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Nik Houghton reviews John Smith's The Black Tower, screened on 16th January 1988 as part of the Stratford Film Festival, for Independent Media magazine

Stratford Film Festival at the Tom Allen Centre, Saturday 16th January

Saturday night and in the heartland of the E a glow is given off by a programme of experimental films on show at the Tom Allen Arts Centre in Newham, organised by NELlA (North East London lndpendent Arts). Built loosely around the notion of filmworks in some way related to or generated from the East End, this selection offers up the assured black comedy of John Smith, an organ playing interlude, pop-corn and one or two surprises.

In David Cullen's 'spaghetti western' spoof, for example, Super-8 is used to describe a jokey scenario of desperadoes and chipshop showdowns. Elsewhere, though, Mark Nunneley's Marine Tower catches the attention in a 16mm work which pulls the viewer into a distorted territory of high rises, twisted dreams and sub-'Eraserhead' aesthetics. Set to a non-stop soundtrack of fastcut television sounds - a 'scratch' of everything from TV ads to movie conversations - Marine Tower opens with the image of a figure carrying a TV in front of him, on which a chop- edit sequence of TV trash flickers, and progresses through some stylish camerawork to a final scene wherein the central protagonist enters a phonebox and drowns. Occasionally rough-edged and unsteady, Nunnely's 17 minute storyline operates as a nightmarish trip into urban surrealism underlined by swirling camerawork, fish-eyed vision and a shadowy sense of bizarre dislocation Last seen at the Metro Cinema alongside Carl Bichel's Fuji scholarship film - a glossy trip into 50's London - Marine Tower offers a murky trip into a place where logic is ditched for a parallel world of sitting room angst and strange impulses.

More everyday, perhaps, is Matthew McGuchan's short, yet strikingly personal, 16mm piece. An awkward sketch of interpersonal anxiety wherethe thoughts we normally hide are mercilessly exposed, McGuchan's film uses simple devices and basic 'confessional' voiceover to give edge to what might otherwise be an indulgent and mawkish exercise. Things are more oblique with Roger Arnold's Short Boxers which uses super-8 footage of a televised boxing match and 16mm film to supplement a short performance piece which sees Arnold moving around a dark- ened space temporarily illuminated by a 'nightlight' which the performer proceeds to blow out. Thereafter Arnold prowls the area before stand- ing in front of the super-8 projection screen so that the blue-toned telecined image of boxers projects onto Arnold's contorted body. While the 16mm images hint at notions at masculinity - sections of a male body are screened - the final 'message' is uncertain although there remains a sense of engagement with the piece despite its lack of definition. In Nick Bull's Frankie and Elsie Get Made - a joke on Rose and Sammy Get Laid, perhaps? - definition is not really the problem as Bull's moodily lit 16mm work explores the Germanic expression of early horror films to comically illustrate the tilmic construction of narratives. Parodying the "silent era" style of theatricality, mad professors and the Frankenstein myth, Bull's film sets his own dame-headed scientist to working on creating a monster in the shadowed gloom of a film proc- essing darkroom. That the 'monster' he constructs is, in fact, a parallel reality of startled looks, sinister laboratories and stylised dramatics is emphasised by the intercutting where scenes from films like Fritz Lang's Metropolis are cleverly inter- woven into the footage of the film darkroom. (Using what the maker calls "the Holstein aesthetic", Bull manages to create a situation where the professor seems to exchange horrified looks with the characters who occupy the 'other space' of classic horror films).

While the central idea of Frankie Elsie is a sound one - a controlled play with the notions of film and representation, and the editing skillful enough to carry this extended joke - Bull's film suffers from taking an approach which sets humour some- what high on the agenda to the detriment of what might otherwise be a fascinating dabble with film language.

More assured by far is the last item on the programme, John Smith's 24 minute colour film, The Black Tower (comparisons are perhaps unfair here with Nick Bull, a student, and Smith, a filmmaker with nearly a decade's experience). In The Black Tower, perhaps one of Smith's most accessible films, 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 voiceover which takes us from unease to breakdown to mysterious death, the images, meticulously controlled and articulated, deliver a series of colour coded puzzles, games, jokes and puns which pull the viewer into a mind- teasing engagement. Something more than a bleakly tragi-comic story, Smith's film is a stylish, entertaining and attractive composite of narrative, experimental concerns and low-key drama.

Smith's assurance and skill as a filmmaker undercuts the notion of the avant-garde as dry, unprofessional and dull and in Tower we have an example of a film which plays with the emotions as well as the language of film. Currently part of the international touring package 'The Elusive Sign', Smith's film is also rumoured to be headed for transmission on Channel Four's 'Eleventh Hour' slot. Viewing is recommended.

In the end, though, what this mixed bag of work offers is the chance to view new film in a space somewhere between the backroom projection of the art school and the more upmarket environs of the gallery or cinema. With its pop-corn and organ playing interval - courtesy of Thomas Bloor - this downbeat and localised event allowed "old masters" like Smith to occupy programme space with newcomers. There's a value and importance in that and I look forward to the follow-up event, scheduled, it seems, for a summer date.

Nik Houghton

Nik Houghton
Independent Media
Independent Media magazine
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