The consoling circularity of Smith’s tower and Ishiguro’s tram

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

Three seminal 70’s films from the London Film-makers’ Co-op

The girl Chewing Gum
Still from 16 mm film , The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) courtesy of the artist

Tate Britain recently celebrated 50 years of the London Film-makers’ Cooperative with a screening of six films and a display of archive material. I was struck by their manifesto which defined film “as language, as poem, as instrument of passion and logic” but against “the gimmick, the kitsh, the chi-chi, the B-feature worship”.  This gives a flavour of the era when artists’ growing aversion to the dominant pop art movement of the 60’s was leading to a deeper engagement with the world.

John Smith   The Girl Chewing Gum, 1976

This off-the-wall, ground-breaking film was the best thing in this exhibition. It is based on the conceit of passers by in a Hackney street apparently responding to instructions of a mildly hectoring but encouraging film director. “Come on look at me…good”. The commentary takes a more surreal turn as a slightly erratic zoom to a clock face is accompanied by the director calling out “Now the clock to move to jerkily towards me”.  Like all Smith’s work this wryly amusing take also offers deeper insights – in this case into the illusory nature of film. The Tate website includes an In Focus research project exploring the theoretical and historical context of the film authored by a leading moving image art scholar, Dr. Erika Balsom. She argues that, as a film about film-making, it pushes the post modern envelope much further than the popular Truffaut film, La Nuit Americaine, which I remember hugely enjoying as a teenager on its 1974 release. Its opening live action street scene is like an inverse of Smith’s, when it is revealed that the apparently real passers by are in fact extras choreographed by the director.

Malcolm Le Grice   Threshold, 1976

Viewable online this intriguing and visually captivating film uses multiple recycled and distorted versions of a short sequence of activity around a border post. The migrants and guards are presented through red and green filters of different strengths to give a dream-like aura. For me the red/green binary evoked a blood-chlorophyll /stop-go/ death-life symbolism. Its title points to its universal relevance applicable in the U.K.’s current political crisis which is driven by the atavistic fear that boundaries represent, a concept so brilliantly illuminated through the the seminal ethnographic work,  Purity and Danger, by Mary Douglas.

Lis Rhodes  Dresden Dynamo, 1971

This startling “optical sound” experience is an experimental abstract 16mm film work that predates the Vasulka’s similar video-generated Machine Vision but has the same visceral impact. Letraset and letratone is directly applied to the celluloid and then fed through filters to produce the final version. The sound track is generated by the film itself and this is uncannily like the drone of WW2 bombers. You feel the phalanx of planes, the cascading of bombs and the snapping of the Dresden firestorm. As Tacita Dean might say “Bring back celluloid. There is something more authentic about it than digital film.”

John Smith: the tunnel at the end of the light

DARK-LIGHT- J.SmithJ.Smith

The four films in this show at Kate McGarry Gallery in Shoreditch were among the best I have seen in the last year. Funny and moving, executed with a fierce intelligence and exquisite visual style, it set me scurrying to find what else he had produced. The Black Tower and The Girl Chewing Gum were equally riveting and are available as part of a comprehensive 3 DVD overview of his works released in 2011.

The one that had a most personal impact was White Hole (2014). This looped monochrome animation is a journey from the darkness of a tunnel to the light at its exit. The blinding whiteness as we emerge fills the screen but we spot a pinprick in the distance that enlarges as we move forwards eventually forming the tunnel entrance  and so on ad infinitum.  This visual trick on its own  might be a metaphor for the “big bang” and its theoretical reversal the “big squeeze” where the universe become compressed  again to a point of its original singularity before the cycle begins again. But his commentary takes us in a very different direction.

We hear Smith’s reflections on the lack of consumer visual culture in pre-glasnost Communist bloc countries following a  visit to Poland in 1980. He notices how shopping becomes humanised as without a window display you have to enter the shop to find out what they sell. I had similar reflections following a trip to Moscow in the same year. The monolithic state imposed an austere uniformity on consumption. The smudgy green neon signs in identical style above the shopfronts indicated the type of foodstuffs sold there –  “Meat” or “Bread”. The absence of the technicolour diversity of western consumerism was uncanny but somehow relaxing. Yet the people Smith met were yearning for Thatcher-style consumerist freedom.

Smith’s film captures this dichotomy perfectly.  When the political and the visual converge as tellingly as this, something bigger than both is generated. It is no longer a question of East vs West, capitalism vs communism or consumerist choice vs monopoly conformity. We enter the realms of a deeper wisdom touching on the impossibility of resolution or equilibrium. “There is no light at the end of the tunnel- only another tunnel” as Smith’s Polish friends remark.  I was reminded of this type of circularity in political evolution when I walked round the Olympic Park in 2012. Corporate sponsors  had a monopoly within the Park ensuring that only their brand was on offer. Beer meant Heineken, burgers meant McDonald’s. The ultimate success of capitalism mimics communism. Corporate monopoly had replaced state monopoly.