Business as Usual: Close-Up on John Smith’s “Citadel”

John Smith’s caustic city symphony, made during lockdown, centers humanity amidst Covid & transforms Boris Johnson into a talking building.
Sophia Satchell-Baeza

Close-up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI.  John Smith's Citadel is exclusively showing starting January 25, 2021 in MUBI's Brief Encounters series.

 "We truly did everything we could and continue to do everything we can to minimise loss of life and to minimise suffering during a very, very difficult stage in a very, very difficult crisis for our country."

—Boris Johnson, January 26th, after the UK tops 100,000 Covid-19 deaths

Although the first shots in Citadel, John Smith’s caustic city symphony, were recorded pre-Covid, the idea for the film began to take root once the veteran British artist found himself, like so many of us, in a state of enforced confinement. Shot from his bedroom window during Britain’s first lockdown, Citadel emerges from the artist’s long-standing interest in capturing how changing light conditions impact his surroundings: in this case, the shiny, glazed surfaces of East London’s floating-island financial district. Both the neoliberal agenda suggested by the commercial skyscrapers and the ensuing ramifications of the Covid crisis demanded a more pointed political turn.

Smith’s mordant short tackles his government’s gross mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis largely through static shots of the London skyline, which are “scored” to manipulated audio snippets of the British Prime Minister’s pandemic addresses between February and May of 2020. One of a series of shorts commissioned by Paranoia TV—the aptly named fictional media conglomerate allied to the steirischer herbst contemporary art festival—Citadel is, like Smith’s related short from the same year Twice, a biting critique of the Conservative party’s pandemic policies. But Citadel also captures the sad, still passage of time in isolation, one whose only markers are visible in the subtle changes of the natural world outside our window.

In the first half of the film, a static camera focuses on the London skyline at different times of day or night. Filmed across several months and stark variations in weather, these fixed, composite shots of the city are accompanied by the ambient sounds of urban life outside—the squawks of seagulls as they fly into the frame, a concerto of drills, the incessant honk of a car horn. Citadel can be placed in the avant-garde lineage of the city symphony, which film scholar Scott MacDonald describes in The Garden in the Machine (2001) as: “a film that provides a general sense of life in a specific metropolis, by revealing characteristic dimensions of city life from the morning into the evening of a composite day.” I haven’t yet seen a more factually accurate “sense of life” of London during this period than the slate-grey, fenestral recordings from Smith’s window sill.

Punctuated by the shapes of “iconic” commercial skyscrapers like the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater, it is in the City of London skyline where the eponymous “citadel” lies. The film’s title clearly places the financial district as the city’s dominant stronghold, the term satirically indicating a fortress that serves to defend and safeguard its citizens. Smith’s editing cleverly cuts between footage of the skyline in daylight and then immersed in fog, the financial center flickering in and out of sight like a mirage. The shiny glass fortifications that first appear stable are just as capable of disappearing, just like everything else.

Cue Boris Johnson. We first hear the PM’s voice in an incantation to British business leaders that presents the country as a “supercharged” Superman of free trade, “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles.” Soon after, the audio ruptures and repeats itself, as Smith isolates individual words amid the PM’s endless mantra-sloganeering. The British experimental filmmaker is as much known for his structural/materialist formal strategies as he is for his dark, surreal humor and playfully punning linguistic wordplay. It’s true that Smith doesn’t need to do much to pull out the strange innuendo and surrealist nonsense embedded in Johnson’s demented sloganeering. Some of it, like the gratified claim that he shook the hands of a roomful of Covid patients (!) is presented without editorial comment. Other fragments of his speeches are deconstructed through isolation and repetition: “Buy and sell/ Business/ Our business/ business as usual.” We arrive, then, at another meaning of “citadel,” as the institution in which certain beliefs and ideologies are firmly held up. Language becomes a gateway into the Conservative party’s neoliberal agenda, one that puts profit before people.

Although the artist never makes light of the politician or his flagrant mishandling of the crisis, Smith does allow the surreal to creep in, by in his own words, “turning Boris into a talking building.” As the blanket of night falls over the city, a Bishopsgate skyscraper becomes animated like the flashing meter on an audio recorder, blinking in unison with the PM’s address to the city. The lights of the surrounding environment signal out their warning signals in Morse Code, a city on full alert. In Citadel, Smith manipulates the flashes of lights that conveniently illuminate the empty Bishopsgate building to create an eerie, cinematic trick of ventriloquism. Whose interests are really being represented in this crisis? Who is the grand puppeteer?


The second half of Citadel shifts downwards, by looking at those living beneath the city skyline. Shot using a telephoto lens, the Rear Window-esque images of illuminated window sills have a voyeuristic quality, even if they lack identifying features. More importantly, these shots remind us of the individuals at the heart of the pandemic. “It was important to me,” Smith observed in an interview with Christoph Platz for Paranoia TV, “to actually see human beings because what I’m trying to do is contrast the faceless corporate power with the people, at ground level, who have to live with the decisions being made by those who have the power.”

Looking out of the window has taken on a different meaning during lockdown. Thinking back to last March, when the empty streets were disrupted only by the heightened sound of bird song, and then on to August, when a spate of random, alarming stop-and-searches outside my building signaled “police crackdowns” in the run-up to a canceled Notting Hill Carnival, this is a year that, for many, has been lived through a window. Changes in weather, shifts in light, and the movement of people outside are one of very few markers of the passing of time.

For Smith, however, filming out of windows has long been a prominent trope in his extensive body of work, which goes back to the early 1970s and often draws on personal observations that are rooted in commonplace encounters. He has always captured the magic and strangeness of the urban landscape, relying on his local surroundings alongside formalist techniques like flashing frames and rapid-fire aural and visual repetitions. Take The Black Tower (1987), which uses shots of a building seen through his window as the source material for a marvelously bonkers structuralist-architectural horror film, or Worst Case Scenario (2003), filmed through the window of his hotel room in Vienna onto the street life outside. The fenestral frame offers a number of generative constraints that obviously appeal to the filmmaker—a fixed frame, the space for spontaneous chance elements to enter into the work, and truly independent working conditions. However, in Citadel, these self-imposed creative limitations take on a new, bittersweet meaning once the experience becomes collective and the horror shared.

Citadel ends with a breathtaking title card: one that is all the more shocking since the months that have elapsed, and one whose statistics have now, too, joined the ranks of “world-beating.”

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