John Smith is one of the most famous film makers in the world

A very small joke

Gargantuan (1992)
John Smith, Gargantuan, 1992

Gargantuan is a film about scale. It is short, sweet and a bit silly. The film starts with a gigantic reptile that fills the screen as a voice begins to sing: ‘Gargantuan amphibian. Enormous amphibian.’ Then the camera slowly starts to zoom out, and it becomes ‘Medium’, ‘Modest’ and eventually ‘Miniscule’ as it is revealed to us that what we are looking at is in fact a small newt. ‘Minute.’ say John Smith, who is lying in bed, his head and his amphibian friend both propped on pillows, ‘I love my newt.’

On a thirteen-inch laptop screen this does not have quite the same effect as when projected in the cinema, where marauding mega-lizards like Godzilla terrorize at twenty feet tall. But then that all depends on your point of view. We know that Godzilla is a small articulated model or a man in a suit made to look suitably oversize. Different scales of buildings and streets must be constructed for him to rampage through for us to ‘believe’ in his monstrosity. And we can understand this on screens of many different proportions, from the television up to the silver screen and all the way down to the mobile phone.

What Smith has done here is to draw to our attention the power of scripting and framing over our perceptions: he is pointing to film’s duplicity, its ability to persuade and falsify as well as to document. The portion of the screen filled by the newt changes but its size, as seen by Smith from his pillow, remains constant. Gargantuan is a distillation of film theory, born of a deep understanding of what the collective consciousness experiences in the cinema, the gap between what is seen and what is understood.

Gargantuan is also emblematic of one of the main manners in which Smith operates. He takes elements of the real world and constructs his fictions around them, using his medium to substantiate his claims. His films do not start as ideas, but observations, small oddities and overlooked gaps through which his imagination can run. A newt is a relatively exotic example compared to the everyday objects and activities that many of his films feature: a haircut, a fried egg, a rambling conversation in the pub. These mundane details are, through associate leaps, made strange, uncanny, beautiful, mysterious, sinister and ridiculous. And funny, even when there is something a little bit tragic about them they are still funny. The reason that the overwhelming effect is humorous is that they are shaped by the structure of the joke. Smith works within constraints, narratives play out within their own internal logic: he sets up the expectation that we are seeing something exotic or fantastical and then pulls the rug out from under us. The bathetic pay off of a tiny little newt.

 

An elaborate joke: Illusion is the enemy or revealing the construction, deconstructing conventions

The Girl Chewing Gum (1976)
John Smith, The Girl Chewing Gum, 1976

In 1975 Smith was studying at the Royal College of Art in the Film and Television Department where he came into contact with the London Film-makers’ Co-operative, most notably one of his teachers, Peter Gidal, who was a high profile member of the group. Smith was heavily influenced by the Structural and Materialist filmmakers like Gidal who saw illusion as the enemy, and illusion came in many forms: the space of the cinema, narrative and characterisation, all were distractions from the material truth of film. A number of films he made during his undergraduate degree were highly formal experiments in-keeping with contemporary trends, but Smith now wanted to try something more ambitious, tapping into his interest in narrative, which he did not see as an enemy that should be excluded from film but rather as something to subvert.

On a grey day on a street corner in Dalston, East London, Smith set up a camera with a reel of film and began recording. He frames the street scene and from off-camera we hear a man begin to issue instructions. The clipped tones of the director give him immediate authority. We hear him briskly dispatching pedestrians and vehicles in and out of shot. Men, women and children, cars and trucks all jump into action at his behest in order to create a busy street scene.

The director’s orders begin straightforwardly, if unnecessarily abrupt, but then his demands grow more and more absurd, until a tipping point where the audience comes to realise that this disembodied voice cannot be in control of what they are watching. He commands the world move up and down and nearer and further away as the camera pans or zooms. He requests a clock rotate its long hand every 60 minutes and its short hand every 12 hours. He directs the young boy who on realising he is being filmed turns back to the camera and waves his arms up and down in an attempt to disrupt the film. He then digresses into a personal story about a misunderstanding on this street corner, and then with a further narrative flourish casts a shifty young man as a bank robber, carrying a gun in his pocket and glancing over his shoulder to see if he is being followed.

The voice-over, the unreliable narrator who constantly destabilises the audience every time they feel they have a grasp on the relationship between sight and sound, is Smith himself. As he reveals in the film, he has recorded his part at a later date, standing in a field some 15 miles away and shouting into megaphone, and brought the two together in post-production. The Girl Chewing Gum, taking its name from just one face in the crowd, is a film that defies genre and encapsulates for many the power of experimental film.

