Apart from “Radio On” and “London Orbital”, Chris Petit’s films are not available on DVD. Although Channel 4 have commissioned him for projects (several made in collaboration with Iain Sinclair, which perhaps shows you where I’m going here), they are rarely broadcast. As a filmmaker, Petit exists on the fringe of the fringe. He maintains a high profile through his work as a lecturer, as a journalist and book reviewer for the Guardian, and, more unusually, as a writer of high-brow thrillers, but his films, the very source of his reputation, remain resolutely underground.
This is as it should be, I think, and underground is where the best work is most often done. Sinclair referred to Petit’s films as “unseen (and unchallenged)”, “weirdly posthumous”, guaranteeing them a mythic quality. It makes them “interesting enough to be saved from the oblivion of an afterlife on DVD.” [Ghost Milk, p.205]. In other words, if you want to watch any of Petit’s films, you have to be prepared to put some effort in. It’s more than their cryptic, conspiratorial style that makes them feel like samizdat; to get hold of them, you need to know the right people, make the right contacts, open yourself up to serendipity and coincidence. (Or simply trawl through the lower reaches of the internet, where everything, in time, can be found.)
“The Falconer” and “Asylum”, the two films I watched recently, were co-written and co-filmed with Iain Sinclair. They feel like bootleg surveillance footage, smuggled in from the edge of the culture. They are what Sinclair calls, elsewhere, a “cinema of vagrancy”. Raw, the images cleverly manipulated and edited, but not smoothed out and polished in any way, have all the disturbing quality of a found tape in a Japanese horror film. I’d got hold of these films last year (I won’t go into the details). Understanding perhaps that I wasn’t yet ready to watch them, I put them away and forgot about them. I found the discs recently; appropriately enough they were tucked into the slipcase of my Patrick Keiller double-bill of “London” and “Robinson in Space”. (One of Petit’s novels is called “Robinson”, part-based on the eponymous character from Keillor’s films.) Each film is essentially a fictional documentary, an hour each. Images are blurred, they break down and disintegrate in the middle of a sequence, or turn into a swirling mass of fractals. Figures haunt motorway sidings, multi-storey carparks. Archive footage blends with unmediated CCTV; fractured voiceover with didactic interviews. Familiar theorists, writers, and avant garde artists pop up to recount hair-raising conspiracies – Stewart Home, Kathy Acker, Michael Moorcock, Sinclair himself. “The Falconer” is an “investigation” into the life and career of Peter Lorrimer Whitehead, the louche filmmaker, 1960s survivor, and occult magician. “Asylum” is set in an unspecified future following a viral outbreak, and purports to be an assemblage of footage connected to an unspecified project known as the “Perimeter Fence”. (It’s also about Michael Moorcock, in an equally unspecified way.) They both look like they’ve been shot on a budget of £7.50, and that was just for the taxi fare to get to the location.
Watching both of these films feels vaguely like being initiated into a cult. You’re in the edgelands now, you’re picking through the cultural detritus of the century; you’re under surveillance, or you’ve got someone under surveillance yourself. You’ll start carrying a camera everywhere and take pictures of the graffiti in rusting industrial estates. You’ll record the sound of disused motorways, and build up dossiers on non-existent people. And one day, all of this will appear in one of Petit’s films. If you every manage to get hold of it, you’ll recognise yourself in the hazy, unfocused footage of a sinister figure staring out to sea, on the estuarial wastelands by an abandoned power station.