An Interview with Chris Petit

Chris Petit

Chris Petit is visiting Sheffield Hallam University this afternoon, where his most recent film, Content (2010), is being screened.  Martin Carter and I manage to get a few minutes with him to ask about Content, his other projects, and his collaborative work with Iain Sinclair.

Content is a film essay, according to many of the write-ups.  Chris tells us what this term means to him.

“One of the things Iain and I, in our work together, have been insistent on is an absolute refusal of definition.  We see no problem with mixing form, fact, fiction.  We’re mistrustful of objective truths.  So, you get called a film essayist.

I think for both of us, because we have film backgrounds and because we’re writers, it’s a form we fell into by default.  The way we worked, pretty sloppily, really, or on a loose and improvised basis, meant that I realized the visual material was greatly strengthened if you wrote over it: if you released yourself from being dependent on synch-sound.  Then you could actually say or write what you wanted over the image.  In a way, this is a form of essay filmmaking, and given that the word ‘essay’ means ‘to try,’ you could argue that these films are attempts at filmmaking, or attempts at finding other ways of processing information or storytelling other than the usual ways.”

Content has been described as an informal coda to Radio On (Petit 1979).  There are clear links, through the driving motif, for example, but I want to know more about the relationship between the two films.

Content is a response to the financial crash of 2008, as much as it is, ostensibly, about more personal things.  When we made Radio On, it was the end of Callaghan’s Labour government, it was an extremely depressed country, and the film, I think, manages to show that, without having an obvious political context.   And I thought the same with making Content, could you show the mood or climate of somewhere, so that in 30 years it would make as much sense about 2008 as Radio On seems to about 1979.  Having said that, when we made Radio On, none of us had any sense that anyone would be looking at it even in five years time.

When we started thinking about Content, the crash had just happened, and I thought the economic span that started with Margaret Thatcher had lasted until 2009 and incorporated New Labour, and that you had a 30-year period.  How do you mark that with another film?  To begin with I thought you make a film about the economic crash and you go and talk to people, which I’m not very good at.  And then I started listening to the radio, and I wondered, if they’re so clever now, why weren’t they so clever before, and does anyone really want my economic analysis.   I felt the only response was a sort of silence, to take the motif of Radio On and take to the road.  It was Emma Matthews, who edits the film, who said you better get back in the car.

We bought a Casio camera, which has this slo-mo quality.  I was driving, and Emma was filming, and I said, how much have you got.  She said 50 minutes.  I said, that’s half the film.  We’ll do up and down the Westway twice.”

The image of the car, the journey, the moving landscape, all make sense, but as a non-driver, what am I missing?  I’m curious of the idea that driving, rather than being driven, is a cinematic experience.

“I think it’s very different now, but for my generation, the acquisition of a driving licence, being able to drive, seemed the last great test of one’s life.  I remember thinking I’m never going to let anyone examine me again.  The car was a metaphor for freedom.  And whoever thought of putting a radio-cassette in a car was a genius.  It was the start of that technological revolution, which is still going on, where you could programme your own music in relation to an environment.  It was the start of the Walkman, iPod culture, admittedly you had to be in a car to do it.  But you had a moving landscape and you had music.  You had the cinematic frame of the windscreen.  For me it didn’t work as a passenger.  It worked as a solitary experience, best without dialogue.

I always liked people on their own in films.  In fact, you could argue that my entire career has been an argument against the reverse angle.  Before I made a film, I had this experience that if you sit in a car it’s a cinematic experience, and if you sit a person in the driving seat and put a camera behind, it’s going to look pretty good.  For commercial purposes, you have to have a certain level of encounter.  Can you get away with having as little said as possible in the first 20 minutes?  Then someone comes in and does the equivalent of hitting you over the head with a screed of dialogue.  And he moves on.  It was pretty much worked out around that.  If you keep in the car as much as possible, you don’t have to come round for the reverse angle.  I don’t know how to do that other stuff.  I don’t understand about continuity and eye-line, so lets keep it on the road as much as possible.

The big difference between then and now is that the journey is almost entirely virtual.  You don’t have to have these encounters.  With Content, they’re all electronic, the email correspondence, the YouTube kids.  I also like this idea that there’s this silent judge, the six-year-old kid, sitting in the back, who says nothing.  Children are never shown to be thinking, or they’re sentimentalized.  He was very good at doing it, too.”

Why is the boy always referred to as the boy?  Is it related to the idea of post-cinema where there is the chance of multiple narratives and the absence of narrative through this depersonalized referencing?

“Post-Cinema was a phrase I invented for some German friends, filmmakers and artists.  They wanted me to give a paper in Switzerland, and I used the phrase, kind of as a joke.  But of the pieces I’ve written in the last five years, it’s been translated into more languages than the other pieces put together.

I just didn’t want it to be Chris and Louis.  He is ‘the boy’.  There’s a form I quite like, the objective first person, so it’s not me as me.  You’re using it as an alternative to the third person.  I suppose a lot of the comments in the film were generational, as much as they were personal, so I thought it seemed wrong to start naming people, because then it becomes about you as you.  I had to put myself in the film because I was too mean to pay an actor.  I shot some stuff in Berlin using an actress, but it didn’t work.  Doing it yourself, you don’t have to pay anyone, you don’t have to speak to them … ‘Now I want you to do this …’”

Chris tells us about the editing process of Content, how there was a lot of footage, but that it was difficult to work out how to place the material.

