A Door Between Worlds: One Frame from John Smith’s Home Suite

Home Suite (John Smith, 1993/1994)

The door is shut. Though the film it appears in, John Smith’s Home Suite, is a room-by-room tour of the filmmaker’s house, this front door appears at the one-hour mark. It may be clear from its opening minutes that the film was instigated as a way of coping with upheaval—the camera, switched on, slowing down time and providing useful distance from a disaster—but before this point, our guide has offered no exposition.

Now Smith, a self-reflexive master of the slow reveal, finally comes clean. As we look at this door covered in boards, wires, and several handles—but, in this light, no apparent knob—he, as he prepares to leave, tells us where we are. “This is not a usual day,” he says, by way of understatement. “There’s a rather lot of activity in the street.”

We are meters away from Colville Road. There is a protest outside, weeks strong. Police have choked off access to the neighborhood by filling the road with trucks and buses, and plan to make the following days the end of a neighborhood refusal. He is being evicted. Everyone on the street is, to make way for a road development. A stack of papers, pinned to the right of the door, takes on a legally ceremonious look.

“This will probably be the last photographic evidence of my house before it gets demolished,” he says, as he reaches for his keys.

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If the name John Smith, destined for anonymity, means anything to you, it is almost certainly because of one of his earliest works, The Girl Chewing Gum. Once canonized in syllabi, it is inextricable from his membership in the London Film-Makers’ Co-op at a time when the structural/materialist movement was first alive in screenings and lectures and the activity of making short films outside of any industry. Unlike his contemporaries, Smith never completely left narrative behind, even as he took pleasure in exposing and disassembling its mechanisms. Case in point: the consistent figure in a Smith film, across four decades of work, is the raconteur, in this early case a documentary voice asserting his grip on a London street actuality. The would-be magician reveals, in stages, the shallowness of his control, all while keeping his tone at the same ringing register that would still get him a post reading the nightly news.

This layered vision of reality, spiced with wordplay, is something Smith built up only so that he might get at something otherwise obscure. In a way, he wanted an excuse to film a street intersection that meant something to him, and the narration allowed him to get away with it. It’s there, and nowhere else in film (the closest you’ll get is a primary location in Mike Leigh’s Naked, a 12-minute walk away). For this reason, Smith has been considered a filmmaker concerned with local subjects. The contrast, some might offer, would be universal. In the distance between those poles, Smith observes reality to get at the stickiness of such labels, and how they might be peeled back.

Which is to say that there is a tension in Smith’s exposition. He is filming his living space because the knowledge contained in its marks and objects will not live on in mere memory. And yet he is wary, we hear, of the whole business of framing his life, and all the embellishments such an endeavor usually invites.

Early on we are told he has bought a consumer-grade camera for the purpose of documenting his home before it vanishes. He hasn’t worked in video, preferring 16mm, since the earliest days of film school—but this project calls for it, as this will be the only work of Smith’s to clock in at feature length. With these givens, we might expect a portrait of a place as he would want to remember it; we prepare ourselves to hear memories of home as a place of comfort or artistic rebellion. We start in a toilet, and see, minute after unbroken minute (in its entirety, Home Suite is four shots), a site of ruin in a state of disassembly.

We aren’t unwelcome; this isn’t meant to be private. Smith addresses the unknown viewer on the other side of the exchange in a second-person address the entire length of the film. Still, we have entered via Smith’s hands, and survey the stoppage of a leak, the rescue of tiles and bricks, the last recognition of old Spanish phrases taped by a mirror, and the collection of the one luxury in the place, a phone in every room and hallway—all caked with debris, weathered by the years.

But this is no mere vérité marathon for the sake of a personal archive: Smith, almost delusionally deadpan, gives us a rocking-chair narration of what we’re supposed to be looking at. Erika Balsom, in the course of compiling a dossier on his work for the Tate Gallery, has grouped Smith’s work with Michael Snow’s A Casing Shelved and Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia), two works in which an artist attempts to catalogue in extreme detail a seemingly simple (stationary) image. But Smith’s film, in addition to the humor Balsom notes, showcases not just the formal tension of the speaker’s narration at odds with an ephemeral image, but the actual stress of his particular circumstance, where the stability of the act of making a film is a last attempt at verticality against the flattening, devastating forces waiting outside his (soon-to-be nonexistent) door.

