“[…] radio is one sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organise its listeners as suppliers.”
– Bertolt Brecht1
The three films we selected this week are looking at – and listening to – people making radio in the eighties. In the first two films, there is a deep sense of belief in the possibilities this “vast network of pipes” may offer the world; a hope that is similar to the utopian optimism surrounding the free internet in the early nineties. As the independent local radio makers in the Dardenne brothers’ R… ne répond plus (1981) “give voice” to the struggles of their communities, the women that form the feminist rebellion in Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983) use their DIY radio station as a means of guerrilla warfare in a post-revolutionary dystopia. Somewhat of a precursor to Uncut Gems, the third film, Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio (1988), stars Eric Bogosian as a local talk radio host who is simultaneously haunted by the pressure of going national and by his perverted fan base. All three films, each in their distinctive way, seem to inhabit Brecht’s early wish for the radio to not only speak, but also listen.
- 1. Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre. Translated and edited by Jon Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964. [“Der Rundfunk als Kommunikationsapparat” in Blätter des Hessischen Landestheaters, Darmstadt, no. 16 (July 1932).]
For three months, the Dardenne brothers investigated independent local radio stations in Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland. The result is a fascinating picture of the arrival of independent radio in Europe as a subversive alternative to the official media (public broadcasters and commercial mass media). To do this, the filmmakers spoke with pioneers. They also took an interest in the installations, such as hidden transmitters. One of them is a radio which broadcasts in the Alsatian dialect in order to protect a minority language. R… ne répond plus is a virtuoso work in which the Dardennes experiment with sound, only logical since the subject concerns radio stations. The film ends in an almost deafening cacophony of voices, static and other sounds that fill the airwaves.
“The radio voice not only is a poetic sound (upon which the soundtrack plays enormously) but conveys a political truth: ‘politics is first and foremost a question of voice; radio is a question of voice,’ says the repairman, the man at the beach speaks against the din of the sea. The film follows several contributors to the Radio Free movement as they give voice to the antinuclear movement, student protests in Italy, local linguistic conflicts, and problems of racism encountered by immigrants. Voices heard on the radio here intervene into politics before rigid ideology can gain a foothold. Over the radio waves flow voices without metadiscourses, or as one of the news producers at the radio station says, Radio Free ‘communicates facts without opinions,’ leaving the listener to come to his or her own conclusions. This is of course its strength. The Radio Free movement seems to realize Berthold Brecht’s desire that the radio become a form of communication rather than distribution, that it ‘let the listener speak as well as hear… to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him’.”
“‘Working your voice to defend your town. Every evening he came to the square, picked up stones, put them in his mouth and spoke to the sound of the sea. Since the voice has the power to metamorphosise and communicate, doing politics was first and foremost a question of the voice. Doing radio was first and foremost a question of politics’, says the opening commentary to R… ne répond plus. After working on struggles of the past, the Dardennes investigated the current moment, exploring the circulation of the word and other information carried by free radios. […] In their previous films, the word was above all an action, here, the images maintain the gestures of an action which has not yet encountered the real.”
Hors Champ: Déjà, en 1981, vous posiez le constat que « le réel ne répond plus ». Votre passage du documentaire à la fiction dans les années subséquentes, est-il dû à ce constat de l’effritement du réel ou, tout simplement, est-ce que le documentaire s’est mis à présenter des limites quant à sa capacité de capter le réel ? C’est une grande question…
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: … Que je ramènerai à une dimension très étroite. J’aime bien votre liaison entre le R... ne répond plus (1981) et l’effritement du réel, mais je ne pense pas que le documentaire en lui-même soit épuisé. Nous, il nous a semblé que le documentaire que nous pratiquions ne nous satisfaisait plus et nous avions envie d’essayer autre chose. Nous avions envie de pousser, de développer un peu ce que nous faisions dans les documentaires, où les personnages étaient un peu mis en scène. Nos documentaires ne sont pas des documentaires où l’on essaie de capter la vie qui soit synchrone avec le temps du tournage et de nos personnages. Ce sont chaque fois des gens qui se souviennent de quelque chose, donc ils sont mis en situation. Nous étions simplement arrivés au bout de ce qu’on avait envie de faire.
Entretien avec Luc et Jean-Pierre Dardenne par Frédérick Pelletier dans Hors Champ3
- 1. Joseph Mai, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 16-17.
