Bright Lights Film Journal

Home Movies from Hell: The Films of Luther Price

The master of Super-8 radical cinema takes us into the cave of the unknown, with extraordinary results

The Super-8 camera and projector were once the beloved means by which postwar America could document itself, freezing forever, it was thought, reassuring images of kids’ birthday parties, Levittown barbecues, Kodak Christmases, and other homely celebrations of unobstructed upward mobility and cheery conformity. But Super-8 vanished almost entirely from the culture long ago, and with it went all those supposedly simple lives and dreams and homespun rituals it chronicled. Almost – because a few filmmakers have kept the format alive, collapsing sometimes startling social and cultural critiques onto the tiny frame. The greatest of these faithful, indeed one of the most powerful artists working in any medium today, is Luther Price, the subject of several recent retrospectives, including one in May 2000 at the San Francisco Cinematheque.

Price is an anomaly on many levels. He’s gay but unwelcome by the gay community, which reviled him for the alleged homophobic excesses of Sodom. He invents alter egos including the short-lived “Fag” and the more enduring “Tom Rhoads.” He’s worked as a waiter, played in bands (and started a country band), and “committed suicide” in one of his performance pieces via a candy overdose. Much of his personal history is mysterious, in spite of his frequent use of himself and his family and their history via photos and home movies in his films. He was nearly killed (and was heavily scarred) in a shooting accident in Nicaragua in the mid-1980s. He works in a disreputable format, appears in various guises in his own work from stylized, frozen-faced drag queen to naked performance artist to clown. And he occupies the same contested cultural space as artists like Karen Finley in being so controversial that his work has occasioned the immediate firing of programmers who have dared to show it. Increasingly revered as a filmmaker, he’s also made a strong impact in his sculpture, photography, and performance art.

Price’s film work has an oppressive intensity, envisioning an alienated world of often mindlessly repeated rituals and poses that entrap and suffocate his subjects. He sets up a constant dialogue between his compromised victim-subjects (often himself or his own family) and the equally compromised film stock itself. Images of ruptured flesh and ghostly birthday parties are further ruptured and drained of life by Price’s torturous manipulations of the film, which can include chemical processing, filters, optical printing, re-photography, and even holes punched in the frame. What emerges is Price’s great subject – the breaches, breakdowns, and collapse of body, family, and society, and by extension all of life, in the face of unstoppable philosophical forces. What makes it work is the nonstop flow of extraordinary, unforgettable imagery.

The Cinematheque show was arranged around three themes. The first, “Home Sweet Home,” is a collection of Price’s domestic psychodramas starring himself and his family. Home (1999) is typical, a hammering collage of tableaux mordant constructed from his own family photos and birthday party images re-photographed and reprocessed while an increasingly unsettling, endlessly repeated anecdote is told in the background. While distant screams and melodramatic music filigree the soundtrack, the speaker (presumably Price’s mother) seems to be caught in a loop, refraining pieces of a story the viewer is doomed never to hear complete. The images are violently ruptured: distorted, reversed, chemically burned – Price’s assaults on the film stock itself are a crucial part of his strategy – so the “happy ritual,” a recurring birthday party, has a drained, deathly look. Mother (1998-1999) explores much of the same territory, this time literally deconstructing the filmmaker’s mother through repeated images of her seen through colored filters, in negative form, and all manner of other assaultive views.

Another highlight of the first show is Green (1988), which at first glance appears to be a simple formalist study: the still close-up image of a dead starling lying on the ground, scrutinized by the camera for an uncomfortably long time while some unknown diva from the ‘50s croons on the soundtrack. But Price himself shows up in one of his most bizarre and powerful guises – as a partially masked drag queen, standing like a statue in what appears to be entropy (the title, suggesting life, is clearly ironic), in a scary wig and heavy gown, holding an ice cream that gradually melts in his hand. For Price, the pose – no doubt born out of the pressures of family life he’s recorded elsewhere – is all-consuming and all-entrapping. The mysterious queen he portrays is being strangled by her own permanent smile and the impossibly rigid pose she must assume in the film’s empty, dead world. The image is at once campy and shocking and poignant – transfixed, she’s unable even to eat the ice cream, which she holds helplessly at arm’s length as it melts.

Price has said “I feel like the camellia plant. I grow, and then I crumble.” This sense of rot and the imminence of death permeates the second show, “Body Fluid,” but with unexpected glimpses of otherworldly beauty. Ritual 629 (1990-1999), for example, crams the screen with what look like glittering scars and wounds, a cave of mottled flesh in which a barely discernible naked male figure – Price – is fucking himself by squatting up and down on a stick. (We can only imagine what the previous 628 rituals must have been like.) More compromised flesh can be found in Meat Situation 04(1997), but this time the context is a send-up of a 1950s industrial film about medical procedures. Price introduces camp motifs – the nurse wears a Paisley surgical mask, hardly regulation – but also some gross medical footage that powerfully recalls the near-destruction of his own flesh in Nicaragua. Price is constantly, obsessively revisiting that wound, clearly one of his inspirations. Meat Blue 03 features an array of smashed bodies and, particularly, a detached, rotting leg that lies ominously at the back of the frame for long stretches as a naked, writhing Price engages in what appears to be a peculiarly disgusting ritual.

It isn’t all scalpels and paisley and gangrene, however; Price’s critique is surprisingly wide and sometimes hilarious. Even the often gruesome Meat Blue 03 includes a singing cowgirl from the land of found footage as well as a dancing maggot. Eruption–Erection (1989) uses found footage of a pretty-boy Jesus freak from the late ‘70s singing hymns in a tacky TV studio barn. This hip-huggered twink becomes instantly comic-sinister through repetitions of the same footage and manipulations of the soundtrack, which render his sweetly banal voice into a slow, gutteral cry. Given the images in the other films, the twink becomes an eerie doppleganger for Price, equally trapped inside a forced, fake smile and inescapable, inhuman poses. The filmmaker himself appears in contrasting footage, in a long choker close-up with a finger stuck, seemingly forever, up his nose.

The third show, “Tell Me a Secret/Give Me a Kiss,” contains the infamous Me Gut No Dog DOG (1995), which resulted in unemployment for at least one poor soul who programmed it. Equally infamous, and also in this program, is Sodom (1989). Like all of Price’s films, this hardcore “Biblical epic”-cum s&m porn flick exists in many versions. His refusal to let the work alone after it’s made, his insistence on the “aliveness” of the film-object, is one of the most exhilarating aspects of his work. In spite of the oppressive, claustrophobic imagery, the films have a strong sense of life. In Sodom, which will be double-projected, this sense comes partly from Price’s consummate interventions, which here take the form of a literal film-within-a-film. He punched holes in the Super-8 frames and meticulously inserted the porn footage, which moves with jackhammer rhythm against the rapid-cut “Sodom” footage and a distorted medieval liturgy score. The conflation of what look like screaming souls in hell with images of edgy queer sex was enough to get the film banned even from the allegedly sophisticated New York and San Francisco gay festivals, but Price’s Boschian vision deserves a wide audience. This retrospective is a must-see for anyone interested in the far fringes of progressive, obsessive American art.