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Michael O' PrayClick here to Print this Page
John Smith
In many ways Smith's subject-matter is one he seems only comfortable approaching through humour.

It is not a novel device. There is a rich tradition of British social commentary and feelings of displacement played through humour (in literature the two Amis's and Larkin for instance) or grotesque melodrama (Dickens). Slow Glass's melancholic drift is even supported by a dramatic sequence of a young boy dressed in 50s clothes, waiting at the window of a suburban house: a veritable post-war image of loss.

Blight, made with the composer Jocelyn Pook, documents the demolition of an East London street to make way for the new M11 Link Road. It is an exquisitely beautiful film of surfaces, textures, movement and colour as Smith's camera records the dereliction, the detritus of urban demolition. Pook's textural sound-track incorporates voices ('Come on Kim, come on') reminiscent of Eliot's pub dialogues in Smith's The Waste Land. A sublimely droll Smithian moment is the gigantic poster of 'The Exorcist' revealed on a wall as a building is destroyed, with all its connotations flowing into the film's own subject-matter. Unlike the complex levels of Slow Glass, Blight has the static lyrical quality of the earlier British documentary film movement of the 1930s.

Blight has to be compared with Home Suite as they both cover the same subject-matter. In the latter film, Smith's new video camera takes a long look at the house he must leave to make way for the M11 development. This is an up-close document of the minutiae of his house, beginning characteristically in the toilet. The filmmaker provides his own wry desultory commentary and in his longest film, often grappling with the technical glitches of his video camera (it is thus, at the same time, a film about the artist coming to grips with a new medium), he offers a personal reaction to the loss of his home. On viewing Home Suite, Blight can be seen as the public face of what was at heart a private affair. Made back to back (Home Suite made first), the two films reveal a tension between the pristine heavily modulated work he had made up to that date and a more relaxed, freer way of working that video afforded.

In his essay on John Smith, Ian Bourn compares Home Suite with Smith's earlier film of his home, Leading Light. They are both about change, with the difference that the earlier film is structured by the movement of light in a room, while Home Suite is recorded by a jiggling hand-held camera whose movement is determined by the film-maker's response to the topography of his home, which we are finally told by him is about to be demolished - 'it's the end of an era', he comments. So Smith is a protagonist in his own story. The collapse of the traditional working class, the loss of an industrial base, of skills and crafts, of community is a powerful theme in his work and to this extent Smith himself is bound up in the inexorable social and historical movement he captures in his films. It is fascinating to observe the maturing of his work in terms of emotional resonance, from the cool logic of Associations and conceptually filtered Leading Light to the complexity of The Black Tower, Slow Glass and Lost Sound.

In Lost Sound, the sensibility and issues of social perception, humour and formal rigour which have flowed through his work since A Girl Chewing Gum have found a further means of expression, again using the interplay of sound and image. Over some years Smith and Graeme Miller gathered discarded audio tapes from East London. They found them wrapped around trees, in mangled knots in gutters, hanging from old railings and so on. Smith filmed the tape where it was found and Miller took it away to rescue its sounds, often damaged by weather and urban wear. The result is a montage of East London tape-locations with their accompanying fragmentary sounds which range from pub songs to Asian pop. As in many of his other films people are represented by sound - not voice-overs this time, but the sounds they use for their pleasure, now lost or discarded. Lost Sound is another imaginative picture of London and of a new society of fragmented yet interlocking communities (perhaps this was always the case). Characteristically, its pathos is gently shot through with humour.

Born and bred in East London, Smith has produced a body of work which is both an 'objective' and a personal response to urban change. He achieves this without collapsing into a facile political posturing, or an omnipotent 'mirroring' or understanding of it. Smith's world is seen through a prism of humour, absurdity and easy-going but formally rich structures. His keen artistic intelligence never allows self-indulgence to offer cheap balms. Rather, it is through Smith's fundamental humanism pervaded by sadness that art comes to offer its restorative power, whilst always remaining grounded in the world as we experience it.

Michael O' Pray
Still from Lost Sound by John Smith, 1998-2001
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