Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Burnt Sight

I wanted to like them. And, really, what subject is more perfect for a subjective study than an inkblot? Last night, at the closing program for Anthology Film Archive’s ‘The Walking Picture Palace’ series, new abstract works by Luther Price came alive upon the screen. The idea is simple enough and in-no-way unprecedented within Avant-Garde film. Price’s hand painted works, not prints but each unique objects, run before the beam, casting amorphous shapes onto the screen: seething, creeping, flashing, the cinematic durations manage to convey the unfathomable dread upon which Price has constructed a career.

(Portrait of Luther Price, 1992) Luther Price’s cinema is a nightmare dreamscape of melancholia and turmoil. In the past, I have written of the slippage his dirtied film-images encounter; through his unnerving juxtapositions of distorted sight and sound and in the degraded or abjected appearance of his early, Super8 films, his loaded signifiers (ice cream cones, floral bouquets, birthday cakes and clown poppets) buckle, transform and access a less tidy or familiar space of emotions, divesting the cliché nature of many of his images. In the Inkblot series, the iconography is gone (mostly) and all that remains are the abstract hints at horror that elude representation.

Price's tremendous variation in the timing of this series allows for periods of languor and those of assault. Being inkblots, of course, they are what you make of them. In the hurling frenzy of the strongest film (The Burnt Night, I believe) my only visual point of comparison were the ticky-tacky possession scenes of contemporary Hollywood. The brown and golden CG clouds that fog up the screen when contemporary hack horror maestros can’t think of any better imagery to hurl at the audience but a dervish of Sanskrit scribblings and barely glimpsed beasties meets its match in the uncanny and off putting ink Price spews upon his leader. Contemporary horror makes these flaccid scenes affective merely for their frenzied and unintelligible nature. Here, that sensation takes on an elegiac organicalness; glimpsing the fleeting and intangible celluloid images that must have been pressed into a mere two frames of this reel (or were they even?), the result implicates the privatized thoughts in which we conceive abstract sensations. Synesthesia is a de rigueur word that is happily thrown about in similar cinematic experiences, as is haptic. But Price’s blots transcend the tactile nature of these bodily centered phenomena. They access, like his degenerated film-images, states and forms of psychosis, here physically transcending the bodily altogether.

Curator Mark McElhatten told of the obsessive nature in which Price has produced these works. 40 or so currently exist. With each pass through the projector gate, the pocked strip is marred, tugged, torn and flayed. Each screening is a singular experience and shapes the film for future viewings. The projector too takes a reciprocal beating as the ink bleeds and chips off, staining the apparatus, making the nightmare job of projection that Price’s assemblage films propose even messier, as now they involve an elaborate clean-up process.

I wanted to like them. But, in truth, I only really liked one. The second black-and-white film (The Night Before, perhaps – there are no title cards and the screening took place out of sequence) seemed more a formalist experience. The indexical nature of the drafting process presupposed any of the fecund naturalness of the former film. In The Night Before, the reduced and (ultimately) modernist nature of the palette was a stumbling block the adept editing could not transcend. The umber hues of The Burnt Night intoned the putrid state typical of Price’s films. Decay, decomposition, the runes of this celluloid permitted a haunting suggestion beyond the compositional patterning of the The Night Before's swirling stamps and glops. Or, perhaps these inkblots functioned as inkblots should. These amorphous forms merely reflected the thoughts I threw into them. I wanted to like them, and so Price created a space for that desire to be repeatedly fulfilled.

I think not. I think that the uncertain shapes that writhed and pulsed within the murky whorls of ink contained filmic images, interlayed by Price. Abstracted. Obscured. I saw things in there moving. Objects and figures with matter and form. But then, these personal takes - subjective psychological reactions to the images on display - have always ultimately been the objects of Price’s films. Do these Rorschach films offer the absolute ideal to this filmic tendency? Your view is as good as mine.