Such a scenario would naturally invite sympathy. Certainly British cinema, not to mention a particular kind of arthouse cinema, does not lack for narratives of “life on the margins,” where shelter is no given. The difference, plainly, is that Smith sidesteps the whole problem of poverty exploitation by putting himself in the camera’s crosshairs. One imagines the list of film directors who have experienced eviction to not be a terribly long one. And, where Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum is a film school mainstay in the U.K., and his Hotel Diaries attracted the attention of Sight & Sound’s year-end list on the occasion of its festival tour in 2007, Home Suite never emerged into exhibition with a claim to topicality. It isn’t typically included in screenings of his work. In fact it wasn’t very easy to see at all, until Smith uploaded it to his Vimeo page this May in its entirety, for free, in this extended season of neglect, sickness, and unemployment. Which makes this a true odd film out: made with nothing to lose, with zero profit in the offing.

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“It’s not as filthy as it looks, really.”

If you were to approach Home Suite as a piece of evidence, there’s a logical, empirical case to be made that John Smith is a fabulist, and that the destruction of his home is no great loss. Vines have broken through the roof of the upstairs bathroom. Asbestos-laced Artex has been thickly troweled over grease-stained walls in the kitchen. And the camera’s digital compression turns the indoor light into an unappetizing off-rose shade, its shadows into pools harbouring—one fears—mold, spiders, the works. 

Take the door. Its patchwork might be incomprehensible were Smith not there to narrate. He focuses on an invention that explains its assembly of cords (an alarm bell prank mechanism), drawing us into a memory of the day a police officer triggered it; from here he hovers over the image before telling us about what waits outside. 

Smith doesn’t salvage any obvious beauty from this house; he tells us what we’ve missed. Not in the way of a lament, exactly. It’s an entirely prosaic method: anyone who’s had to move in a hurry will know something of the uneasy matters of sorting and boxing materials, how their ghosts appear before us one last vivid time. At times, Smith is completely incapable of telling us what it’s like to have lived in this house for a decade—we can’t not hear the nearby trains running, which he’s become used to; we can’t see how each room has been worked over and filled with personal meaning; in a way, we can’t trust Smith, whose careful transitions have a kind of neatness that will arouse the suspicion of anyone who knows of the structural lying he accomplishes via narration in The Girl Chewing Gum. “At its best,” Fred Camper has written, “Smith’s work evokes doubt not only about cultural givens but about all givens.”

This uncertainty gets at something crucial about the experience of displacement, which is both entirely banal and often, as in this case, considered legal, and is also marked by an unmatched intensity, the stuff of despairing tears and self-preserving adrenaline. Smith doesn’t go there. There is no moment of culminating emotion, no real catharsis. He takes one last hour-long look, then faces the exit. Even more so when measured against his other work, Smith’s voice is remarkably calm. 

Some films are said to demand patience; this one wonders out loud if we’re able to grant its maker some here and there, as he figures out the zoom on his new camera, or pauses before trying to get a story’s detail right. Given everything we know about Smith’s usual working methods, it would be incorrect to think that there isn’t a certain level of planning before he began improvising. Some of the mess is deliberate. And so he’s seeking fidelity to a particular vision, one where, at the end, he is no exceptional case. He has nothing to aggrandize. His stories, we imagine, once he steps through that door, cannot be drastically different from the ones contained in the house next to his, which has already been pulled down.