- 2. Jacqueline Aubenas, Le cinéma des frères Dardennes (Brussels: CGRI, 2008).
- 3. Frédérick Pelletier, « Entretien avec Luc et Jean-Pierre Dardenne. Quelque chose qui résiste au regard, » Hors Champ, 25 décembre 2005.
Set ten years after the most peaceful revolution in United States history, Born in Flames presents a dystopia in which the issues of many groups - minorities, liberals, gay rights organizations, feminists - are dealt with by the government.
“I made the film because it seemed that people now were either completely cynical about the effectiveness of any kind of political process, or burned out and caught without any kind of language. It seemed important to re-ask certain questions, and to re-ask them as mediated through Europe, where the left is still a very vital force. If it relates to the sixties, it’s only because that energy of the sixties was so good – not just here but in Europe too. Where has that all gone?”
Bearing in mind the recent attempts of filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann to revitalize the spirit of 1970-80’s New York, the heydays of no wave, post-punk and “the get down” seem to making a swift comeback. Sure, the imagery of The Big Apple as modern slough of despond and vibrant beacon of creativity might have some appeal as backdrop for glistening nostalgia trips and epic rock operas, but its highly doubtful that the large-scale and hyped-up entertainment drama’s invading our screens these days can measure up to the untethered vitality and relentless waywardness of Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983). The recent restoration of this in Downtown NY and guerilla-style produced science-fiction fable manifests a radical vision that detonates like a molotov cocktail amidst an actuality that is marked by political unrest and reactionary tendencies. Perhaps as never before, the speculative vision of a post-revolutionary world order which, despite rhetorical promises of change and equality, indulges in systematic discrimination and oppression evokes multiple echo’s of recognition. No wonder that the film serves as a blueprint for many activist movements in the US: its zealous and kaleidoscopic portrayal of dissident struggle against heteropatriarchy and racism appears to have only gained in urgency and pertinence. Swinging between various perspectives and characters, with the likes of Kathryn Bigelow, Adele Bertei and Florynce Kennedy playing a version of themselves, and driven by the grooves and hooks of The Red Krayola en The Bloods, this challenging reflection on gender, sex, race and class confronts us like no other with the limitations and possibilities of resistance today. Born in Flames is the focal point of an extensive film program that was composed in consultation with Lizzie Borden. Among the works in the program are two other rarely screened films of Borden: her debut film Regrouping (1976), a portrait of a woman’s group whose homogeneity of race and class Borden would later counter, and Working Girls (1986), a demystification of sex work that was initiated during the production of Born in Flames. Furthermore this program offers work by friends and compagnons-de-route like Vivienne Dick and Sheila McLaughlin, as well as a series of films that have served as source of inspiration or that evoke contemporary resonances.
A rude, contemptuous talk show host becomes overwhelmed by the hatred that surrounds his program just before it goes national.
“Written by Eric Bogosian and Stone, based on Bogosian’s play of the same name, which itself stemmed from Stephen Singular’s ‘Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg,’ Stone’s 1988 portrayal of sensationalistic Dallas, Texas shock jock Barry Champlain (Bogosian) was filmed after a delay in the production of Born on the Fourth of July (which was also prepping in Dallas) and after a film about the CIA’s involvement in Nicaragua was abandoned. A self-righteous opportunist who recognises his indebtedness to big business commercialism while also sounding off on a checklist of social ills, Barry is judgmental, jaded, and preachy. He also toils in danger, and his masterfully inflammatory lambasting invites fated antagonism. Like other Stone protagonists, Barry has a gift for what he does, and his occupation defines both his external identity and his self-perception. But of all the films Stone had done, at least by 1996, he considered it his ‘least favorite movie.’”
“What unites these three films is the way they capture the essence of the American political landscape under the Reagan regime. Salvador, for all its balance, pulls no punches regarding the involvement of the US government in both crime and cover-up; Wall Street reacts to the ‘big swinging dicks’ of junkbond USA before Tom Wolfe even noticed their contrasting collars; and Talk Radio not only jumps on a media phenomenon of the Eighties the same way Natural Born Killers does for the Nineties but also reflects John Mitchell’s famous, and chillingly accurate prediction after Watergate that ‘this country is going so far to the right you won’t even recognise it.’”
“Cum Town: The Movie”