Weblog White Light 4
Occasionally research is no more than waiting. There are films and film makers who will not allow themselves to be found in any other way. If you type 'drugs and cinema' in Google you find all kinds of things, but not the name of John Price. If you go to a film database, then you won't find Price at all. Yet the man has an oeuvre, even though I knew nothing of it until recently.
by Gertjan Zuilhof
Price wrote to me after my column about Jordan Belson (see Weblog White Light 2). He was wondering if I was also interested in psychedelic solarised colour films. All shot on 16 mm and developed by hand. Usually three minutes long. The length of a 100-foot film reel.
Most of them, he stated, would visually satisfy a cinema full of people who had taken drugs. In this way he provided a new, but probably unviable, selection criterion for films for this programme: "should satisfy a drugged audience".
Of course I asked if he was willing to send examples of his work on tape or DVD. That took a while, because they had to be made. Then I realised why Price had not yet found his way onto the festival circuit. Unlike thousands of his colleagues, he did not mass-mail DVDs of his work to all conceivable festivals and to all those harassed programmers.
According to the biography and filmography he enclosed, Price's interest in the secrets of photography brought him to 'alchemistic experiments with film emulsions and film formats'. He often used cvheap material past its sell-by date or material not intended for filming. He developed by hand so he could influence the colours, tones, tints and grain, but also to allow chance to play a role. So it was all handiwork. All chemical and analogue. And all experimental or at least experimenting. As far as Price is concerned, the digital revolution has not yet taken place and it probably never will. A cave painter in the era of the plasma screen. Yes, and the films are silent ones too.
But more important: they are beautiful. You have to see them a couple of times to discover the underlying realistic images through the colourful flowing emulsion, but even on video they work magic. The film stills he sent later, printed straight from the film, provide an even better picture of what the viewer, with or without drugs, can expect during a screening.
Price speaks about reels and less about films when he talks about his work. The way a painter talks about canvases and not as much about paintings. He leaves the whole real intact. The editing (and the double exposure and fades) are made in the camera. Then the film goes into the chemicals and onto the optical bench. Alone think and editing table is used at all.
When I asked him, just to be sure, whether he realise that his films could be screened in a narcotic context, he wrote that, when looking for special tints of pink and purple for colouring images of a parade and an amusement park, he was under the influence of LSD. I didn't ask any more, because why should you make life any more difficult for a film maker?
The work of Price is obviously in the tradition of the great American (Price is by the way a Canadian from Toronto) experimental film Expressionists like Stan Brakhage and Belson, whom we already mentioned. Price sent the beautiful short film (I won't call it a reel after all) called Fire # 3. A minimal yet virtuoso work that verges on kitsch (just as Belson can also verge on kitsch) but which manages to avoid that scorching flame (or maybe it doesn't).
Not all his work is alchemistic and esoteric. Making Pictures lasts no less than thirteen minutes and were shot originally on super eight. You could even describe it as social realism. He shot the film in China when he was assisting Peter Mettler (yes, the Mettler who made the monumental Gambling, Gods and LSD, that strangely has not previously been mentioned in this column) making a documentary about the Canadian industrial landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky. Black & white with grains of emulsion like snowflakes and more like Dziga Vertov (Chelovek S Kinoapparaton/ The Man with the Camera) than Belson or Brakhage.
There is a kind of film maker who leaves nothing to chance. Sometimes they are the greatest film makers, but not by definition. Price is unmistakably a film maker who leaves a lot to chance. The great difference between analogue and digital, possibly. The chemical bath is after all something very different from a software program. Put ten films in a software bath and you get the same films. You understand what I'm getting at.
Price showed his films once with two musicians who had never seen the images before. Chances like that can also be forced.
photo: part of the film Parade #4 by John Price