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The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962) | Lionsgate
The Trial (Welles, 1962) | Lionsgate

Smith is a cinephile, even if none of his work betrays the desperation of pastiche. He says he started to conceive the narration for The Girl Chewing Gum from the moment he saw Truffaut’s La Nuit américaine, in which a street’s pedestrians are merely extras waiting on a director’s instructions. And there is something in Home Suite, despite its seemingly off-the-cuff images, that retains the power of cinematic symbols. Doors are the most unexceptional of props, and saying that a door means any one thing is surely a dead-end. And yet in a movie, a stationary door—like a hurtling train, an exposed elevator, or a spiral staircase—can unlock all manner of powerful associations.

Smith’s narration taps into this kind of illusion, suggesting there is an image stitched to the other side of the rooms we bear witness to, of another time, when the rooms were full and bright. No, this is not a film of casually attractive surfaces. Instead, there is the sense that each moment is hard-won; that door is the one Smith has seen every day for the most significant period of his adult life. It would be impossible to see a door and not, somewhere in the mind’s catalog, have that door exist as a reference point. This is not usually how we encounter doors in cinema, which are objects to cut through, pass through, slam shut, or break down. 

The door focused on intensely for a long period of time lends itself better to other mediums. Smith’s door would seem to exist somewhere in the uncanny, in the space between a photograph—like Robert Gober’s Untitled Door and Door Frame and its ideal offer of a clean, almost supernatural invitation—and a painting, such as David C. Driskell’s Doorways and its heavy, earth-toned layering of flowing colours. One bridge to access this uncanny might be in a recall of Orson Welles’ unwavering narration of the parable at the beginning of The Trial, which is presented in the manner of a dreamlike engraving. “In the darkness he perceives a radiance streaming immortally from the door of the law,” Welles incants. “And now, before he dies, all he’s experienced condenses into one question…” The man in the story only summons the question after staring at the door for many years; when it shuts, the door’s appearance in the wall is a final, or the final, illustration of powerlessness.

As Smith approaches the door, he splits the movie, and his own career as a filmmaker. Though you would never know it from his narration, this house, in all its apparent lack of luxuries, was the site of a thriving artistic community, and existed during what remains as arguably the greatest stretch of his career (including The Black Tower, Om, and Slow Glass). This is the “end of an era” he speaks of.

As the artist Cornelia Parker recounts, Smith, among others, knew the place would likely not last for long when he moved in. “We thought we would be there for a few months at most, but the road plans kept getting shelved, and the months became years,” she writes. “It was in this climate of instability that long-term friendships were forged in the Northcote pub, the beating heart of the neighbourhood—friendships that were to become woven into the fabric of John’s films.”

Knowing this, it is remarkable how much Home Suite resists sentimentality. How easy it would have been to revisit the pub, to corral his friends before the camera, to recreate scenes. Smith has no interest in such a vanity project. But it does seem that he is of two minds about the final form his video takes. A year later he filmed the exteriors of the houses, in the process of their demolition, for a very different film titled Blight. Transforming the raw material he gathered in Home Suite, it’s a more directly moving work, one whose unforgettable score is composed by another resident of the former community, Jocelyn Pook. It is not an exaggeration to say that her composition over Smith’s images (her first for a film, to be followed by the scores for Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Sight and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut) is a hauntological link between Steve Reich’s Different Trains and, on the other side of the millenium, Burial.

Which isn’t to say that the sense of a foreclosed future is absent from Home Suite’s quieter excavation. While there’s a great deal of business on the other side of his threshold, the outdoors segment of the film is all denouement. We can sense a real nervousness in his narration, given his inability to control anything that happens, and a creeping admission of survivor’s guilt, given he’s already been able to find a new place a few blocks away. By saying he thinks he is filming his house, just inside the door, for the very last time, Smith is making the easiest prediction of his life.

After continuing this style in Hotel Diaries, Smith decided to term it, calling the process by which he treated his living space as movie material a “‘found’ film set.” The door then, is a truly unstable object. He approaches it, knowing there will be no second take, and that it is little defense against a political nightmare. Once through, he will experience the moment we all fear when we exit our homes: that we have forgotten something behind, switched on, potentially combustible. The only means of retrieval will be the unfamiliar camera he has in his hands.