John Price by Gertjan Zuilhof

(Zuilhof is a programmer for the Rotterdam Film Festival, this is an excerpt from his blog)

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.

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 cheap material past its expiry 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 reel 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.

When I asked him, just to be sure, whether he realizes 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 filmmaker?

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 was 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 than Belson or Brakhage.

There is a kind of filmmaker who leaves nothing to chance. Sometimes they are the greatest filmmakers, but not by definition. Price is unmistakably a filmmaker 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.

After having been invited to screen a selection of his films during the 2006 International Film Festival Rotterdam as part of the theme section 'White Light' on drugs and cinema, and after reading Gertjan Zuilhof's weblog on his work, Canadian filmmaker John Price sent the following message:


I would have no problem coming up with an hour long program. I have been working on a longer 35mm film with several abstract one minute color rolls which would work well with the other 16mm material. I am also experimenting with the texture of some very old black & white 4x negative film... extreme grain and softness... very impressionistic.

Working with this new material has led me to think about how the films might 'fit' the context of your program. It strikes me that when one is in a 'normal' physiological state, the eye perceives exterior reality as 'normal.' I mean normal in the sense of how the chemists at Kodak perceive it, and how they make every effort to engineer film stocks and chemical processes which reproduce their perceptions as 'accurately' as possible. When one is in an altered state, the optical system of the human being still functions quite well—iris and focus control remain intact unless the individual has overdosed—but the texture of the signal as interpreted by the brain changes dramatically.

As I read in your blog, there is a dialectic in your program between films that are about drug use—which appear for the most part as relatively conventional looking dramas with the odd use of a camera trick or special optical effect when trying to evoke the 'trip' or a flashback and work like mine that strives to manipulate the visual signal in order to evoke an alternate reality.

There are some who maintain that the random movement of film grain over each frame can induce a trace-like state... the more grainy, the more intense the effect. It's a bit of a stretch but it is certainly one of the specific properties of film. It is a bit ironic then that the main goal of the scientists at Kodak is to come up with a motion picture stock which is 'grainless'... to make the material as clean as possible so that once scanned the texture of the finished film can be determined digitally. There is still for me a dullness associated with digitally manipulated films that exposes itself only in the cinema. On a monitor, the film may look quite good, but projected skin tones will appear grey and the colors lifeless. It's a technological gap—a voodoo curse that afflicts the ordered arrays of ones and zeros—from achieving the richness of texture native to the analog film process. Here then arises a possible correlation... the giving up of control.

When I process film by hand, there are so many factors which affect the resulting texture. I generally shoot with film stock that I get for free... outdated color reversal... short ends of lab printing stock...stock which has been deemed unusable by those who are striving for a seamless looking reality... for those who are investing heavily in their productions and want tight control. I am never absolutely sure how the emulsion will react... age affects stock in different ways... increased base fog, decreased contrast, decreased sharpness, oxidation of the color dyes... Often I am developing the films with chemistry not designed to 'work' with that particular stock. The results vary tremendously. The more one experiments with a process, the more confident one becomes that the result will yield a positive outcome if one is inclined to continue with the experimentation. Like taking drugs.

I would be quite happy to put together a program of films that form a progression of sorts... a visual trip where the texture of the image becomes a fundamental point of connection between films. Each one will express a different mood which was realized through a conscious departure from the generally accepted Kodak prescription. I think audiences respond to this kind of film in a very deep physiological way whether they are stoned or not. There is no doubt that the stoners will get off on the visual textures but I think that for those who are straight there is also a deep emotional experience derived from the confluence of the personal point of view (aesthetically not literally) and the richness of texture.

John Price

Toronto, Aug 2, 2005