Smith was inspired to make The Girl by seeing François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), a film inside a film in which the audience is shown glimpses ‘behind-the-scenes’ including a snowy street being set up for a shoot. Having been a filmmaker for three years Smith was astonished at his own naivety when he realised that the people in the background of films were not just going about their lives but were in fact part of the construct. The Girl developed from this small revelation about yet another layer of inauthenticity in mainstream filmmaking into a critique of the power of the voice-over in the documentary format. Having had the notion that illusion is the enemy firmly ingrained Smith had begun to nuance this manifesto into a more personal reading of film. Rather than feeling the need to do away with illusion altogether it was important that the information he presented ‘should be made suspect and its construction should be made evident’. This was in part a reaction to the power of the television documentary, which ‘in its worst form compels us to believe everything it is telling us.’ Instead Smith wanted to make films that invited the audience to question what they were told. [1]

The Girl, as well as being a formal experiment in the disjunction between sound and vision is also specifically about a place. It is about Smith’s knowledge of it and his interpretations and assertions. During the time that the camera was running that day on the street it captured everything that flowed past it. Smith then went back, picked it apart and saw what he could draw out from what he had collected. In this it is echoed across the channel by Georges Perec’s attempts to exhaust a place in Paris.[2] Both Smith and Perec train their eye on the everyday, the documentation of non-events and the refusal to accept the neat rationalisation of a sweeping overview, and in these works focus in, stretching their writing and filmmaking through the constraint of that one particular place and time. They pursue their quotidian subjects to the nth degree and show what the application of attention can do to animate them.

In the thirty-seven years since The Girl was made it has had many lives. At first, according to Smith, people didn’t think much of it, but he persisted in showing it and its status grew. Within the LFMC it became a club favourite, shown many times at gatherings of its members. Now it is a cult classic, a ‘peerless’[3] short and an experimental film programmer’s touchstone. It has also perhaps become something of an albatross around the neck of the prolific filmmaker. If anyone is going to show a ‘John Smith’ film they will look through the catalogues, they may even weigh up many options, but to introduce an audience to the man they will usually choose that film. It is so emblematic, almost a trailer for him. It has been shown at film festivals and in art schools all over the world and it crops up in almost every interview he has given, how did he come up with something so extraordinary out of something so ordinary? When he was so young, as well. But then perhaps Smith is not as precious as all that. He’ll always politely retell the story and then go on to link it up to the rest of his career.

Maybe its popularity has something to do with how to the modern eye The Girl is a period piece. The black and white street, the funny fashions, the gormless 70s passers-by; those people are no longer us in the way they were at the time, and we can laugh at them a little harder for not being in on the joke. Or maybe it is because the joke still stands up, we are still completely sucked in by that authoritative voice barking the world into order, hoodwinked by an old trick. The strangely perennial appeal of the film prompted Smith to return to the same street corner thirty-five years later armed with his camera. Recorded in HD, The Man Phoning Mum (2011) shows street life in 2011, which has then been super-imposed onto the original black and white film. Almost replicating The Girl frame for frame it captures the changes, architectural, social and economic, to the area of Dalston, most noticeably the presence of the phone pressed to the ear of almost everyone walking by.

At a recent film screening, a few miles from where the film was made, twenty people in a small room watched The Girl projected onto a screen in front of a window. The programmers could have shown The Man Phoning Mum but instead they used their location to bring 1976 and 2013 together. Through the window behind the film the street performed as modern cars and mobile phones passed by. As if to make the point that though four decades had passed some things remain fundamentally the same, a small child noticed his audience and came back to stick out his tongue and wave his arms up and down at the watching crowd.

 

A long-winded joke: The unreliable narrator or the ramblings of a mad man

Hotel Diaries (2001-2007)
John Smith, Hotel Diaries, 2001–2007

The Hotel Diaries are set in a series of hotel rooms where over six years in six different countries Smith filmed himself talking. Earlier in his career he had been known as something of a stay-at-home artists – his films were almost all shot within a few miles of his East London home – but from around the turn of the millennium he has been far too busy travelling to notice things on the way to the corner shop[4]. Keen to present his work himself, and receiving invites all the time, he flies around the world on the international film festival circuit.

In 2001 he was in the USA to show some work. On September 10th he got on a plane from New York to Chicago, the next morning he woke up to find that the World Trade Centre had been the target of a terrorist attack. The first of the Hotel Diaries series takes place a month later at the Cork International Film Festival:

‘Returning to my hotel room late at night, I switched on the television, intending to catch up on the latest news. Expecting to see a moving image, I was surprised to discover that the close-up of a man’s face that filled the screen was completely still, frozen in time. I watched the screen for several minutes but nothing changed, and the clock in the corner of the screen remained stopped at 1.41. What was happening? Why wasn’t the image moving? Worried and confused, I picked up my video camera and attempted to talk about what was going on inside my head.’[5]

Trying to look back to those few weeks after September 11th but before it became 9/11, when people walked around stunned and governments made speeches about weapons of mass destruction, time seems to have collapsed into a series of news bulletins. The night that Smith sat down and decided to press record things were still fluid, not yet digested. It was only two days earlier that the UK and the USA had begun bombing Afghanistan.

