Postcards from Oberhausen #2

2. Saturday, May 7th, 2011

John Smith: Card Giver, Trailer-Maker, DVD Presenter

Amongst many treasures, the Oberhausen Kurzfilmtage has hosted a presentation of the first DVD edition of John Smith’s works. Years in the making – a “labor of love” in the words of both Smith himself and his editor on the project Benjamin Cook – the edition, published by LUX, is a three-disc box set that includes all of Smith’s major works from Associations (1975) to the complete Hotel Diaries series (2001-2007). The box itself is, perhaps not surprisingly, designed with all the structural economy and surreptitious humor characteristic of the filmmaker’s work.

Smith is also the creator of this year’s festival trailer. Another brilliant exercise in the best kind of minimalism, the trailer – commissioned to complement the festival’s Shooting Animals theme – features an encounter between dog and technology whose most enduring echo is that of a kind of dawning anthropomorphism that situates this impossible dialogue somewhere between the realms of metaphor and fantasy. Watch it here.

I caught up with John Smith and asked him a few questions on the genesis of the trailer, the relation between art and comedy, and his favorite festival features so far. Here’s what he had to say:

Tijana Mamula: So, you made the trailer specifically in relation to the Shooting Animals theme…

John Smith: Well, yes, it relates to how I approach my work generally, I always like to have some kind of constraint to think within. When I was asked to do the trailer, last summer, at first I wasn’t sure what I could do, but when I found out the theme was animals, it was like, ah, great, ok! And actually it’s related to a film I was working on already. My partner and I have a kind of ruined building in the south of France, a sort of wooden shed where we go to stay, and next door there’s a big area for hunting wild pigs, so people have hunting dogs. We’re in this very beautiful quiet village and right next door to us is this guy who has a kennel full of dogs that are just kept in cages all of the time. He actually loves his dogs but they’re in this cage all the time, howling, wanting to see him. So I’d made some recordings of these dogs already and I was quite interested, especially in one of them because it has a voice that sounds to me like a human, trying to get out. So I made these recordings, and I thought I really wanted to do something with dogs. But I wasn’t sure what the image would be. I had some ideas, but they didn’t work out.

TM: What were some of the other ideas, just out of curiosity?

JS: The idea was that basically the dogs would react to something and trigger it to change. In the trailer, the dogs bark and the color bars run away, then they come back and so on. But originally, I just filmed my garden at different times when the light was different. I filmed it when it was sunny one day and another day when it was snowing. So I make a similar kind of device, where the garden’s covered with snow and the dogs bark and the snow disappears, and then it creeps back again. It was a more complex image, and I didn’t really like it. I like really economical ideas. But unfortunately I had to have an eye operation, and I couldn’t see into a camera very well. And then I just had this idea to use color bars – of course they’re electronically generated so I didn’t have to use a camera, I just zoomed in on the edit suite! But I ended up making something that I was very pleased with, because I really like simplicity.


TM: The trailer also made me think about something else that I’ve seen a lot in your work. I feel like you often give anthropomorphic qualities to inanimate objects, like the tower in the Black Tower or the clock in The Girl Chewing Gum. So I really liked that relationship between the dogs and the color bars, which gave both of them human qualities. Is that something that you were aiming for?

JS: Yes, absolutely. And that’s why I was pleased with using the color bars, because they’re obviously the most removed thing from any kind of life form, so I just really liked the idea of the color bars being frightened by dogs!

TM: Yeah, and so the dogs and the color bars communicating took it into this kind of sci-fi dimension that was also really funny…

JS: Yes, I’m glad you tuned in to that. Because I realized when the festival started – I think the record level must have been quite low – they kept playing it really quiet. And it just didn’t work, it has to have this kind of aggressive assault.

TM: You’ve also piqued my curiosity about this new film that you’re making with the dogs in France?

JS: Well, I might not end up making the film, but it is really very similar to the trailer. Actually, I thought after I made the trailer that once people had seen the film they’d think I was using the same idea as the trailer, but it’s the other way around! What I’m doing in France has to do with landscape, and changes in the landscape, the counterpoint between the dogs barking – which I like because it’s sort of tragic and humorous at the same time, and not peaceful at any rate – and the landscape, which is this very beautiful valley and mountains. So I’ll basically set the camera up and just switch it on when the dogs bark, and then I’ll edit it tightly.

TM: One other question related to your work. I’ve been thinking recently about the relationship between art and comedy, which is really complex, and wondering to what extent comedy can be art. It seems to depend a lot on narrative, which isn’t always present. I mean, it’s hard to have a funny painting that doesn’t have a narrative dimension. Like, a funny abstract painting…

JS: Well, it kind of can be, because I think comedy often comes out of the unexpected, or something that doesn’t seem right in a particular context. I think that can operate in an abstract painting, and I sometimes do see abstract paintings that make me smile. But you’re right, I mean, you’re not going to say, Oh, you should see that painting, it’s so funny!

TM: So, I’m wondering if there are any other artists or filmmakers that you feel a particular affinity with in terms of their use of humor?

JS: I first started making films in the early 1970s when structural materialist filmmaking was at its height, and it wasn’t generally a bundle of laughs! So my work was a bit out of place – some people didn’t take it very seriously. But then I started to see some of the American avant-garde films from that period and I realized that there was a precedent. I mean, there was a bit of that in England as well, for example Jeff Keen, who made these kind of trashy, funny diary films, like his family, but dressed as superheroes, things like that. But then I started to see some of the American work, like Michael Snow actually. When I saw Wavelength I thought, this is really great, it’s funny, there’s these weird interjections. It was interesting to me that he was making this formal film that had a different language come in in certain places, which then became integrated with it. Somebody coming in and dying, falling, seemed crazy to begin with but then ten minutes later, after you’ve become completely involved with the visual experience, somebody else comes in and says “there’s somebody lying on the floor, I think they’re dead.” And you realize you’ve completely forgotten about that, because it’s been excluded from the frame. It’s this playful formal approach. Similarly, Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) is very funny, and another obvious example is George Landau/Owen Land. But I kind of identify with less, I’m more interested in Snow and Frampton. Fortunately, I saw (nostalgia) after I’d already made Girl Chewing Gum, because there’s some quite strong connections there. I actually found out about (nostalgia) from Bruce Jenkins: he wrote me this really nice letter saying he’d seen my film and liked it and that the only other film he could relate it to was (nostalgia), that I should see it. I wasn’t disappointed, it’s a great film.

TM: So, getting to the festival: is there something that you’ve really liked so far?

JS: I think the thing that’s made the biggest impression so far is the Grzegorz Krolikiewicz profile. It was just extraordinary. It’s very hard to know what he’s actually observing, because he basically observes these young men who look like they’re maybe at a New Year’s Eve celebration, they’ve obviously all been partying and some of them are going off on a train, and they’re just kind of passionately kissing each other, just reaching out, it’s the most intense physical experience. But it’s actually fantastically shot, 35mm black and white, early 70s, but really really tight framing. It was so enigmatic, so intense, but you didn’t really know what it was. I think in one of the films some of them were going off to join the army, and others were staying.

The 57th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen runs in Oberhausen, Germany, from 5-10 May 2011. Tijana Mamula is reporting daily.