In a 1984 article on British film-maker Chris Petit, critic Richard Combs refers to the plot of Petit's third feature Flight to Berlin as "a riot of contingency". It was an oddly prescient phrase, which over the next 20 years would prove increasingly applicable to Petit's overall trajectory. Petit defies all known laws of career résumé: former film critic turned British art-house director (now there's an oxymoron) turned TV documentarist, novelist, author and co-author of video fragments and essays on contemporary culture, amnesia and anxiety.
Here's another prescient observation: Petit himself in 1979, on the release of his debut feature Radio On. "I think ... it will date very quickly. If you show it in 10 or 15 years time and you are asked to date it, a lot of people will think it is a Fifties period piece." Petit was right and wrong: wrong insofar as Radio On, now on limited re-release, has not so much dated as taken on a new urgency and strangeness - not least as a reminder of lost opportunities in British film-making, of a stark, lonely road that no one ever considered following.
Yet Petit's prognosis was right in that Radio On now resembles a film from far longer ago than the Seventies. Despite its soundtrack's precise period markers - Bowie, Kraftwerk, Wreckless Eric - Radio On now suggests a report from the Dark Ages, from a mediaeval, fog-swathed England. You almost expect its hero - a biscuit-factory DJ driving from London to Bristol - to stop off and give some Chaucerian pilgrims a lift in his big 1950s shark of a car. (Instead, he runs into a young Sting at a gas station, the one element that arguably dates the film, in more ways than one.)
Radio On was perceived on release as the first British road movie, but it could also be called Britain's first European film, inspired as much by Kraftwerk as by Wim Wenders and the New German Cinema. It certainly endures as one of the most contemplative and haunting of British films: sombrely shot by the late German cameraman Martin Schäfer, Radio On offers a largely plot-less immersion in the experience of driving, drift and displacement, its uncanny quality deriving from the disjunction between fast-car dreams of escape - down the Autobahn to Route 66 - and the catatonic slowness of the British motorway experience. The film's hero, like its narrative, has no particular place to go, except to get becalmed at the edge of a gaping grey quarry.
The film's re-release highlights a curious symmetry in Petit's career: his first work a linear road trip, his most recent a circular journey, a drive round the M25 for London Orbital, Petit's latest collaboration with novelist and poet Iain Sinclair, now out on DVD. In between lies a bewildering sprawl of seemingly heteroclite catalogue entries: novels, TV essays, a couple of not-quite-mainstream features set in Berlin, even a Miss Marple mystery for the BBC.
To decrypt the code of Petit's career, I visited his London flat, where he lives when not in Hastings - a spartan bunker overlooking the Thames, just below St Paul's. The block is a converted former hotel, set in an underpass canyon of brutalist concrete and steel railings.
Petit lives off a corridor that is currently being stripped and rewired, uncannily reminiscent of Gene Hackman's walls after he's torn them apart in a fit of paranoia at the end of Coppola's surveillance thriller The Conversation. The atmosphere suits Petit's style: pensive, crisply muted English public-school tones, gaunt features that suggest nights chasing deadlines (Petit spent a decade writing capsule thriller reviews in The Guardian). You think of a shadowy Graham Greene or Le Carré figure, an MI5 man gone feral; at least, you do after you've read a couple of Petit's own thrillers, or taken in the spy-pulp rhetoric he and Sinclair like to pastiche.
Never mind. Petit has earned his image as British cinema's nebulous Man Outside. It's well known how he became a film-maker. Film critic at Time Out in the mid-Seventies, he interviewed Wim Wenders and handed him a script he'd written. Wenders adopted the project, with money coming from the much-missed BFI Production Board and the National Film Finance Corporation. Petit's move behind the camera was a fluke, he admits. "I really wanted to write screenplays but I didn't see myself as directing. I was always being asked, 'Who do you think should direct Radio On?' and the answer really was, Wenders about six years before. I sort of fell into the job and I spent the next four or five years recovering from that."
