anti lots of things, but not in a particularly negative way. I’m not anti-technology. Everyone has said to me, you should have a website, you should have a blog. And I thought, well alright, but very few things on the internet actually interest me, other than it being a tool on which you can look something up. We decided that we should start at the opposite end of dot com, so we produced, to begin with, several pamphlets. People were grateful for being given something to hold.

 

The idea came about following the Marclay show at The White Cube. Sinclair and I started going to the show separately, and corresponding by email (‘How was your twelve o’clock bit versus your seven in the morning?’), in order to respond before it started to get written up. This series of email exchanges published as a pamphlet worked very well. Marclay himself expressed interest in receiving a copy. Until we said we’d give him one in return for six signed The Clocks, at which point he lost interest. If you create something that is of some interest, and then make it unavailable, it starts to build its own momentum.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You shift away from the internet, but your medium for exchange was nonetheless digital.

A

Chris Petit

— There is a tension. For the Test Centre album, my wife Emma produced a cover image, and within two weeks this image was all over the internet. Suddenly you have this thing that is all-pervasive.

 

You can source all this material, but in 600 years time they are not going to be looking at it in the same way that we are. With the explosion of the image bank, a completely different kind of cataloguing is required. How do you go about doing it? It’s so vast, it’s so impossible, that you have to look for different ways of sifting through. I wasn’t going to do it, but I thought, at what point is someone going to sit down and sort out YouTube? We have reached the age of the un-catalogue.

 

Nobody does any gardening on the internet, so you come across these preserved landscapes from years ago, which have been completely untouched. You enter a new territory, where everything is gated in terms of what they choose to preserve. More should be remembered, so how do you remember the more bits?

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What about the transition from analogue to digital filmmaking? How have you experienced that transition from Radio On to Content?

A

Chris Petit

— Well there’s the obvious example that if the Lumières Brothers had turned up at the set or in the cutting room of Radio On they would have seen a process that they could recognise. They worked at the start of an industrial process, and we were working at the end of that particular phase. If they had turned up and watched the filming or editing of Content, it would have been beyond their comprehension, because there was no film, just memory. We had entered the age of non-linear editing.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What are you writing at the moment?

A

Chris Petit

— How long have you got? I’m writing a book about a female stenographer in a camp in Auschwitz between 1941 and 1943.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Stenography – another obsolete technology. A fiction?
A

Chris Petit

— Yes, fictional. That really is the problem. It began from a quote of Godard, who said in about 1965 that the only way to tell this story is through the eyes of a female stenographer. He was making the basic point that this was a bureaucratic process.

 

During the making of Content I discovered that in 1940 there were plans to turn Auschwitz and the surrounding area into a kind of garden paradise. A classic German garden town that would be a regional capital. There was a man called Stosberg who was going to bring in landscape gardeners to transform the whole area. Some of the development team’s policies were racist – they wanted a ‘pure’ creation of landscape.

 

Of course, what happened at Auschwitz subsequently erases any pre-history. I thought it would be interesting to try to tell this story.

 


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Hannah Gregory is a freelance writer and editor, currently based in Berlin. Her writing on contemporary culture has appeared in Frieze, Apollo, Icon  and The Wire.



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