John Smith b. 1952
The Black Tower (1985-87)
“In The Black Tower we enter the world of a man haunted by a tower which, he believes, is following him around London. While the character of the central protagonist is indicated only by a narrative voice-over which takes us from unease to breakdown to mysterious death, the images, meticulously controlled and articulated, deliver a series of colour coded puzzles, jokes and puns which pull the viewer into a mind-teasing engagement. Smith’s assurance and skill as a filmmaker undercuts the notion of the avant-garde as dry, unprofessional and dull and in The Black Tower we have an example of a film which plays with the emotions as well as the language of film.” Nik Houghton, Independent Media 1987
“The Black Tower expands the core of Smith’s interests: chiefly, the image as a filmic fact which is constantly questioned and often undermined by language and soundtrack. Like his earlier films, The Black Tower is concerned with description, but this time framed by a story whose undertow of melancholy balances its wit and wry humour, and which is a remarkable fiction in its own right.” A.L. Rees, ‘Art in Cinema’, National Film Theatre, London 1987
“Smith’s intention was to show how, just as the real black tower near his home could be seen from many different angles in apparently different settings – a housing estate, a prison, a churchyard – so language can construct any number of backdrops to a phenomenon, thereby altering atmosphere and interpretation. Smith applies the subjectivity of language to the objecthood of the black tower, converting it from a banal piece of industrial architecture to a cipher of paranormal potential. By simply filming the tower in all its different settings and applying a monologue over the top that mystifies this process, we are led to believe that the tower is beleaguering the protagonist, following him, or, at least, that he is deluded into believing that he is being followed. Although we know that this illusion is down to the power of editing alone, we happily half-abandon this knowledge for the thrill of the subterfuge.” Sally O’Reilly, catalogue essay for ‘Return of the Black Tower (after John Smith)’ by Jennet Thomas, PEER Gallery 2007
“Smith’s ‘accidental horror’ film wears its constructivist tricks as a primary-coloured cloak around the barest of wireframe figures. That Smith dismisses the plot as secondary to the film itself reveals more about his artistic leanings than any supposed embracing of genre, and the fractured realism and creeping terror of the story plays out despite and because of them.
Enchanting and good-humoured (as with almost all of Smith’s films), The Black Tower tells a singular story of architectural horror and madness worthy of the ungovernable geographies of Machen, Welles, or Lovecraft, situating itself firmly in the quotidian grit of Thatcher’s Britain. Constantly pointing to its own telling, as well as the mode and method of that telling, Smith’s film questions the viewer’s own certainty even as the narrator loses theirs — at the same time challenging not only the veracity of the film but also the viewer’s complacency watching it.” Thogdin Ripley, The Quietus, October 2017
“The hilarious and slightly menacing The Black Tower is one of the most accomplished films to come from the British avant-garde for years.” Michael O’Pray, Independent Media, 1987