Film Studies: Chris Petit: intellectual, cineaste, and a national treasure

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A few weeks ago, at the San Francisco Film Festival, I was able to see a programme of three short films by Chris Petit. Hardly a day has passed that I haven't reflected on the beauty and the mysteries of one of those works - negative space. If ever you thought to yourself why, in all the vacancy of TV, there shouldn't be time for an intelligent person to ruminate on the nature of moving imagery, time, tempo, space and memory - this is your chance. Seize on it: the BBC may not be as generous again.

Negative space is a video-letter sent from a journey in which Petit, his car and a female companion enjoy the spaciness of Texas, the West and southern California, meet up with Manny Farber, a great film critic and painter, outside San Diego, and Dave Hickey, a writer on art and architecture whimsical enough to live in Las Vegas.

That much serves as incident or narrative, but Petit' s real concern is ordinary loveliness on screen. He recalls a moment in Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep, in which Humphrey Bogart' s Philip Marlowe simply crosses a street in Los Angeles. In fact, the street is a set; in truth, the scene could be cut. But Hawks and Bogart do something with it: there is a roll of thunder, and Bogey looks up, as if fearing rain on the Burbank sound stage. Then, superstitiously, he taps his hand on a fire hydrant on the far sidewalk.

There's no story, no necessary information. But there's the way Bogart walks, the sidelong chance of rain, the edgy revelation of a world in which no God or order helps a private eye. It's sheer gorgeousness, a kind of rest in which the film becomes the imprint of Marlowe's and our own loneliness, walking in different times. It's the sort of trick Hawks could do just to beat back boredom; and it's the possibility that lurks in all film. Years ago, Manny Farber celebrated the moment in an essay on the difference between what he called termite art and white elephant art - small passing things, too sly to be named, as opposed to thumping big messages.

And so the journey is on: a conversational pursuit of loveliness on film, kicked along by Hickey' s gusty laughter, doodled over by the deceptively vague Farber, and lit up with clips from Rossellini' s Voyage to Italy, the Mitchum noir classic Out of the Past, two Godard films - Breathless and Contempt - Psycho, and Michael Snow's Wavelength.

This isn't "showbiz" TV: it's not Sharon Stone tossing her hair, or Sean Connery telling us what he told Cubby Broccoli. It' s a man talking to himself about the texture of imagery. Accordingly, Petit seldom runs the clips straight. He frames them off in boxes; he slows them; he degrades and abstracts them. He can hardly think of film without playing with the imagery, taking it apart, prompting us to consider its odd nature. So, sure, this is late-night watching, something for those interested enough to stay up - and don't blame us if you can't follow it all. Quite simply, negative space honours an old credo of British television: if you're not smart enough to follow on, you're intelligent enough to turn off without complaining. See it. Keep driving in the elusive passages. And every film you ever see will mean a little more.

I've met Petit a couple of times over the years, but we're not friends so much as obsessives with the same dreams. I valued him as a film writer at Time Out magazine in the 1970s, and then as the director of that rarity, an English road film, Radio On (1979), a picture made with the support of Wim Wenders and very much in the spirit of French and German new waves. A few years later, Petit tried a more conventional English murder mystery - taken from P D James (before she was hot) - An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1981). And then in 1983, Flight to Berlin, a Wenders-like thriller.

None of these films was a hit - in the way of the unscrupulous tosh called Notting Hill - and Petit's career faltered. He published a novel, Robinson, in 1993. And he has been doing small films for television, like negative space and Surveillance, a brilliant assemblage of film taken by surveillance cameras in public places. I saw that in San Francisco, too, and I was enthralled by Petit's instinct for urban chance and solitude, and the infinite prospects of nothing being recorded for ever. The mere attention to this drab process was both comic and tragic.

What I want to say is that Petit seems to me a definite and idiosyncratic talent whose natural role is to test our habits. And so there ought to be bodies like the BBC brave enough to give him a chunk of budget every year and tell him to come back with a report. In fact last year, with the writer Iain Sinclair, Petit made The Falconer: a pregnant portrait of a fraud that made ravishing, degraded use of film footage. The film was too long for its own mystery, I think; it could be called elitist and pretentious. But it was radiant with its own enquiring process, and one of the most startling things I've seen on television in years. It wasn't easy; it wasn't for everyone; it wasn't for idiots. And some of us are idiots because our education and our TV and our spouses, companions and friends have become afraid of difficulty. And the BBC should never begin to believe that in dumbing down some eventual equality will make up for neglect of the only really deserving minority we have - the intelligent and the unafraid.

'negative space': BBC2, Thursday, 11.15pm