Petit admits Wenders' stamp is on Radio On: "It was through seeing his films that there came the idea that you can actually film the English landscape. Up till that point I thought you never could." Radio On is a British film haunted by German Geist, not only in the presence of regular Wenders player Liza Kreuzer and his cameraman Schäfer, but in its tranches of German dialogue, in the Kraftwerk, even in the glimpsed flyover graffiti "Free Astrid Proll". Radio On is inhabited by a German consciousness, much as Wenders' own films, like those of the French New Wave, emerged from a post-war Europe enjoying a love-hate relationship with American imagination.
The German-ness in Petit's work stems from his childhood: his father was in the army, stationed in Germany in the mid-Fifties, when Petit was seven or eight. "It left a lasting impression. It was the time of the 'economic miracle', we were being force-fed images of the Second World War, and actually being in this defeated landscape was really fascinating. There was something about the early Wenders cinema that was rather like Patricia Highsmith - it didn't involve any leap, I just thought, I know this terrain implicitly." Seen again, Radio On looks like a broadcast from a colder, darker age.
While it is full of the most urgent British pop of the time, the received wisdom that punk instantly ushered in a new modernity is belied by the film's barren landscapes. Today, when pop culture is devalued by omnipresence and by the routinely inflated notion of hipness, Radio On reminds us that pop and the culture of middle Britain were chasms apart in the late Seventies. Its hipster existentialist hero Robert B (the peerlessly inscrutable David Beames) registers as an alien visiting an unknown, largely deserted planet (Petit envisaged him as an impassive observer, like Bowie's extra-terrestrial in The Man Who Fell to Earth).
The period, says Petit, "was post-punk but you realised how much punk was metropolitan, a London-suburban experience. By the time you got down to Chippenham you could have been in the Fifties. And the motorway - I mean, where are all the cars? There was a tremendous sense of time lag - I used to go to Germany a lot in the late Seventies and they were definitely ahead, in the way the country looked, the colour of the cars and the newness of everything. Whereas England was pretty clapped out."
Some critics got Radio On - Derek Malcolm twigged it as "[owing] nothing to any British tradition one can discern..." - while others yawned or scoffed. However, it left no apparent career path open to Petit. "I wasn't commercial enough and I wasn't arty enough - I wasn't canny in the way Neil Jordan was, and I didn't want to go to America. The art-movie model of the French and German New Waves was never really available here."
For a follow-up, Petit dreamed of adapting Agatha Christie in the style of Fassbinder. Instead, a script based on P D James's An Unsuitable Job for a Woman came his way, a story of a female gumshoe out of her depth. Petit hoped to shoot it in the Fens, to make a British landscape film that went beyond Michael Reeves's much-admired 1968 Witchfinder General, "but we ended up in a studio and a gravel pit near Reading." The result was an almost conventional British thriller albeit an uncomfortably claustrophobic one: as Iain Sinclair put it, "Like Anglia TV in a power cut, dubbed into Norwegian. Like some tight-jawed Ibsen family drama."
Petit made two more features in Germany in quick succession. Flight to Berlin (1984), based on a novel by Jennifer Potter - to whom Petit was married at the time - is a static, glassy tale of escape about a woman fallen among bohemian oddballs. The rather snappier Chinese Boxes, from 1986, is a quintessential Eighties riddle-thriller with a hint of Godard's Made in USA in its comic-strip flatness: it features a showdown in a paper-pulping yard, a foretaste of Petit's later preoccupation with pulped and discarded culture.
