Rest assured, it's not just a pseudonym. John Smith is one of England's finest avant-garde filmmakers, and one of its more prolific. In thirty years he 's finished about as many films and videos, and shown them in museums, galleries and festivals around the world. Smart, funny, and often astonishingly beautiful, until recently Smith's films were unfortunately rarely shown in the United States. With luck, recent screenings in New York and Chicago and a gallery show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn are but the beginning.
Smith started making films in 1972, at the zenith of English Materialist Filmmaking. The theory-first formalism of standard-bearers like Malcolm LeGrice and Peter Gidal is evident in the rigidly precise structure of Smith 's films. And yet, the arid film-by-numbers quality that afflicted the films of so many of Smith's contemporaries is tempered by his mordant wit and weakness for narrative.
Girl Chewing Gum, probably Smith 's best known film, is one of the few avant-garde films that still never fails to elicit a good, hearty belly-laugh from audiences. Purporting to be the rushes for an establishing shot from an unspecified feature film, it consists of an off-screen voice "directing" people as they go about their business on a busy London street corner. Everyone from a young mother to an inexperienced stickup man to a flock of pigeons gets their cue.
His other films are similar, setting up a series of expectations, only to turn them on their head. There's a kind of soft didacticism to Smith's films, which contrasts the brittle hardness that can make the films of his avowedly Materialist peers so hard to watch, and often so unrewarding. Nothing is quite what it seems in a John Smith film, but he always lets you in on the joke. And in the process slyly slips in some tough questions about the business and nature of filmmaking.
Frye: How did you come to start making films?
Smith: Before I even went to art school, when I was about 16, I started doing light-shows for bands. A friend of mine's father had a photographic shop that sold ex-government equipment, and one of the things that he had was a cellar full of American 16mm Ampro projectors. We could get these projectors for almost nothing. The shop also sold old scientific films, informational films, industrial films, documentaries, that sort of thing.
Frye: This would be the period when those kinds of films were sold for scrap?
Smith: Yes, exactly. It was about 1968. And so our light-show, in addition to including the more psychedelic things-inks and all that-also incorporated film projection. At that time I had no education in film whatsoever. I got interested in film mainly through discovering that you could make a film without making a splice, by projecting loops of different material either superimposed on or next to each other. And I was immediately struck by how meanings came out of nowhere, and how many coincidences you get when you just put two pieces of film together.
Frye: This was a realization you came to spontaneously, then? On your own?
Smith: Yeah, well, it was at the time when light-shows were emerging with music in Britain and the United States. But it was a fairly new phenomenon at that time. Film wasn't really used very much. It was a fortuitous thing really, of being able to get a hold of all this equipment, like Specto projectors, which run at two frames per second. So that was an interest from the start, but I didn't go off and make films straightaway after that. I was still in school at that time. It was like the end of school, and I wanted to go to art school. I was interested primarily in painting at that time. My parents didn't want me to do a fine art course and, because I was young and I couldn't have got a grant, my parents had to support me when I first went to college. They said, "Well, we're not going to support you to do a fine art course. We'll support you to do a commercial art course. …