Toilets, towers and Tony Blair: the crazy world of cult filmmaker John Smith | Movies


In 1969, John Smith, now one of Britain’s most revered filmmakers, but then a student at North East London Polytechnic, sat in a pub pierced by a plexiglass sign. “Suddenly I realized – ah! – ‘toilets’ was an anagram of TS Eliot. I said to myself: I have to make a film about it one day. Thirty years later he was in another pub, his local in Leytonstone. “There were such filthy toilets. I must have thought: it’s a real wasteland. And so he did land of waste (1999), an offbeat adaptation with gurgling cisterns, Khazi lighting, and a weary, possibly pissed off punter chanting Eliot’s line “the nymphs are gone” as a camera pans over a condom machine. It’s the modernist Pete-and-Dud style.

Smith, who was expelled from his high school in Walthamstow for wearing his hair too long, has carved out a singular body of work, which is about to be celebrated in a 10-week, 50-film season curated by the artist -Commissioner Stanley Schtinter. (It will feature post-screening conversations with his former students, including director Carol Morley and Jarvis Cocker, who once asked him to direct a video for Pulp.) As a teenager, he was drawn to found footage and ex – educational library films he found in a government surplus camera store in Hackney. “They had titles like Your Skin or Your Hair and Scalp, and often featured men in white coats doing experiments in labs. I only had a silent projector, so I watched them without a soundtrack. No idea what they were doing! It was quite mysterious. I was fascinated.”

“My movies always let you in on the joke” … John Smith

At art school, Smith was taught by Marxists and radicals who had been expelled from Hornsey College after the infamous 1968 sit-in. He created light shows for student union shows by people like Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. He also gravitates towards the avant-garde world of the London Film-Makers’ Co-op, where directors such as Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice develop structural/materialist approaches to filmmaking. Smith explains: “It became a rule, almost a religion, that you couldn’t make a work in which the spectator could immerse himself psychologically. It was illusionism. Brecht’s idea – that you should be able to engage intellectually with what you watch rather than just consume it – was still relevant at the time.

The girl who chews gum (1976), one of Smith’s best-known films, does just that. It begins on a busy street in Dalston where a director, heard in voiceover, seems to be choreographing an urban scene. “Let the man rub his eyes,” he shouts – and a man emerges from the right side of the screen doing just that. The directions get more and more picky, weird, manic (“two pigeons fly past”) until he states that he is actually in a field 15 miles away at Letchmore Heath. But when the film moves on to this area, it’s not there.

The Girl Chewing Gum is an invitation to reflect on many things: the relationship between sound and image, the nature of documentary truth, the way filmmakers create or destroy authority. Smith’s genius is to do this without appearing austere or academic. “My films are very manipulative and they often take viewers down the garden path,” he admits. “But they always let you in on the joke. They don’t make you feel stupid. He recalls that in the mid-1970s he often used to “sit alone in my room at night, and either drink a bottle of wine or smoke a joint, with pen and paper. before me, and see if I could find anything. Cocteau, Monty Python, European art house cinema and marijuana inspired Girl Chewing Gum.

Smith’s films are frequently set in everyday, even mundane London. He has, he insists, little interest in being either a documentary filmmaker or a champion of the capital. However, among his finest works is La Tour noire (1985-87), based on a building near his home: a comic and terrifying chronicle of a man haunted by a tower he thinks he is following in the city. In Lost Sound (1998-2001), a collaboration with Graeme Miller, he disentangles discarded cassette reels from hedges and railings, rescues whatever is recorded on them, and pairs the resulting sounds with monotonous streetscapes to evoke the sound unconscious of London. Blight (1994-96) is as important as House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread and London (1994) by Patrick Keiller: an exploration of memory and loss, obsessed with spiders and accompanied by Jocelyn Pook. “I came home one day, walked into my garden and found the house next to me was half demolished. On one wall was a poster for The Exorcist! »

John Smith's film The Black Tower (1985-87)
Comical and terrifying… Smith’s Black Tower (1985-87)

In recent years, the political dimensions of Smith’s work have become increasingly explicit as he has brought his absurd and formalistic sensibility to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Brexit, the pandemic. “My film ideas almost always come from things I encounter in everyday life. When Tony Blair decided that we would join against Afghanistan and Iraq, these ongoing conflicts became part of my daily consciousness. It’s in my head all the time. One of my first films, Leading Light [1975], it’s just me following the sunlight around my room. I couldn’t do that anymore. I can’t just aestheticize things and say, “Isn’t that pretty?”

Still, in my opinion, one of Smith’s most delightful films is the light-hearted appearance Steve hates fish (2015) in which he takes a smartphone to Essex Road in London and asks his language translation app to translate French words into English. What ensues is linguistic and syntactic chaos. The app flounders, makes assumptions, stammers in semi-gibberish. “Costa for Coffee Lovers” becomes “Costa for Korea Lovers”. A DIY store sells pet food. A chippy appears to be selling “castrated fried” products. Steve Hates Fish bends reality, gives the capital a crooked look, thumbs his nose at algorithmic authority. “The kind of movies that I find most captivating are the movies where you get confused and you’re not quite sure what you’re watching,” Smith recalled. “Mine are about the politics of how we look at the world. They say: there is more than one way of seeing the world.


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