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John Smith: The Black Tower
Catherine Lacey's notes on John Smith in the Catalogue for The Elusive Sign, a touring exhibition organised by the British Council and the Arts Council, 1988

John Smith uses humour to repeatedly subvert and frustrate a potentially threatening content in an economically constructed tale of the narrator's descent into paranoia and, ultimately, oblivion, as he is pursued, haunted and finally destroyed by a mysterious peripatetic black tower. Throughout, both verbal and visual imagery are low key to the point of banality; shots of familiar inner city landscapes - terraces, tower-blocks and scruffy wastelands - are set against a narrative that is laconic and bathetic in the best traditions of English suburban comedy.
There is a (frequently hilarious) reflexive relationship between sound and image and while the early sections appear to pursue a conventional story line, this is gradually undermined by an increased emphasis on and deliberate misuse or overplaying of filmic conventions. (The tower becomes a 'trick of the imagination' as the disappearing cars are shown to be a trick in the editing).
The Black Tower opens with a blank screen while the unseen narrator relates a monotonous urban round, shopping for food, cooking, washing and washing-up against the appropriate signifying background noises, boiling kettles and passing buses. Meanwhile a black water-tower is repeatedly glimpsed, between trees, peeping over walls or between blocks of flats, apparently summoned at will. Simple devices, for example, a red or a black screen are used to denote a sunny morning or the interior of the 'tower' into which our hero is eventually lured. After his collapse, when the tower mysteriously becomes collaged to the hospital into which he is admitted, his speedy descent into instability is suggested by erratic cutting until eventually he re-discovers the tower, "I opened the door and stepped into the darkness".
The ending is unexpected and unsettling in its suggestion of an underlying futility, and the alienating atmosphere of our inner cities. CL

Born 1952. Studied at North East London Polytechnic 1971-74 and Royal College of Art Film School 1974-77. Scripted and directed 'Gardner' for EMI 1977, 'Hackney Marshes' for ThamesTV 1978 'Shine So Hard' for Atlas Adventures 1981. Made films for theatre piece 'Dungeness.- The Desert in the Garden' 1987. Part-time film tutor at North East London Polytechnic since 1978.

Catherine Lacey
The Elusive Sign catalogue
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The Elusive Sign
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