Why Isn’t The Greatest Short Ever Made Available On DVD?

August 17, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Features, Opinion with 4 Comments

Last week, I made a big joke about the problems that would befall anyone called John Smith trying to get their blog read – listing various famous John Smiths (the beer, the politician, Doctor Who) would already had dibs on the name.

I’d forgotten that there’s actually a film director named John Smith…and that, in 1987, he directed my favourite ever short film.  It’s called The Black Tower, and it is inexplicably unavailable on DVD.  As far as I know, the nearest it ever had to a mainstream release was as part of a Smith collection on VHS, but it cost something crazy like £40 so I don’t actually own a copy.

It’s not even on YouTube.  Can you imagine? [UPDATE: As of August 2015, it is on Vimeo!  See comments for the link.]

The problem is that Smith isn’t really considered a filmmaker in the same way as Steven Spielberg.  Rather, he is renowned in avant-garde circles for his video installations.  So he’s one of that lot, huh? Well, no… Smith’s films are primarily conceptual in design, but in The Black Tower the ideas are cloaked by a fiendish, hilarious and sinister narrative more gripping than most Hollywood high-concept pitches.

It’s the story of an unnamed narrator who spots a black tower on the horizon.  But the bloody thing won’t go away.  It’s there everywhere he looks.  The guy simply can’t escape from the disconcerting, monolithic presence of this tall slab of black.

It’s supposed to be a film that asks us to reconsider narrative in structuralist terms, whatever that means, but the film unfurls with such deadpan wit it’s also a cracking surrealist comedy-thriller, halfway between Kafka and Monty Python (I’m sure there’s a deliberate nod here to Terry Gilliam’s animation about hungry houses that stalk and eat passers-by).

The film maintains its funny/creepy poise over 20 minutes, all the more remarkable because it consists entirely of still photos edited together, with the black tower cunningly inserted into the frames.

I only saw it because a friend (who’s something of a connosieur of short films) was asked to put together a screening of shorts from the archive at the then-National Film Theatre a decade ago.  The Black Tower was the inevitable ‘hook’ to kick off the night, and I’ve wanted to see it again ever since.

But it’s difficult.  You have to look really hard to find it (which is ironic, considering the plot of the film).  Invariably, it’s only shown at exhibitions of Smith’s work, in art galleries.  According to Smith’s website, it’s played only eight times worldwide in the past few years.

But it’s too good not to be more widely seen.  It’s easily my favourite short movie, beating off stiff competition from The Wrong Trousers (you could learn everything you need to know about visual storytelling from Nick Park films) and Buster Keaton’s sublime One Week (which, by coincidence, fellow silent comedy nut The Incredible Suit posted onto his website last week).

So the campaign starts here to get The Black Tower released commercially or, at least, get it on YouTube.  It’s one of the cleverest, weirdest, most compelling films you’ll ever see, and you’ll be glad you did.

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  1. The BFI Player is a tantalising glimpse of the future » KinnemaniacOct 3, 2012 at 2:00 pmReply

    […] glimpse of the future, and I can’t wait to live in it.  But please, BFI, make sure that the greatest short film ever made is uploaded […]

  2. PiCTO PHiLAug 20, 2015 at 10:00 pmReply

    I recorded it (among other shorts by John Smith) on August 3 2004 (broadcasted on german TV station 3sat)
    2 years ago I wanted to ‘tivo’ it on my friends recorder to have a digital format of it. After two years now, the original tape long gone, I thought I mislaid the digital copy as well, but yesterday I found it again. So, it’s very very hard to find this short in full length on the internet. I hope vimeo lets me keep it here. /// Because the tape was not in good shape after 9 years after the recording, it has a constant thin stripe of VHS-static at the bottom. And it is subtitled in german, but you just can read the upper line cause of the static stripe. I hope it’s watchable. Enjoy!

    • Simon KinnearAug 27, 2015 at 3:52 pmReplyAuthor

      Thank you so much for uploading the video! As you’ve probably guessed, it’s been something of a Holy Grail of mine.

      Amazing to see it again; by and large, it’s as I remembered it: playful and creepy, the technique accentuating the deadpan voiceover.

      Thanks again. Will you be uploading any of the other John Smith shorts you have?

  3. Nick WoolgarJul 16, 2016 at 6:56 pmReply

    This is a great find, thank you for posting about it, and also to PiCTO PHiL for the vimeo upload.

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