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