However, Petit himself was in danger of being culturally pulped. The mainstream could take him no further, notwithstanding a Caribbean-set Miss Marple thriller for the BBC. In any case, Petit was increasingly disillusioned with conventional film-making. "I didn't like working with that whole industrial-military process - 50 people standing in the street, for a shot of two people walking away from the camera." Instead, he scaled down and through the early Nineties made a series of highly-regarded BBC documentaries: films on weather, the cultural history of air stewardesses, short items for BBC2's last bulwarks of cultural engagement, The Late Show and Moving Pictures. Among them was a profile of Petit's literary hero J G Ballard, in which Petit's commentary serves as a belated manifesto for Radio On: "If there are two things the British cinema mistrusts, they are the commercial and the avant-garde... We need to rediscover our own landscape." There was also a Bookmark programme on thrillers, a self-referential study of specialists in espionage and paranoia such as Daniel Easterman and Michael Dibdin - a guild in which Petit himself would later enrol.
Other items were more wayward. Surveillance (1993) was an assemblage of seemingly random CCTV footage, suggesting the birth of a new visual poetry existing side by side with the new machineries of social control. A similar critical intelligence could be seen in the savage squib Dead TV, which represented British television as a moral wasteland: Ian Hislop's baiting of Paula Yates on Have I Got News For You is played over and over, stretched and distorted until the satirist's smug beam becomes a grisly icon of cannibal cruelty. That film was part of Petit's lament on "the marginalisation of any kind of oppositional difference or dissent, and the way in which TV endorses that. I became interested in the idea of landfill sites full of useless images, and what would it be like to retrieve them and interrogate them." Meanwhile, Petit was forging a parallel career. "There'd been an argument in my head for a long time about films versus books, and I decided I preferred books as objects to cans of film." His first novel, in 1993, was Robinson, a haunting London nightmare following the machinations of a Soho Harry Lime. People often assume the book is autobiographical: not so, Petit says, although much of it comes from a year working at Palace Pictures, ostensibly producing a horror film. "I just clocked in every day and explored the building and thought, this would make a really good location for a book. Basically, it was my attempt to do Celine's Journey to the End of the Night. I took his character Robinson, the person who's always ahead of the narrative, so in that sense it was a straight steal." Petit side-stepped with The Psalm Killer, a huge, densely-researched thriller about serial killing in Northern Ireland, which narrowly failed to make him a surefire brand name, a British Thomas Harris.
Another Irish-themed novel, The Hard Shoulder, was more like latterday Patrick Hamilton, a coolly melancholic tale of a hard man's return to boarding-house Kilburn, while Back From the Dead was a mystery novel internally sabotaged by a key character apparently being a ghost.
Petit's most ambitious thriller yet is The Human Pool (2002), a vast secret history of the Second World War. In a zigzagging narrative as byzantine and as blackly pessimistic as late James Ellroy, Petit explores covert connections between the former CIA head Allen Dulles and the Nazis.
"One of life's better remarks," says Petit, "is 'Follow the money'. I did quite a lot of research into Dulles: he was working in neutral Switzerland, meeting the world's bankers during the war, he'd previously invested money for American clients into the Third Reich, so to put him in a room with Heinrich Himmler wasn't a big jump. That meeting never took place but, in the way that Don De Lillo talks about history coming down to people talking in rooms, it's not such a stretch." The same paranoid fiction-building energy goes into Petit's TV collaborations with Iain Sinclair, London's peripatetic sage and fabricator of arcane crypto-histories. They make an odd team: at once the Grumpy Old Men of experimentalism, issuing passionately oblique jeremiads against Britain's cultural decay, and enthusiastic refuse collectors, salvaging banished refuseniks and giving them air-time (or Asylum, as one film was called). Their collaborations are not just genre-bending, but attempt to mess with the fabric of reality, to rewrite cultural history. They fixate on those outsider figures, whom Sinclair calls the "revenants," the "reforgotten", a heroic legion among which Petit might justifiably count himself.
The duo's first collaboration The Cardinal and the Corpse (1992) traced links between the east-end underworld, the second-hand book trade, and lowlife novelists such as British Bohemia's louche phantom Robin Cook aka Derek Raymond. Later essays were lawlessly equivocal. The Falconer (1998) was ostensibly a portrait of Sixties film-maker and Rolling Stones chronicler turned bird-fancier and would-be magus Peter Whitehead. A narrative of arcane dealings, disappearances and espionage combined Petit's footage with a mass of archive material, further processed by artist Dave McKean's delirious video manipulations. It's one of the rare documentaries, or quasi-documentaries, that could leave you not just questioning the film-makers' sanity, but your own.
