Saturday, March 18, 2017

Review - Radio On (1979)

A laconic loner traverses a bleak, post-industrial England via automobile in Chris Petit's moody, monochrome road movie, the first feature from the critic turned director. After learning that his brother has died under mysterious, possibly sordid circumstances, late-night radio DJ Robert (David Beams) drives from London to Bristol in search of answers, unaccompanied but for a tastefully selected stack of cassettes from Bowie, Kraftwerk and Devo. While he finds little in the way of an explanation, he does encounter a series of forlorn characters - including a disturbed army deserter fleeing service in Ireland (Andrew Byatt) and a German woman searching for her estranged daughter (Lisa Kreuzer) - that personify the despondency and doubt gripping late-70's Britain, soon to be exacerbated by impending Thatcherism. An overt cinephile, Petit packs his debut with visual and thematic allusions to decidedly un-British arts films like 'Two-Lane Blacktop,' 60's Antonioni, and most prominently, the road movies of Wim Wenders, who, not coincidentally, serves as a producer here. The music-obsessed, highway-bound protagonist could easily have drifted out of one of Wenders' psychic landscapes, but Petit still deserves a great deal of credit. No English film before or since has skated the line between dreary realism and arthouse aesthetics with such easy elegance, or punk insouciance.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Review - God Speed You! Black Emperor (1976)

Before crystallizing the existential themes that would define his narrative films - spare, neo-Bressonian studies of outsiders, punctuated by bursts of cathartic violence - Mitsuo Yanagimachi made this gritty 1976 documentary about Tokyo's Black Emperors motorcycle gang. Shot in inky 16mm, it trails the group's teenage members as they swarm through the city on their bikes, stumble through school and familial obligations, and clash with traffic police, as well as each other. Far from Hells Angels or modish delinquents, the film's subjects are a ragtag assortment of dropouts, latchkey kids and Shinjuku bums, united behind a dubious, but frankly understandable enterprise. After all, they have nowhere to go, nothing to occupy their time and energy, and no one but their gang elders to look after them. Yanagimachi's prying camera reveals an inner-hierarchy not dissimilar to the larger society that the bikers reject; young pledges soon discover that even Emperors have to put up with pushy superiors, sternly lecturing about "shared hardships." At first, the droll observation evokes Frederick Wiseman-esque vérité, but as in each of the director's subsequent works, the tone gradually and subtly shifts, from frivolity to silent desperation. As jokes and silliness give way to psychological intimidation and intra-gang violence, the editing becomes more oblique, and tension mounts. The boys' joyride is transformed into a two-wheeled tour of urban alienation.