“There were various vague ideas.  We had that phrase occur, ‘The bleak flatlands of late middle-age,’ which was a good phrase, and that thing of the driving state of mind: you’re detached, you’re engaged, you’re passive, you’re active, you’re stationary, you’re moving.  I hadn’t seen anything that captures that state, mainly because cars are usually used as a receptacle for dialogue.  So that’s what we were trying to do.

But within that, there was no obvious structure or form.  I’d shot the YouTube kids and I’d shot the German actor.  The real problem was you could put anything next to anything.  You might have a good morning and put a run of four things together, and the next thing you’d put in would be wrong.  Not only would it be wrong, it would undo everything you’d done before.

We were also very indecisive about the order of the music.  When we got that right, things started to fall into place.  The track we begin with, ‘Let’s Make Our Own Movies,’ we resisted putting in.  We said, no, this won’t work.  Similarly, the stuff that we lead with about my father, I said I didn’t want at the front; it comes at the end.  Actually, often something that we do is put what should be at the end at the beginning, or what should be at the beginning at the end.

The cutting is quite instinctive.  There’s no paper cut.  There’s a lot of mucking about.  And on this film, it was rather like playing Patience.  You just lay the cards down and down and down, it doesn’t come out.  You lay them down again, and after nine or ten weeks, we began to know the deck, or the permutations, so well, we could say with conviction, ‘that goes,’ or ‘we move that to there’.

One of the things Emma and I have discussed is, in this country, we’re of the very few people exploring the possibilities of non-linear editing.  I remember thinking when it started out, you can do anything now.  Television’s general response to that whole technological revolution was to become even more conservative.  These companies get a pot of money, the bulk of which goes into pre-production.  They skimp on the filming, and really cut down on editing because they’ve worked out that, with non-linear editing, they can get away with something very approximate, barely more than an assembly.  The executives like it because they can say, ‘can we see it like this now’.  Television has reduced this fantastic tool to a keyboard skill.

Now I need to find a way to treat the writing in the same way, a much freer, and at the same time, edited, experience.  I’m bored with the linear form.”

Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair are collaborating through their imprint, The Museum of Loneliness, which publishes pamphlets, including The Clock, which is a series of email exchanges in relation to a 24hr video installation by Christian Marclay.  It is constructed using film clips of moments when time is expressed or displayed on screen.  So between the hours of 10 and 12 in real time, you’d see film clips that pretended to be between 10 and 12.

“Iain and I decided to, between us, see as much of this as we could and write it up.  We decided to do it as a series of email exchanges because there is that, what Iain calls, tapping on the edge of oblivion, where the way you write emails is different to the way you write other things.  It was a terrific relief to do it, a real pleasure.

The interesting thing about the pamphlet format is that people respond to it.  Communication is so easy now.  Everything we read is off a screen.  So it’s unusual when you hear about this object, and you can’t really buy it, and it’s not a book.  It’s designed to be read with a fairly short attention span; it’s like reading a newspaper article, but the definition of its format makes it more interesting.  It’s one of those accidents.  We were able to buy a laser printer for £25, so it came out of a technological development at home.

It’s quite good if you make things hard to find because everything is so ubiquitous.  I think the only interesting thing I’ve said in the last five years, is that I want to be de-googled.  There’s a sense there’s so much.  I think it’s interesting to start things in a small way, almost the opposite of viral.  You keep it very local, and you hope that at some point it will broaden.

The other strategic thing, because Iain and I did not get other projects off the ground at the point where I thought we would, I realized how jaded the executive world is, and television is so uncertain of what it wants, that however good your pitch is, it is just another pitch.  So, if you create something that is not a pitch, but something they can look at, there is an advantage.

What Emma and I would like to do is to start cutting in space rather than in time.  Is it possible to cut stuff in a way that it’s redisplayed in three-dimensional space?  What interests me about 3D space and gallery space, is that the notion of cutting, or editing, which I think is the most interesting part of film, has barely penetrated there.  You look at these installations and they hardly know what a cut is.  I think there’s a fantastic amount of work you could do, if you start raiding the image bank and you reassemble this material in different ways.  That’s what Marclay has started to do.  If you go back and look at the stuff you’ve recorded, what’s interesting is the filler bits, what ads they were showing.  There’s all this ephemera, and I think you could really have fun with this.

About two years ago, I decided to watch daytime TV for two weeks.  It’s a cultural dead zone.  I thought, are you going to find anything there, what’s the experience like.  It’s not particularly threatening.  Just mild twitches of panic.  It’s neither good, nor bad enough.  It’s pretty soporific.  I got a commission to write the piece, but that never ran.  I didn’t do very much other than describe what I saw.  That’s been turned into another pamphlet.  It’s a cottage industry.  You can do it yourself.  The relief of being out of the commissioning process is you do what you want, you provide the stuff, it’s cheap.  That was the big realization: you just do it.

So, I think 3D space is the next frontier, somewhere between 3D space and daytime TV.  They’re the parameters.”