Luther Price keeps you guessing. His work, spanning nearly three decades, is best characterized by its formal shifts, changes, and redirections. When not making sets of films, like the found footage The Biscott Series (2004–08) or the Inkblot (2007–) series, Price currently works with slides, which contain bits of torn, scratched, colored, or buried film projected and installed in galleries (such as Callicoon Fine Arts, where a show of Price’s just opened). In his earlier pieces — some of which can be seen in Anthology Film Archives’ four-part program dedicated to Price, beginning today — he shot films on Super 8, then on 16mm. Whether he’s collaging bits of footage or scraping leftover film, what remains a constant in his work is a fiery, taboo-busting tendency and a provocative streak. In 2012, at a screening of Price’s films at the ICA in London, programmer Ed Halter said, “Luther Price is Brakhage after Punk.”
Before Luther Price, however, there was Tom Rhoads, and before that, Fag, Brick, Laija Brie, and others. After an accidental and nearly fatal gunshot wound to the stomach in the mid ’80s in Nicaragua, the filmmaker took on the guise of pseudonyms. As Rhoads, he made films between 1987 and 1989; Warm Broth, one of the best, prefigures imagery and stylistic elements seen in Price’s work. The medium-length film steadily and rhythmically alternates between shots of a mom (Rhoads in drag) doing housework, dolls, sweets, and subliminal cuts of sexual penetration. On the soundtrack, for the entirety of the film, Rhoads loops a handful of phrases (“I love you, mommy” and “Tell me a secret” are the most nerve-jangling) uttered by the doll, which is slowly dying, the words coming out garbled, the pitch altered, the tone of voice getting lower.
There’s a moment in the film when sound and image sync exquisitely. During a rigid and recurring shot of the mother from the chest down, we see her hands peeling potatoes (shades of Jeanne Dielman) at a counter. One time, she peels rather quickly as the doll says, “I love you, mommy” — and her hand swiftly goes to her wrist. It’s gasp-inducing, even though she doesn’t cut but merely scratches herself. In the next shot, a fudge bar melts, or associatively bleeds, and a pool of chocolate forms around a wooden stick. Through editing and montage, Rhoads reveals the violence inherent in such charged images. It feels like the cinematic equivalent of American composer Monte Cazazza’s aggressive “To Mom On Mother’s Day.”
Sodom (1989), the inaugural film under the name of Luther Price, is an assault on the senses. “I actually changed my name to Luther Price because I couldn’t make the film under the previous name,” he once explained during a presentation at the California College of the Arts. “He was much too innocent to make films like Sodom. Tom Rhoads, he made films about birthday cakes and mothers. Luther was thinking about other things. He had a different cake in mind.”
That cake is shaped like a penis. Sodom is a brutal assemblage of gay porn footage, which he found while dumpster diving in Boston’s Combat Zone. Not only does Price mash up scenes of hardcore sex with footage from biblical films and shots of flames, he also punches holes in the film strip, taping shots of heads or penises back into them and drawing more attention to the surface, the materiality of the film itself. As suggested by the blunt title, Sodom is about, among other things, the fear and sin of gay sex. Ever the mix master, Price uses Gregorian chant on the soundtrack and plays it backwards, along with a thumping heartbeat rhythm and warped shrieks. As film critic J. Hoberman put it succinctly, Sodom “could be the illumination of Jerry Falwell’s unconscious.”
Sodom and Price’s other collage films literally pushed the Super 8 format to the limit, threatening to shred into pieces when projected. Although he never screened the originals, he did show contact prints made by a diligent and careful lab technician, Bill Brand. But this type of printing evaporated in the ’90s, causing drastic changes in Price’s output. As evidenced by the coulrophobic-inducing Clown (1992–94, revised 2003), his films became more performance-based and exhibitionistic.
In 1996, Price suddenly, tragically learned that three members of his family, including both his mother and father, had cancer. His work transformed once more. In what he calls his Cancer Home Movie Films, Price deals with domestic and autobiographical themes and imagery head-on. One of them is the haunting Home (1990–99), and it’s a gem. The soundtrack features ambient chatter, a conversation looped for the entirety of the film. There is talk about someone named Rita. “Is it the truth? … Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t … Another guy’s boat.” As the audio repeats endlessly, such phrases stick out — even as the words lose their meanings and you start to listen to the texture, the timbre, the tone of what’s being said. The never-ending chat plays while the camera goes through a (nearly) deserted home, often stopping to gaze upon snapshots of a smiling family, perhaps Price’s. Is there a death in the family, or is this the death of the family (or both)?
Price’s films feel like exorcisms of personal demons that he lets viewers experience. We’re immersed in them without any breathing room, without any real catharsis until, well, the film is over. And most likely, not even then either. They traffic in horror, in the uncomfortable, in sickness and in sadness. His convulsing, pulsating, throbbing films linger long after we watch them. Hopefully, they never settle.
Re-Visions: Luther Price runs at Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue, Lower East Side, Manhattan) from tonight through September 20. See the website for screening programs and times. Luther Price: The Dry Remains continues at Callicoon Fine Arts (49 Delancey Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 31.