The chauffeur: Duran/ Ballard/ Petit/ Newton

In Chris Petit's 1979 masterpiece Radio On, the protagonist drives his vintage car down the Westway in London, while David Bowie's 'Always Crashing in the Same Car' plays on the soundtrack. In the background we can see high-rise council blocks, and a haze over a drab London. Radio On begins in Ballard territory, but develops into a road movie, where urban anomie is left behind on a fragmented road trip to Bristol, where the protagonist will attempt to deal with the death of his brother. (His brother had sent him a birthday present of three Kraftwerk albums on tape, at the beginning of the film: Radioactivity, Trans-Europe Express and Man-Machine. Not Autobahn, though: too obvious.) Radio On takes its cue from New German Cinema, particularly Wenders, in its oblique take on the contemporary everyday. Iain Sinclair, friend and collaborator of Petit, describes Radio On as 'a mysterious, existential journey - to Weston-Super-Mare (with swathes of prophetic weather, future rock stars tending petrol pumps, and unconsummated adulteries).' The 'glum' anti-hero, a DJ who works the night-shift on United Biscuits Radio, broadcasting to workers in factories in the UK, inhabits the same affectless, drifting subjectivity inhabited by the Ballardian protagonist. Like Crash's James Ballard, the DJ anti-hero drives the roads of west London and its environs, the blank psychological 'zone' of driving represented by the tracking shots of the city framed by the windows of the car. As in Petit's later London Orbital and Content, the gaze of the camera itself stages a psychological dislocation, defocused, glazed.

Radio On seem anomalous in British cinema. It inaugurated no New British Cinema oriented towards European art-cinema styles and practices (partly because it never achieved the level of state funding that supported Wenders, Herzog and Fassbinder; Petit's career has been almost as fugitive as that of Orson Welles). There remain few British road movies. When I watch it, it bespeaks the end of the 1970s, a ruined modernism overlaid on the fabric of post-war London, a fabric (of the post-war settlement) beginning to fray, Margaret Thatcher's depredations about to descend. The tracking shot that opens the film, a long traverse of a small apartment, set to a splice of Bowie's "Heroes" and its German version "Helden", reveals a peculiarly British living space that I recognise instantly: gloss-white panel doors, a cramped living room, hi-fi system,  cork board. The lights of the city and its automobiles dot the night, close up against uncurtained windows. We only later find that this is the brother's apartment, and the body lying in a tub of water we see is his. The photography is black and white, crisp, beautifully lit, noirish certainly but subtly achieved. It mixes the compositional details of realism with the aesthetic sheen of art photography.

Radio On's musical sensibility is definitively post-punk, 'new wave': on the soundtrack are Bowie's Berlin period, Kraftwerk, Wreckless Eric. The energies of punk itself have dissipated, leaving anomie, dislocation, dystopia. As the note pinned to the brother's wall reads: 'We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun.We are the link between the '20s and the '80s. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesizers and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality.' Like the phenomenon of Android Rock (see previous post), Radio On is not science fiction, but attempts to inhabit a mode of being that is technologised, filled with white noise, static, repetition and reproduction, stylised sexuality, self-alienation, drift. That is: Ballardian. (Petit would have made a fantastically interesting film version of Crash.)

'The link between the '20s and the '80s' is an interesting avenue to pursue. For, pop-culturally, as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, post-punk itself dissipated. Driven by the 'Blitz Kids', and taking Bowie's glam personae rather than his Berlin albums as its cue, London became home to the New Romantics: masculinity as performance, counter-culture as hedonism, dressing up and going out and the importance of electronic dance music. A key group of the period was Duran Duran, from Birmingham, who quickly ascended to pop superstardom through a mixture of pop-rock hooks, glossy videos, and the embodying of an aspirational, leisure/pleasure oriented consumption. Albeit considered a 'teenybopper' band for its appearances in Smash Hits and elsewhere, Duran Duran always played with transgression, particularly in their videos. Their breakthrough hit, 'Girls on Film' was filmed a few weeks prior to the launch of MTV in 1981, and its crisp uptempo pop was accompanied by female nudity to the extent that the video was censored by both the BBC and MTV. This did the song no harm at all, of course, and I remember it being the talk of the school playground in 1981. The group attempted to repeat this controversial trick several time subsequently, including the video I want to consider here, for 'The Chauffeur'.

