“I like getting people in a dark
room, locking the doors, and saying, ‘Okay, now you’re going to follow this
journey,’” says John Smith. A renowned, avant-garde filmmaker, celebrated for
films that, in his words, “reveal their artifice,” and which are shot through
with his mordant wit, Smith has been exploring the power of narrative since the
His seminal work, The
Girl Chewing Gum
(1976)—now on view at Ingleby Gallery
with this scene: a bustling street corner in the London borough of Hackney.
People, including the titular girl chewing gum, (as well as a handful of
pigeons) pass by on the sidewalk, dodge traffic, wait in line at a nearby movie
theater. All manner of vehicles move in and out of the frame, and the sound of
an incessantly ringing alarm pervades the air. Smith captures all of this in a
single long shot.
Or is this, in fact, the set of a
film? A director’s voice, off-camera, calls out commands and the figures on
camera seem to respond. The camera pans up to a clock and the director
declares, “I want the long hand to move at the rate of one revolution every
hour and the short hand to move at the rate of one revolution every 12 hours.”
This is the first of many wonderfully absurd ruptures that follow, through
which Smith demonstrates how easily reality is transformed into fiction.
“I have this fascination with the
power of language, but on one level it is also the enemy,” Smith once
, speaking about the central focus of all of his work. In The
Girl Chewing Gum
, he uses language to create a slippery divide
between life on and off the big screen, ultimately sabotaging his own project.
While the film is hugely entertaining, it also serves as a warning: appearances
are not always what they seem.