Frozen War (2001) is a document of a moment during this confusion. This first ‘episode’ is raw. We are confronted with what appears to be real fear although with a polish of good humour. The series continues in this mould, as he relates to us observations and anecdotes that lead to strange moments of coincidence, allowing Smith to branch out from his hotel room to international conflict as he follows the events of the War on Terror.

There is a certain quality to the Hotel Diaries that makes you feel like you shouldn’t be watching. It’s in his voice: the odd stumble to string one word along to the next, the occasional paraphasian slip that causes him to pause and go back a little bit. There is the camera too: one of those cheap silver DV cameras, handheld and shaky, all a bit amateurish. These films are made too late at night, after 1am, when he has returned alone to his hotel room after a long day at the festival and as he talks the camera droops and shakes.

Smith’s rambling delivery gives the appearance that these monologues could be a sign of a man, once so in control, now slowly unravelling. In Pyramids/Skunk amid a lengthy complaint about the price of a mini-bar Toblerone – €5,50, you’d be hacked off too – his camera comes to rest on the programme notes for the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2006, and he shows us the page on which he is listed as ‘one of the most famous experimental film makers in the world’. He chuckles to himself that being so famous he should probably be able to afford such an expense, before moving on to the relationship with the shape of his chocolate bar and the pyramids, which in turn reminds him that Hamas have just won the election in Palestine. In the series[6], we are told that we are in Cork, Rotterdam, Israel, but for the most part these monologues could have been filmed almost anywhere, at night in the nowhere space of the international hotel. Only in Palestine are we treated to a view outside the hotel interior, a slow panning shot of the city, which has been the subject, in a direct or seemingly tangential manner, of all the diaries to that point.

It is in small moments like these that we see how carefully the films have been constructed. They are improvisations around a theme with a confessional air. The subject is too big to be dealt with directly and so instead must be approached from the side, clearly setting out these responses as emotional and highly subjective. They seem to be an attempt to answer the question, what can one filmmaker say about a conflict that he is not a part of, fruitlessly protested against, and can only view through the cameras of other filmmakers who are put on the ground to tell the story as they and their editors see it?

*

To John Smith the ideas of the Structuralist and Materialist filmmakers have remained fundamental over his four-decade career: illusion is still the enemy, the power of language remains strong and narrative sucks us along. But within his work these ideas have mutated, matured, stretched and contracted, travelled and stayed in exactly the same place.

Almost every time he makes a new film there is a report that it breaks with his stylistic conventions. But that is sort of the point. He defies genres because genres make us passive. He wants us to be at one moment immersed and in the next completely aware because it means we are watching, really watching. The syncing of moving image and sound inherently has manipulative potential and Smith is a man who cannot resist a pun, but it is never at the expense of the audience. Instead these films allow us to ask questions, even if they are just, ‘But how big is that newt really?’, because then we can begin consuming critically, which can lead you to bigger questions about trust, authenticity, world politics and chocolate bars.

(‘The John Smith’ is the first comprehensive survey of the work of John Smith. The catalogue published to accompany the exhibition also includes an essay titled ‘The Life and Times of John Smith’, another called ‘The Study of Om’ on cultural mediation and a third written by the Director of Lux about the distribution of experimental film.)


[1] Cate Elwes, ‘John Smith talking film with Cate Elwes: Trespassing Beyond the Frame’, John Smith: Film and Video Works 1972-2002, ed. by Mark Cosgrove and Josephine Lanyon (Bristol, Picture This Moving Image/Watershed Media Centre Publication, 2002), pp.64-71 (p.64).

[2] Georges Perec’s book An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1974) was written during one overcast weekend at Place Saint-Sulpice, where taking a seat in a local café he documented the world as it appeared in front of him.

[3] Sally O’Reilly, ‘John Smith: Solo Show’, Art Monthly, April 2010, Issue 335, pp.30-31.

[4] The impetus for many of his films including The Black Tower (1985-87).

[5]John Smith, speaking in 2008 about the Hotel Diaries series.

[6] Frozen War (Ireland, 2001), Museum Piece (Germany, 2004), Throwing Stones (Switzerland, 2004), B & B (England, 2005), Pyramids/Skunk (The Netherlands 2006/7), Dirty Pictures (Palestine 2007) and Six Years Later (Ireland 2007).

 

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