In The Black Tower (1987), John Smith’s celebrated short film, we are drawn into an absurdist narrative of unending, perceptual uncertainty and delusional thinking. The narrator is convinced that the black tower he keeps spotting behind the rooftops is stalking him. After a retreat into agoraphobic isolation he is committed to a psychiatric hospital. He recovers but during convalescence in the country the black tower reappears. The voiceover of a second narrator tells of the man’s death from an undisclosed cause. Suicide, we imagine but I feel Smith might prefer us speculate that he has been swallowed by the perceptual black hole that the tower represents. During a visit to his grave a friend looks up and observes the black tower looming on the skyline. As in Smith’s film, White Hole (2014), there is a sense of being trapped on an Escher staircase where we seem to end up where we started, the standard trope of horror films when it is revealed that a fearful delusion is ubiquitous and inescapable.
Smith has a quietly subversive approach. In an interview he describes the inspiring sight of the odd structure looming above his neighbourhood in East London, its blackness creating the illusion of a “hole cut out of the sky”. It might be superimposition that creates the impression that the tower is either moving like a triffid across the city or replicating itself. In reality Smith has found a range of vantage points to produce this illusion of mutabilty. One shot suggests the tower is located inside a prison. A slow tracking shot along a line of treetops induces a foreboding that it will finally appear. His voiceover is measured but implicitly questions the trustworthiness of our own perceptual world and of the world as represented both in his film and in the tropes of mainstream media. The edit and the voiceover are the tools of manipulation which we must be constantly alert to.
Seeing things that others cannot is a criterion of diagnosable psychosis. But what the black tower suggests is that our fears are condensed and projected onto our perceptual world. This projected image of our terror then reinforces our panic in a positive feedback loop leading to the spiral of despair. The fear is sitting quietly in our psyche waiting for an object to attach itself too.
The Black Tower created a delusion that destroyed the film’s protagonist but our delusions need not necessarily be so toxic. If we integrate their metaphorical meaning into our lives we will not be categorised as abnormal. It reminds me of the case study of a man who was comforted by the sight of dinosaurs in his back garden. His conventional suburban life continued undisturbed until he disclosed his dinosaurs to a friend and was committed. The antipsychiatry activists would claim that reality is subjective. We have no grounds for dismissing another person’s delusions. Symptoms that are not distressing to the “patient” do not call for treatment.
Towers visible above the rooftops were often invaluable in pre-satnav days. A tower that seems to follow us has its converse in the tower that appears to be evading us. This unsettling phenomenon appears in the climax to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Unconsoled. The hero is frantically navigating through a warren of narrow city streets towards a concert hall where he is to be hailed the guest of honour. The domeshaped roof of the hall keeps advancing and retreating as he zigzags towards it and eventually disappears altogether. In both cases the fear of disorientation leads to lassitude and paralysis. Smith and Ishiguro have the gift of great artists in grounding abstract themes in gritty reality, the architectural landmark signifying safety, home and comfort or the fear of death, loss and madness.
Both artists also exploit the circle metaphor of death and rebirth, hope and despair that marks a life. The final chapter of The Unconsoled features a tram that follows a circular route on which the hero finds some consolation from the constant tribulations he has faced. The basics of food and company in the form of convivial fellow passengers and seemingly overflowing sumptuous buffet are onboard. It feels like we could stay there contently forever. In Smith’s film the tower’s unsettling power outlives the hero, returning to visit paranoia on others and reminding us there is no escape from our fears. In Camus’ essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, the perpetual cycle of effort and disappointment is presented as the fundamental absurdity of life that we must learn to accept. He concludes:
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”
Still from the film, The Black Tower (1987), courtesy of the artist