"We knew we were crossing boundaries between fact and fiction," Petit says. "Peter Whitehead is in a way a myth-maker, so he didn't seem to be actively discouraging that. There was a sense of personal danger to the film as it unfolds - all that kind of magic stuff which Peter and Iain shared. There was a point when I thought, this is a completely vampiric, necrophile experience." Petit admits, "Normally the way Iain and I work is not as fraught as that. There's no sense of competition. I realised very early on that he doesn't like a structured set up. He'll get on with what he's doing and it's up to me to cover it. Most of the energy and the time goes into the cutting of the film, and Iain disputes why I should take three months. Normally it's to do with reducing the thing to manageable proportions." The other key figure in the Sinclair collaborations is Petit's partner Emma Matthews - the films' editor, sound recordist and occasional player. Her work on diffracting and dismantling images, often reshot straight off the monitor, contributes to the sense of volatility: pictures repeat, shatter and shudder in a sort of visual dub, as if both Godard and Lee Perry were the guiding spirits. It was Emma Matthews who had the idea that London Orbital should be a split-screen venture, with Sinclair and Petit "curating" separate halves of the image. Sinclair had already walked around the M25 to write his book London Orbital, and Petit felt it would be futile simply to repeat the experience. The breakthrough came when he and Matthews drove one and a half circuits of the ring road, collecting hypnotically long shots of the tarmac rolling past. "We went out for the afternoon," Petit recalls. "I was listening to the First Division play-offs between Norwich and Birmingham on the radio. I suddenly realised 20 minutes had gone past and I hadn't turned the camera off. I thought, you just have to go with the shot. It was in that semi-distracted state you're in when you're driving, and that was the answer to the film."
After the M25 jaunt, Sinclair and Petit set off on another odyssey, down the A13, bringing back not a film but photographs and bric-a-brac for an installation. The outing reinforced Petit's belief that Britain's seemingly featureless roadscapes could have the same hallucinatory presence as any vistas in the world. "We were joking that Godard would have set the Stations of the Cross down the A13. I'd seen Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God a while before and thought, really it's not necessary to go to Peru."
Petit's current film project is a study of stalking, based on Gregory Dart's book Unrequited Love. He's also working on his latest doorstep novel, "an autopsy on the Cold War which starts with Lockerbie - so bang go my airport sales." Petit can't imagine now returning to any kind of conventional film-making: "My interests have moved so far away from that sort of set-up that I'd probably be mentally incapable of doing it." From Radio On to London Orbital, Petit has come full circle exploring a British landscape and road culture that barely exist elsewhere in film. His producer Keith Griffiths compares him to another road explorer, American photographer and film-maker Robert Frank - also, fortuitously, about to have a Tate retrospective - who likewise turned his back on narrative cinema for something more free-associative.
"Petit took a similar route," says Griffiths, "to escape the crew of 25 and be liberated by the concept of the camera as a pen." In one of the London Orbital DVD extras, Petit grimly muses, "Most of the stuff I've made for television does not exist. In cultural terms, I feel entirely outside what I read about." What Richard Combs detected as common to Petit and Wenders back in the Eighties was "a need not to feel at home, or to feel at home only in their alienness". But Petit himself has written of a new world of image-making - in video and on the internet - defined by "a growing move towards invisibility, of a sense of worthwhile work being done in lab-like conditions, with few in the know." That's certainly a world he has contributed to creating: a place off British cinema's well-worn map, and far from the Happy Eater lay-by franchises of mainstream moving-image culture.
'Radio On' is re-released now in selected cinemas. 'London Orbital' is available on DVD from Illuminations (www.illumin.co.uk/LondonOrbital). A programme of Chris Petit shorts is showing at Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8008) on 26 NovemberReuse content