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

In 1969, John Smith, now one of Britain’s most respected filmmakers but then a student at North East London Polytechnic, sat in a pub spellbound by a perspex sign. “Suddenly I realized – ah! – “Toilets” was an anagram of TS Eliot. I thought: I’ve got to make a film about this one day.’ Thirty years later he was in another pub, his local in Leytonstone. “It had such a dirty toilet. I must have thought: This is a real wasteland.” And so he made The Waste Land (1999), a crooked adaptation with gurgling cisterns, khazi lighting and a tired, perhaps pissed off, player conjuring up Eliot’s phrase “The nymphs have departed” while a camera pans over a condom machine. It’s modern Pete and Dud style.

Smith, who was expelled from Walthamstow High School for wearing his hair too long, has produced a unique body of work that will soon be celebrated in a 10-week, 50-film season organized by artist-curator Stanley Schtinter. (There will be post-screening discussions with former students of his, including director Carol Morley and Jarvis Cocker, who once asked him to direct a video for Pulp.) As a teenager, he felt one of the found footage and ex-movies -library educational films he found in a government photo shop in Hackney. “They bore titles like “Your Skin” or “Your Hair and Scalp” and often showed men in white coats conducting experiments in laboratories. I only had a quiet projector, so I watched them with no soundtrack. I have no idea what they were doing! It was pretty mysterious. I was fascinated.”

John Smith in 2021
“My movies always let you in on the joke”…John Smith

At art school, Smith was tutored by Marxists and radicals who were expelled from Hornsey College after the infamous 1968 sit-in. He created light shows for performances by student organizations such as Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. He was also drawn to the avant-garde world of the London Film-Makers’ Co-op, where directors such as Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice developed structural/materialist approaches to cinema. Smith explains, “It became a rule, almost a religion, that you couldn’t make work that the viewer could be psychologically immersed in. That was illusionism. Brecht’s idea that one can engage intellectually with what one sees and not just consume it was still relevant at the time.”

The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), one of Smith’s best-known films, does just that. It begins on a busy street in Dalston, where an off-screen director appears to be choreographing an urban scene. “Let’s rub the man’s eye,” he calls out – and a man appears on the right side of the screen and does just that. The instructions keep getting more sophisticated, weirder, crazier (“two pigeons fly by”) until he explains that he is actually in a field 15 miles away on Letchmore Heath. But when the film cuts to that field, it’s not there.

The Girl Chewing Gum invites you to reflect on many things: the relationship between sound and image, the nature of documentary truth, how filmmakers create or destroy authority. Smith’s genius is in doing this without appearing strict or academic. “My films are very manipulative and often lead 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 “sat in my room alone at night, either drinking a bottle of wine or smoking a spliff, with a pen and paper in front of me, and if I could come up with anything. Cocteau, Monty Python, European art house cinema and marijuana were the inspiration for Girl Chewing Gum.”

Smith’s films are often set in everyday, even mundane London. He stresses that he has little interest in being either a documentary filmmaker or an advocate of the capital. But among his finest achievements is The Black Tower (1985-87), based on a building near where he used to live: a comical and chilling chronicle of a man haunted by a tower he believes is his through the city follows. In Lost Sound (1998-2001), a collaboration with Graeme Miller, he untangles discarded cassette reels from hedges and railings, salvaging everything recorded on them and mating the resulting sounds with monotonous streetscapes to evoke London’s sonic subconscious. Blight (1994-96) is as important as Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) and Patrick Keiller’s London (1994): a spider-fixated exploration of memory and loss, set to music by Jocelyn Pook. “I came home one day, went into my back garden and found that the house next door had been half demolished. There was a poster for The Exorcist on one wall!”

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

In recent years, the political dimensions of Smith’s work have become increasingly apparent as he brings his absurdist and formalist sensibilities to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Brexit and the pandemic. “My film ideas almost always come from things I encounter in everyday life. When Tony Blair decided to act together against Afghanistan and Iraq, these ongoing conflicts became part of my everyday consciousness. It’s on my mind all the time. One of my early films, Leading Light [1975], it’s just me following the sunlight in my bedroom. 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 seemingly insignificant Steve Hates Fish (2015), in which he takes a smartphone to London’s Essex Road and instructs his language translation app to translate French words into English. What follows is a linguistic and syntactical mess. The app fidgets, estimates, stutters half gibberish. “Costa for coffee lovers” becomes “Costa for Korea lovers”. A hardware store sells “fart food”. A Chippy appears to be selling products that are “castrated fried”. Steve Hates Fish turns reality on its head, makes the capital look askew and attacks algorithmic authority. “The kind of movies I find most compelling are movies where you get disoriented and not quite sure what you’re looking at,” Smith muses. “For me it’s about politics, how we see the world. They say: There is more than one way of looking at the world.”

A retrospective of John Smith’s work is on view October 1 through December 1 at the ICA and Close-Up Film Center.

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