I finally got around to watching this film and am glad to have stuck with it. The director Chris Petit, born in 1949, is a director, writer, psychogeographer and posssibly most famous for a road move he made in 1979 called Radio On. His wife Emma Matthews edited this film and captured much of the road trip footage during a family holiday.
This film is deeply personal and seemed a bit masturbatory at first. However, the sequences and narrative threads/ideas are woven together in such a way that it allows time to think without becoming so slow that it lost my interest.
Much of the time we are driving with Chris and his son “the boy” (and also Petit’s wife but we are never shown that). Dark and rainy in places, lots of grey flat light and some US desert scenes. This is quite soothing, as all good car journeys should be, but maybe more so as I have been in quarantine for 170 days and cannot even remember the last time I was in a car. It is a non-linear ‘plot’ as Petit felt that the move from real to virtual meant it was necessary to tell a different kind of story.
The visual content is enhanced with maps, polaroids, contact sheets, archive clips and lots of postcards which makes for a rich and thought-provoking feast.
Subtitles had been blanked out on the version I watched which actually did add to the hauntological and rather dystopian feel of the work. The person who posted it included this note: Christopher Petit’s ‘Content’ is a kind of hypnotic road movie, a meditation on the limbo of middle-age and the flatness of the digital age. The film isn’t available for love nor money, so this is my Frankenstein construction from two badly corrupted online sources. The lesser version is from here on YouTube, the better version was ripped from German TV, but covered in the worst imaginable large yellow subtitles. I’ve tried to key them out, but it’s a bit of a mess down there. The stuttering video disappears after about 10 minutes. I at least managed to get a solid audio track together.
Petit is well-spoken and has a jaded tone that I found a bit jarring – I could imagine him sounding patronising or smug – but I warmed to him after seeing the quiet brilliance of this work and hearing what a huge endeavour this was (from the interview linked below).
He narrates much of the film and we see him speaking but only while he is looking at a screen, never into camera. Elsewhere we only see him from a distance, faceless.
Key themes include the second world war, non-places (especially huge warehouses and ‘sheds’), the internet and the isolation/social disconnects it has created, consumerism, new towns and brutalist architecture, childhood homes, relationship counselling, and – ultimately – time and mortality. The interview reveals that Petit intended this to be a documentary about the 2008 financial crash (the end of 30 years of an economic streak). He describes the process of multi-strands getting gradually whittled down and the end result being a response to the material available.
It is a very hauntological work using grainy slow motion footage, music and vocals to create atmosphere, evoking alienation and angst, combined with commentary about time and lost futures. The acceleration of technology just leads to more postponement. “We’re in the loop.”
The narrative tries to contextualise his father’s generation, who had to process images of the holocaust and the atomic bombings and his generation, growing up during the cold war when imminent death was a big part of popular culture, alongside sexual emancipation and the lofty promises of modernism. We see his child staring out of the window, playing in the sand and in snow, as an inevitable metaphor for the future, lifting the work from being entirely lacking in hope. It ends positively and so succeeds as a meditation, rather than a depressing midlife crisis.
“We drive into a new time zone, the future past, where everything is brighter and smaller.”
“We are reversing into a tomorrow, based on a non-existent past, with built-in redundancy.”
“The past becomes less about time or distance but more like a series of rooms. An ever-present space, like a room next door. Not one that you want to enter necessarily but in which you can find yourself at anytime.”
“There’s nothing about email that says where you are”
“Message in a bottleneck”
“We are the disappeared. We disappeared ourselves.”
“One goes on living as if nothing went wrong”.
“It is a relief to find that I believe in nothing.”
“Life is a relay race of botched handovers.
- This meditative, reflective approach really appeals to me. The repetition is comforting and allows space for some of the more depressing stuff without overwhelming the tone.
- Not sure how much the title has added to the work and there is something off-putting about it to me (although maybe less so, a decade ago). He mentioned lab rats eating the cereal packets as they think there is more nutrition in the cardboard than the content.
- He talks about “excavating the present” but from a future PoV – “imagine yourself as a time traveller”; an archeology of history as a series of rooms. Petit was attempting to expand time but also collapse it. This is how I have been trying to frame the ideas I have for my BoW but have not yet resolved some of the complexities.
- At the end of the interview he compares the work to Escher drawings. “It is and it isn’t”. They had no point of reference and were working completely blind. Sounds very familiar right now.