Spikes in the Trance: The Films of John Smith

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(Om, 1986)

The films of John Smith demonstrate how content and form can be inextricably bound through the language of cinema.

By Zuhair Mehrali

Filmmakers use the language of cinema – which might broadly consist of dimensions of image, sound, and text – to deliver mesmerising packages of ordered information. Some films occasionally disrupt that technical order along their timeline to some special effect, but the short films of John Smith both induce and quietly disrupt their trances with simplicity and humour, conveying structural form as intrinsically tied to content.

The film watched in a cinema is a complete artefact in itself. It might sit alongside other artefacts of various media within some franchise-universe, such as in the cases of book-to-film or film-to-game adaptations, but without that impersonal, shared subjective it is the moving-image construction that plays unto its runtime. Someone with any film-editing experience could talk you through the decisions and processes they made in constructing a film: where footage has been clipped and why; how clips have been ordered along the timeline with relation to a narrative; the choice of music with intent to either juxtapose or reinforce mood.

I suggest now that all of these decisions (and more) contribute to placing the spectator into a fashioned trance; they are mesmerised by the film as a neatly-wrapped package, although they may attempt to unpack it to consider its inner elements through guesswork or later enquiry. Indeed, some filmmakers will shake the package to cause a ‘spike’ in the trance they induce to an intended effect – think of when a character ‘breaks the fourth wall’ to address the spectator, briefly placing them in a two-way relationship within the shared film-spectator consciousness. Or when a particular scene is suddenly devoid of any sound – perhaps this is an instance of the film reducing its possession in the shared consciousness to allow the spectator to increase her participation.

Such techniques are not simply mentioned here for their praising, but to describe them as strategies to affect the reception of the film’s content or narrative within that film-spectator consciousness. These techniques are noticeable, but the strategies behind them are hidden and fashioned, and can therefore be considered as packages themselves.

Introduce English avant-garde filmmaker John Smith (born 1952), unpacking such techniques using the language of cinema with brevity and elegance, often to simultaneously unpack social-theoretical concepts as their own packages respectively. With regard to this, I suggest that the trances his films induce are secondary to their disruptions, which contain the ‘lesson’ that lingers and extends from film-spectator to spectator-social consciousnesses. And that is not to say that feature films can not breach into the social subjective – of course they can (sometimes exclusively, it could be argued; recall I, Daniel Blake [2016]). Smith’s films often grapple with one aspect of social ideology at a time, deconstructing themselves and therefore the parallel idea, with wit and concision.

Below, I note three of his films that achieve this, but invite anyone to browse through his accessible filmography (http://johnsmithfilms.com/selected-works/). And offered here is just one interpretation of his project.

Associations (1975) – an exploration of the boundaries of cinematic language in the form of a word-association game, and therefore an exploration of language interpretation. (http:// johnsmithfilms.com/selected-works/associations/)

The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) – a poetic play about chance, order, and power. (http:// johnsmithfilms.com/selected-works/the-girl-chewing-gum/)

Om (1986) – “This is hardcore cinema.” (Peter Kubelka, ‘What is Film’ lecture series, National Film Theatre, London 2001) (http://johnsmithfilms.com/selected-works/om/)

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