While working as editor of the film section of the London listings magazine Time Out in the mid-1970s, Chris Petit interested Wim Wenders in backing his first feature, Radio On (1979). In spite - or perhaps because - of having no previous film-making experience, Petit pulled off an extraordinary debut, a highly 'European' road movie which, greatly aided by the cinematography of Wenders regular Martin Schafer, presented the British landscape, both rural and urban, in a manner quite unparalleled before or since. Moody and angst-ridden, it announced a singular talent - but also one that was clearly not destined to find a niche easily; as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith aptly put it, Radio On was "a film without a cinema".
Nevertheless, Petit managed to make three more impressive features: a dark, stylised adaptation of P.D. James' An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1981) and, in Germany, the Fassbinder-ish thrillers Flight to Berlin (1983) and Chinese Boxes (1984). The last two displayed Petit's increasing desire to experiment with narrative forms, and marked his effective break with mainstream cinema.
It was while looking for novels about Soho as research for a non-fiction book on the area that Petit met the bookseller, psychogeographer, poet and novelist Iain Sinclair, and the two began work on the first part of what would become a loose trilogy for Channel 4 about marginalised cultural figures. This was The Cardinal and the Corpse (1992), which, like Petit's other programmes at the time (with the obvious exception of his Miss Marple episode, A Caribbean Mystery), had begun to push at the limits of the aesthetically acceptable on British television.
More recently, this trend has become even more pronounced. Thus with the second film in the trilogy, The Falconer (1997), which is in part a portrait of maverick film-maker Peter Whitehead, Petit stated that:
I was interested in seeing if there was a way of producing a film which was constructed more like writing - because when you are writing something you don't necessarily know where it is going to end up... The Falconer for example never really aspired to be a film, more to a state of mutation or hybrid. It was an essay or graphic novel as much as it was a film, an exercise in vertical layering rather than linear unfolding.
This clearly sums up the direction that Petit's later work, with and without Sinclair, has taken. Clearly influenced by Marker and Godard, he has become increasingly fascinated by the textural possibilities of the new digital technologies, both at the shooting and, even more importantly, at the editing stage. Going beyond the camera-stylo to the camcorder-stylo, then constantly re-filming and manipulating his images, he creates what Chris Darke has called a "heavily textured, multilayered tapestry of formats" and works of "discursive digital metafiction".
That these explorations of visual forms can become solipsistic is illustrated by Asylum (2000), which carries the ominous sub-title The Last Commission. On the other hand, Petit's film about the veteran film critic Manny Farber, Negative Space (1999), is an absolutely fascinating interrogation of the image - and all too clearly demonstrates just how bland and conventional is the vast bulk of the images which we watch on television today.
Darke, Chris, 'TV Afterlife', Film Comment, July/Aug. 2000, pp. 37-38.
Jackson, Kevin, 'Lunatics on the Pitch', Sight and Sound, June 2000, pp. 26-28
Mulvey, Laura, 'Detail, Digression, Death', Afterall, No.5, 2002, pp.98-105
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, 'Radio On', Screen, Winter 1979-80, pp. 29-39
Petit, Chris, 'ICA Biennial', Vertigo, Autumn/Winter 1995, pp. 5-8
Petit, Chris, 'Pictures by Numbers', Film Comment, March/April 2001, pp. 38-43
Serafino, Murri, 'Anatomies of the Image', Afterall, No.5, 2002, pp. 86-92.
Sinclair, Iain, Lights Out for the Territory (London: Granta, 1997)
Julian Petley, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors