Journal Entries 1994-1996 by John Price
“John Price makes small, delicious movies that are deeply rooted in his everyday life. He's a journal keeper, both as a scribbler and collector of pictures, and often labours for years with small moments of footage to reconnect with the past's distant shoreline. His work is lyric and precious and wounded, often partial and incomplete, offering shards not stories, tugging at the convulsive memoires of footage, the bursts of raw feeling that emerge from a moment, which each movie attempts to spin into reasonable forms, sometimes hopelessly. Impossibly.
Years past I was asked to sit on a university panel that would award John his master's degree. He showed a long beautiful reel, much better than much of what was lamping up the screens in the name of the avant. Of course he passed, but what amazed me was his disinterest in making prints or circulating these pictures. It was a private practice, though slowly, and with the encouragement of friends (most notably Alex MacKenzie who ran his own micro-cinema in Vancouver) he finished them, though I suspect that nothing is ever quite finished in John's mind. I asked if it would be alright to print up some of his journal entries concerning his work and he agreed. He's living with Lea now in the junction district of Toronto, along with their new boy Charlie who hasn't learned to walk yet, but is experiencing some serious time on camera.” (MH)
I remember starting my first journal while working as a marketing manager for a small division of Bell Canada Enterprises researching radio communication systems for transit, ambulance, fire and police applications. My supervisor had been around the firm for (too) many years and it seemed that having a second cel phone installed on his lawn tractor, Thursday afternoon golf with Bell seniors and the disbursement of Blue Jays box seats among other execs was a greater priority than the development of a five year plan. Head office shut us down, laid me off and relocated my boss to another managerial position somewhere in Saskatchewan. At the time I was living in a suburb of Mississauga (20,327 Dixie Rd, unit 212) with an insurance salesman and a woman who believed her singing engagements at local Italian weddings would invariably lead her to a career in top forty music video. The journal was an attempt to make sense of this chaos and in conjunction with liberal doses of controlled substances and my electric guitar, deterred the occasional impulse while driving home to launch my vehicle through the restraining barrier at the intersection of highways 401 and 427 and Knievel it into the cemetery oasis below.
My journals recorded the dramatic irony through times of personal change. It is this documentation, beyond the capacity of my brain to access fragments of these memories, which remain an alternate forum of reconstruction.
The work to be presented at this thesis screening represents the genesis of this process as applied to film. None of these projects were script born, they were begun by loading a roll of film and reacting intuitively. In some cases the 'entry' remains as it was shot, 2:45 of soundless, unedited negative. In others, pieces from rolls recorded at different times and locations intersect. The primary focus is to document and explore the poetics, irony and sublime inherent to subjective experience.
This filmed journal approach has led to a hand made aesthetic, an experimental investigation into the way various photo-chemical processes interact with mechanical and optical elements to communicate a tone or mood. With each roll I become more sensitive to the effect critical choices entail. Focal length, diaphragm opening, film speed and stock, chemical process (high or low contrast developer?), negative or reversal chemistry, solarized or reticulated? Which positive stock should this footage be printed onto, how much contrast or saturation? Should the speed/framing/superimposition possibilities be explored through optical rephotography? These are questions of memory.
As much energy is devoted to working out the photographic character of the image and its relationship to theme as uncovering the place of the images within the structure. Some of the work is assembled and re-assembled many times, while some remains virtually unedited. I think most of it comes across as fairly rough and unpolished, but I feel this aesthetic is akin to the way we recall. Time erodes memory into amorphous fragments, reconstruction is equal parts fiction and truth. In any event, this is the way I've chosen to remember.
New York City, January 2, 1995
Even in small galleries like the Frick tourist throngs make the rounds filing past far away landscapes. They are in perpetual motion, eyes training from one canvas to another, chatting loudly in foreign flavours. There is always a small group hovering around the tiny Vermeers but mostly they take it all on the run, moving on up the strip. I find a less trafficked painting but can't focus through the rumble, I hit Fifth Avenue with my camera watching them come and go wondering at the masterpieces displayed sans history, art object as inaccessible capital. Inspired or perhaps overwhelmed by dislocation the camera rolls up multiple exposures onto high contrast black and white print stock with a telephoto lens. After returning to Montreal I develop the four rolls and find the negative presents the world as I remembered it, exhausting and strange. But the questions which preoccupied me are nowhere evident. Drawing from the marketing research course I took while completing an undergraduate degree in Commerce I posed a series of questions which attempt to surmise through demographic and attitudinal inventories the nature of museum visiting populations. The insertion of these intertitles provide transitions between the unedited image rolls and engage the viewer on a more active cognitive level. The film is silent.
part 1: Wreck
Fleming, Saskatchewan May 25, 1995
Third day alone, driving west to Vancouver. I passed the wreck not long after crossing into Saskatchewan, a twisted mess of iron on the other side of the highway. Half an hour after I watched the image recede, the memory of this apocalyptic tableau compelled me to turn back.
After loading the camera I approached the wreck without structural preconceptions to make a document, though its signs screamed metaphor. Overturned container cars bled flax onto the muddy soil, "Canada" logos rusted white and peeling. The violence of the event offered a vision of the nation's future. With one shot left on the roll I emerged from the scene to notice perhaps the most ironic image of all. Flying tattered above the gas bar adjacent to the crossing where the train had jumped the rails was 'our' flag, its maple leaf savaged by a restless wind.
In Vancouver I developed the negative and made a print. Contrast was low so I made a second generation negative and printed again. With only twelve shots on the roll finding a structure was simple, and after a quick assembly I experimented with a bit of step printing, freeze frames, fades and superimpositions to ease transitions between shots and punctuate key moments. I was happy with the way the project had evolved: beginning with the first shot and ending with the last. All that remained was to shoot titles and a minimal sound design, or so I thought. Problems arose when I returned in September to Montreal.
part 2: Nation
Montreal, Quebec October 27, 1996
It seemed to be on every lip, addressed in seminar rooms and depanneurs, bathrooms and back alleys. I read both sides of the propaganda which appeared in our mailbox with equal cynicism, keeping it by the toilet in case of emergency. The parade of sinister clowns made it impossible to tell whether the province's secession was motivated by visionary humanism or corrupt power mongers.
Out of a strangely compelling curiosity to be privy to a real (unmediated) show of 'national' unity, I attended a rally against Quebec secession. With my cynicism piqued, I arrived not unlike a curiosity seeker visiting a church, filled with the hope that somehow I would bear witness to something authentic and revelatory. A spirit within the people that would displace concerns over the way national identity was being media marketed. In an ocean of blue and red flags, waved furtively after each speaker, my curiosity was unrewarded. What I heard from that elevated platform was disembodied and lacking in emotion. Even so there were tears in the crowd and I wondered whether these emotions were motivated by a sentimental attachment to the mythological idea of Canada as the peaceable kingdom advertised in 1950s National Geographic magazines or the fear of potentially having to negotiate a new sense of identity without it. Regardless, it became a site of intense dis-identification. From the words that couldn't be spoken to the ubiquitous news cameras objectifying the scene, to my own inability to feel part of a unified whole, Northrop Frye's riddle "Where is here?" was supplanted by my own confusion over what is here. The construct of a nation? Through this frame, I recorded a document within the crowd, using hand-held telephoto cinematography, pixilation and superimposition to articulate my internal sense of dislocation.
I hadn't had much luck developing my own colour negative so in an additional jest of irony, I had the now defunct National Film Board lab do it. As usual, they did an absolutely perfect job: brilliant, realistic colours which left me cold. There were, however, strong metaphoric connections to the film from Saskatchewan which I was tempted to explore. But the intercutting quickly damaged the personal tone of the film, it became a blunt instrument. After wheeling it out as an installation and several screenings I restored the original structure of the wreck and then turned to the rally. During the re-re-re-editing process the footage had been rephotographed many times, sometimes solarized, slowed down and sped up. I found the footage more fascinating hanging up on a ski pole drying than rolled up on a spool and projected. The current version of the film reflects this fascination, most saliently in the first sequence where a short abstract of flag waving is repeated in variations with each iteration possessing its own distinct photographic character. While it demonstrates the repetitive nature of the process, the flags' shifting colour questions the basic construct of nation. A schizoid parade follows, politicians, media and a faceless crowd shuffle past in off-coloured worlds, a subjective projection not far from how I remember it.
The reconstruction of memory represents a continuing search for a possible future. But there is no end to questions here, technology has yielded to the forces of nature, and humanity remains as traces of a chaotic assembly. No conclusions. The referendum was very close, Quebec voted no, the nation was preserved. For now.
Vancouver May 18, 1994 and August 28, 1994
Montreal October 27, 1994
A good friend from Emily Carr College asked me to work on their film and that's where I met her. She had been cast as the lead in a short about the media's beauty myth. Like the director, she had been sexually abused as a child, and the shoot was very intense and draining, by the end of it I had learned a lot about emotional scarring. We become lovers a few months later.
Sometimes, no matter how much energy I expended, I was powerless to ease her suffering. A few days before she left to go tree planting in Alberta we set off for a picnic at one of the strangest locations around Vancouver. An eight kilometer long concrete sewage pipe by the airport which thrusts out into the Pacific Ocean. She often recalled for me a tragic heroine from the silent era, so along with lunch we packed a camera, a couple of rolls of black and white film, an antique bicycle, her mother's wedding dress and some white powder make-up. With the help of my friend from Emily Carr and her partner, we shot, ate and chatted until the sun went down.
I processed the negative but had no facilities to make a positive, so for a long while I didn't know what the images looked like. As the summer went on we talked and wrote occasionally and during her absence I began having doubts about my ability to continue working at the relationship. Also, there was an opportunity to attend grad school in Montreal, and after working as a camera assistant on an American TV show, I wanted more than anything to pack up my van and head east and open a new chapter. On the day of her return I found an enormous, radiant sunflower. I was unsure of how we would relate to one another after several months apart and was of two minds about wanting her to live in Montreal with me, but there remained the intense memories of our past. The doorbell rang at two in the morning and she appeared smelling of cigarettes and coffee. By sunrise she confessed to having had an affair and was consumed by agonizing guilt. I had actually talked to her about this guy I'd planted with the previous year, asked her to watch out for him and the unctuousness of his womanizing charm. Now I knew I'd be driving East alone. She asked if I still wanted to be with her and my silence answered. The following afternoon she drove back up north to rejoin the crew.
Each evening after returning from the circus of the TV shoot, I watched the sunflower's steady demise. Some days it would make me smile, others provoked tears. The night before leaving Vancouver, after packing up all my belongings, I set up a couple of lights, loaded my roommates' Bolex and began documenting the remains. As I filled the frame with dried out leaves and the drooping stem, clichés of love became deafening. Adding to the melodrama were a lesbian couple living ten meters from my window, loudly making love.
In Montreal I thought a lot about what happened out West, thankful that I was responsible for no one's feelings but my own. During the fall I developed the sunflower roll and printed it along with the picnic footage. The editing process led me to all night cycles and journal writing in circles. I decided to buy a Bolex and shelve the project, shoot some film in the present which might provide a way towards a more defined relationship to the past.
A year later I watch the assembly and decide the film might function for others as an ode to the doubt and insecurity that grips the end of a relationship (many of the couples I know at this time are in the midst of parting company). I'm also interested in incorporating the first roll that came out of my new camera, superimpositions of walking and running through the ordered monuments of a military burial plot where I once made love. Intertitles were made and thrown into the fray. As a silent film the project went through twenty different arrangements but it still wasn't communicating much about what I felt. During a visit with a friend in Toronto I found in his record collection a stack of 78s, mostly music for bachelors, love songs and country hits, which I thought would add a touch of romantic cynicism, at least humour. Two months of cutting to different songs and I've found the structure on which the film now rests.
Montreal, Quebec July 29, 1996
An extremely simple portrait of one of the most humble and deeply spirited people I've ever met. Two days before my closest friend, Michael Dolan, leaves on tour for Japan, we improvise the day together. Walking, talking, dancing and recording our way up Mount Royal. He moved from Europe three years ago to audition for LaLaLa Human Steps, a contemporary dance company known internationally for the intense physicality of their work. Wracked for months with self-doubt and the feeling he would not be able to endure the physical and mental torture of adapting to this new vocabulary of movement, his character underwent a steady transformation as his confidence and status within the troupe improved. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend time with him talking about our fears and the single minded pursuit of dreams.
His decision to leave a steady job as a welder in Ireland and pursue a career in dance has been without regret so far. It's an issue we discuss at length. The investment of his life in a body which can sustain a professional level of performance for a relatively brief period of time, the persistent threat of injury, the fleeting impermanence of live expression. It has led him towards an appreciation of the present moment, one that I emphasize with and respect deeply. Though the path he's chosen is of great concern to me and I often wonder how he will change when his ability to perform comes to an end.
During our day on the mountain I asked him to play a 'character,' a pensive walker who moves through the frame without any real destination. He spends most of the film doing just that, walking. After two and a half rolls I asked him to improvise a dance. We found an amphitheater-like setting and waited for a break in the tourist flow. Without any rehearsal the moment arrived and he busted a groove. He danced until 'it' was over and was still again. I put him into close-up for a beat and the film ran out. He wanted to try it again and work on the choreography a bit and I wanted to improve the camera's fluidity but the site was suddenly overrun by people and the energy to re-take ebbed as we waited for the stage to clear. Like much of my work the film would remain imperfect, unpolished. We gave up and headed back down into the city to make supper and record an audio interview.
Knowing that we wouldn't see each other for some years the conversation ranged widely. The tension between later and now. The desire to find a stable home. The conflicts of being in a relationship and maintaining freedom. A ninety minute cassette recorded on an old Walkman. After he left I developed the three rolls of black and white super-8 and printed them onto 16mm, then cut the interview to match an assembly. The grain of the footage and the tape hiss ambiance creates a sense of otherworldliness which resonates the presence of his spirit in my memory.
The View Never Changes (1994-1996)
Pine Plains, New York September 27, 1994
St. Jovite, Quebec December 23, 1994
Late September I travel down to New York state to visit my father at his country home. After living out west for several years it's the first time we've seen each other for several years. I wait in the doorway for an hour and a half pondering the difficulty we've always had relating to one another. He finally pulls up and explains that he was delayed at the dog kennel. He's chosen today to buy a pure bred golden lab. He frees the puppy from the backseat and follows it around, cooing its name as it urinates over every inch of the garden. He rambles about champion blood lines, the internationally renowned breeder, the monogrammed pooch pillow on order. I don't remember ever seeing him this happy. I watch in awe as he exposes a side of his character I never remember being privy to. Unconditional love is projected towards this little animal, as unaware of the world as a new born. I have brought two rolls of black and white super-8 with the intention of shooting "home movies." My father had colon cancer surgery and as there is still so much of our relationship which remains untold, I wanted images over which I could contemplate, and perhaps torture myself with, in the event that his health deteriorated.
The dog remained the primary focus over the weekend, his name repeated thousands of times, fetching drills were enacted, and infinite inflections of the word "sit" were tried on. As they napped together on a lawn chair in the sun I climbed the stairs, unpacked my camera and stood observing them through a bedroom window. Shooting this scene brought on a sense of loss different and deeper than any I've ever known. Perhaps it was the realization that neither of us would ever have the strength or desire to express love for each other with the same zeal he managed for this dog. Maybe it was a reminder of the childhood I spent without him.
Back in Montreal I tried recording a voice-over of the journal entries I'd written that weekend but they only turned the film into a self-absorbed rant. Working on the film changed the way I saw my father. Seeing him day in day out on the editing bench with this puppy made it apparent that he had always possessed the capacity to love, though his ability to express it had been lost generations ago. His father was a naval officer during WWII who had been away at sea during my father's formative years, and my grandfather's father was a pulp and paper man who was completely absorbed in a desperate struggle with his two brothers to keep the family business alive. According to my grandmother the times dictated that mothers raised their children until they could be sent to boarding schools, then they were returned as adults. I began to see how my father had taken on these values and how this fundamental ideological gap separated us, and it was the same with many of my friends. As editing commenced again their was an overriding tension between this awareness and an undying urge to blame him for my own insecurities which I had long attributed to his absence during my childhood.
Christmas is spent with my mother who is nursing a sore tooth and while the rest of the family and step family goes off skiing, I have time to ask questions about the circumstances surrounding her first marriage with my father. The audio cassette fills with information about my birth, my father's oppressively controlling tendencies, my mother's affair with her psychologist, sordid details of their separation and divorce, and finally her clinical interpretation of his behaviour.
For months I attempted to distill this voice-over in a balance of compassion and rage. Vilification tempered with redemption. When it was done I cut the negative, mixed the sound and had an answer print made but each time I viewed the film with an audience the experience was charged with guilt. Obviously the balance hadn't been yet struck, so I went back into the interview and re-edited. With the changes made and new ambiances and effects tracks I have not cringed in three viewings and might be able to live more comfortably with this memory.