The Girl Chewing Gum 1976 is a 16 mm black and white film with sound by the British artist John Smith. The film consists of two camera shots. The first occupies the major portion of the film and is located at an intersection near a cinema in Hackney, London. People walk through this scene and cars drive past while a voiceover of the artist appears to provide directions for the movements of people, as well as those of pigeons and a clock’s hands. The second, much shorter shot shows a piece of open ground, Letchmore Heath, marked by overhead electrical pylons. At this point the voiceover track reveals that the artist is actually located there, some fifteen miles away from the street scene, and is thus, like the viewer, unable to see what is being directed first hand. The film neither glorifies nor dramatises the street scene; instead it records the everyday actions objectively, from a camera mounted on a tripod.
The Girl Chewing Gum is related to a sequence in the 1973 film La Nuit Américaine (Day for Night) by the French director Francois Truffaut. Truffaut’s film is concerned with the process of making a film, so that in one sequence, shot in fake snow, Truffaut is shown directing the movements of every extra in a crowded street scene. Smith borrowed the conceit of exposing the work of the director as the subject of the film, but instead of showing himself in control of a large set and group of actors, he narrates the comings and goings of the public, first appearing to instruct them, then describing their movements. The film’s title captures this process, by memorialising an ‘extra’ – the girl chewing gum – who only appears on screen for the briefest of moments.
The conjunction of word and image in Smith’s voiceover transforms everyday documentation into something created and artificial. Even when the tone changes and the viewer realises that Smith is retrospectively voicing-over a real-life scene, the narrative drive of the film encourages the viewer to go along with the conceit – even when Smith starts to direct pigeons or the hour hand of a clock. Film critic Nicky Hamlyn has observed how:
There is … a fascination with language here, in the way that description of a scene can be changed into a series of commands to the things in that scene by adding certain words to a descriptive sentence. The temporal shift that is required is also achieved by literally moving the words in time, slipping them back so that they occur before, rather than after, the events on the image track they describe. For much of the time the actions being directed are obviously spontaneous, and the commands obviously not commands, but every now and then a person moves into frame and appears to respond in a deliberate manner to directions. At these points the viewer slips involuntarily into credulous mode.
(Nicky Hamlyn in John Smith Film and Video Works 1972–2002, Bristol 2002, p.46.)
The film is laden with feelings of doubt and improbability, showing up the failure of words alone to represent the activity recorded by the camera in the street and the field. As film historian A.L. Rees has indicated: ‘Language is shown to contain a lack (or a “lag”) in time and, ultimately the visual world escapes full coverage by the abstract word.’ (A.L. Rees in John Smith Film and Video Works 1972–2002, Bristol 2002, p.17.) With this film Smith questions the authority of image and word both as objective document and as recorded narrative.
Smith studied at the Royal College of Art in London with the filmmaker Peter Gidal. Gidal was a founder member of the London Filmmaker’s Cooperative (LFMC), an important meeting point for a range of people interested in experimenting with film. The work of those associated with the LFMC departed from the conventions of narrative cinema and instead explored the materiality of film and alternative ways of storytelling. This self-reflexive and often artisanal way of working was described by members of the LFMC as structuralist or materialist (see Peter Gidal, Structuralist Film Anthology, London 1976). The Girl Chewing Gum was made shortly before Smith left the Royal College of Art and though it demonstrates a structuralist approach by making the continuity shot and the voiceover the subjects of his film, the artist injects parody, humour and narrative, characteristics often missing from the work of his peers.
Mark Cosgrove and Josephine Lanyon (eds.), John Smith Film and Video Works 1972–2002 exhibition catalogue, Watershed Media Centre, Bristol 2002.
Martin Herbert, ‘John Smith’, Frieze, no.132, June–August 2010, http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/john_smith/, accessed 25 February 2016.
Erika Balsom (ed.), In Focus: 'The Girl Chewing Gum' 1976 by John Smith, Tate Research Publication, 2015, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/john-smith-the-girl-chewing-gum/the-girl-chewing-gum-1976-by-john-smith-r1175957, accessed 25 February 2016.