What John Smith’s avant-garde short film, now streaming on MUBI, tells us about the way we live now.
Art about tragedy is usually driven by a cathartic need for the creator or the social necessity of translating that experience to others. But how does that urgency apply to a global-scale tragedy that, to some extent, affects everybody? The more COVID-19 is worked into contemporary film narratives, the more it feels like we’re stuck in a purgatory where our own sad reality is being reflected unto us with nothing added but a virtual hug and a hollow promise that we’re all in this together. For better or worse, the art house has not been immune to these changes, with filmmakers like Mati Diop and the numerous directors involved with Netflix’s Homemade series attempting more formally experimental work within the confines of their own homes. Decorated British avant-garde filmmaker John Smith has made multiple entries in this canon in the last 10 months, and his short Citadel (2020) premieres today on MUBI.
Trapped in his London apartment during the first lockdown, Smith made an outward-facing home movie with Citadel. Every shot is from a window in his apartment, with the film’s audio consisting mostly of excerpts from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s public speeches between March and May 2020. Juxtaposed with apartment window views, the film recreates the setting where most London residents would have heard these messages— sitting at home, staring outside. But Smith’s deft editing evokes another common practice among the bored and quarantined— looking at an image until it starts to take on new qualities. Shooting over the course of a few months, Smith cuts between takes of the same downtown London skyline as seen at different days and times with rapidly changing weather patterns. As the film goes on, still images of the buildings cut taunting figures; the architecture becomes as intimidating as Johnson’s moneyed bloviating. Later in the film when night falls, Smith makes the implicit obvious and manipulates light patterns in the building’s windows to make them a ventriloquist’s dummy for the PM; the citadel more literally lectures the public.
After Johnson rhapsodizes about England’s need to “take off its Clark Kent spectacles” to become a superhero on the world stage, defending everyone’s right to open enterprise, Smith repeats Johnson’s utterances of “buy” and “sell” in visual alternations that show the true necessity of the phrase to the conservative ideology. While this distillation is fairly obvious satire, one must remember that Johnson is among the new class of politicians who are un-satire-able. Their speech is stuck at surface-level ridiculousness, and a deeper reading is almost never warranted; any covert, bigoted messages were decoded long ago. Thus, Citadel gets at two questions central to contemporary art. Can you make satire about a group of people who are deluded to the point of being immune to it? And can we make meaningful COVID-era art?
People have tried their damnedest to do both. Limp efforts to lampoon Trump from the last four years are too numerous to list, though Saturday Night Live and Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine stand out as two high-profile and especially self-back-patting examples that have mostly failed. Echoing companies’ quick adoption of COVID-19 as a marketing angle, the “COVID film” has begun to develop as an equally toxic category of self-satisfied art. Even more than the celebrity “Imagine” video that pummeled social media feeds with bourgeois bliss in late March, large-scale TV productions where overpaid actors over-emote while being over-tested for COVID-19 ring incredibly cynical. The pandemic has been shoehorned into primetime TV like Grey’s Anatomy and Superstore in a strained, maudlin way to heighten preexisting story arcs. The crisis may be invoked in the name of realism, but in effect it’s just another dramatic device. Art cannot be divorced from the material reality within which it’s produced, and film about the impact of this crisis cannot ignore the COVID-agnostic nature of its production. The otherwise very good How To With John Wilson took a more natural-feeling approach to the same issue, working the pandemic crisis into the essayistic musings of its creator in a functionally necessary and (more importantly) poignant way. But even this shift feels uncomfortable, with the show robbing its transcendentalist-in-the-city observations of power by directing them to something that is truly universal and cannot be similarly extrapolated.
The common thread is that these known forms of melodrama and sitcom fall short when trying to convey the scope of loss and institutional violence we have endured over the last year. In portraying the human side of this particular tragedy, media has created limiting, two-dimensional portraits of suffering that rob subjects of their humanity. Dry formal exercises will not solve this crisis of art either, but the political and anti-psychological nature of John Smith’s film actively combats this trend. Citadel is an incisive statement of how our current crisis was handled, not how it was felt. Never mind that Smith is (presumably) living a more modest life than the average network TV personality; he refuses to over-sentimentalize personal reactions to this crisis, and that opaque quality is what makes the film more relatable (or at least as relatable as something rooted in avant-garde can be). Citadel is a document of change, formally if not emotionally, reflecting the way we live now. In the midst of this crisis, maybe this is the best we can hope for from a film.