This song was not a single. It was the last track on 1982's 'Rio' lp, a downtempo closer, but a video was made for it, and was included on the 1983 Duran Duran video compilation. Unlike the videos for 'Rio', 'Hungry Like the Wolf' or 'Save  Prayer', the one for 'The Chauffeur' did not feature the band in glossy colour in exotic locations. Instead, shot around west London in black and white by Ian Emes, it features two young women, dressed in lingerie, who meet for a strange assignation in an underground car park. In the early part of the video, the film cuts between a point-of view shot of a young woman in the back of a vintage limousine, and reverse-shots which show her semi-naked body with, in the background, the same towers we saw from the Westway in Radio On. London is altered, however, from the locus or urban anomie to the dressing for a narrative of fetishistic display, lesbian eroticism, and a connection to a very different German aesthetic.

It has been noted that the end of the video, where the two young women assume a 'dance' of stylised poses, watched by the chauffeur, while another young woman offers a topless dance, is an homage of sorts to The Night Porter (1974), where the traumatic personal histories of those who survived the concentration camps and sexual sado-masochism are interwoven. I also think there's more than a hint of Weimar decadence here to spice up the Nazi/S&M stew; and also, as has also been noted, the influence of Helmut Newton. But again, we're surely here back on familiar ground: transgressive sexualities, car parks, automobiles, voyeurism.

Newton was German photographer whose work is particularly characterised by the staging the nude bodies of white ('Nordic') women, usually models, for a voyeuristic gaze, often accompanied by fetishistic garb and gear. Newton was a friend of Ballard, who regularly promoted the photographer's works and brushed aside claims of objectification or exploitation of the female body, as a form of pornography. Indeed, Ballard went so far as to claim that 'I don't see Helmut Newton as a purveyor of softcore porn but as the creator of a unique imaginative world not too far from Crash.' This imaginative world, as we can see from the photograph to the left, is determined by the male gaze; the women in it are rendered as objects, fetishized limbs. So far, so banal. But it is the accoutrements of early 1980s corporate leisure here which are really diagnostic: the black business suit, like the ones worn by Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter, android chic; the VCR and portable tv; old money displayed in furniture, chandelier, mirror. This is what the Gary Numan persona would get up to in 'Are Friends Electric?' if he wasn't quite so alienated. The photograph is a staging of power, rather than sexuality, of course, but it is also an attempt to stage the inner landscape of the 1980s male business executive: the real pleasure principle is in watching two fetishistically-clad models watching tv themselves. Sex, the middle-man, has been done away with completely, and the scene can concentrate on watching and mediation, without the need for dry-cleaning the suit. This is, ultimately, why the Duran lads aren't in the video for 'The Chauffeur': like us, they're watching the video, and do not need to be in it.

It struck me while listening to 'Rio' the other day that Duran Duran, whether consciously or not, echo Ballardian imagery in 'The Chauffeur'. The lyrics of the song begin 'Out on the tar plains, the glides are moving/ All looking for a new place to drive', a line that always puts me in mind of the Tanguy-like territory of Vermillion Sands, while the 'droning engine' one hears on the track sounds almost like that of a light aircraft. Where Bowie's 'Always Crashing in the Same Car' seems like a direct channelling of Ballardian imagery (and itself features a scene that fuses Crash and 'The Chauffeur': 'I saw you peeping/ As I pushed my foot down to the floor/ I was going round and round the hotel garage/ Must have been touching close to 94'), drawing Radio On into Ballardian territory, along the Westway, Duran Duran draw upon another Ballardian imaginary: the secret pathologies of the leisure class. In 1984's 'Wild Boys' they were to mix Burroughs with Mad Max to oddly charmless effect, but I prefer the glassy, off-kilter blankness of 'The Chauffeur' as a song, for all the Newton knock-off video: here, by indirection, Duran Duran drift towards Shepperton.

Comments

  1. Dear Brian,

    thank you for these inspiring views on a film I did not know - I will try my best to watch it. Besides, I was hooked by your blog instantly, for a guy with a crush on SF and Cocteau couldn't be wrong.

    Have a great day,
    Brian (from Stuttgart)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you, Brian (from Stuttgart)!

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